Episode 05 : Mass Production

Husqvarna-701-ENDURO-The-Perfect-CombinationThe model is finished and the entire company is excited about a new motorcycle that will shortly enter production.  The designer and engineer have moved on to the next projects, but what’s this? Calls and emails are pouring in from all over the supply chain about issues.

Meanwhile, the dreaded accounting team are fuming about cost overruns.  In this episode of The Making of Motorcycles, the dark and unruly corridor of post production must be negotiated or the bike will never roll off the assembly line.

The last 10% is always the hardest

In the run up to full mass production, a motorcycle has to go through a short but painful post-design production process that puts designers and engineers inside a hamster wheel. Round and round we go for months, in endless circles, running faster and faster but seemingly going nowhere.

Until, at last, the motorcycle begins to roll off the assembly line. Only then can the R&D staff get off the wheel. That is where R&D can finally stop solving problems.

BMW Motorrad R1150 GS production line late last year. A place so relaxing, the man in the foreground is wearing knee-highs.
BMW Motorrad R1200 GS production line late last year. A place so relaxing and progressive, the man in the foreground is wearing knee-high socks.

Act One : Pretty Close

“So, I am looking at images of the production tooling you sent me” I said to a supplier on the phone. “and it is very different from the design we sent you.”

I was speaking to the liaison engineer of a suspension manufacturer in Italy that was going to supply a new motorcycle with forks. The suspension internals were off-the-shelf items our company had selected from the supplier’s catalog, but the appearance of the cast aluminum lower legs were to be made to our design specification.

“I think it’s pretty close.” said the engineer.

There were two problems with that comment: one, “pretty close” is not the target when you are purchasing millions in bespoke inventory; and two, the supplier does not get to make that call. As the representative of the company ordering the goods, designing and manufacturing the motorcycle in question, that is the designer’s call.

“It does not correspond with the design we settled on when I was at your factory last month. Either you can manufacture the fork leg on spec or you cannot. I need to know which is the case so that we can make alternative arrangements.” I said, ending the argument.

This is the way of things in post production work. After the inspired excitement of creation has faded, driving down the home stretch to mass production becomes an endless series of red lights. All the partners that enthusiastically said yes to everything now back pedal, throwing up doubts that didn’t exist before.

“Is the fork going to be a problem?” I asked the engineer, pushing to see if we could fix the problem. “Is there anything we can do on our end to help?”

“No. We just need more time.” he answered.

“We all need more time.” I said.  We spent the next ten minutes commiserating and sharing stories about the miseries of work stress.

The end result was that the forks would get done right, and on time. But only just.

That is what 99% of post production problems really are: a plea for more time. The point of no return has passed, the start-of-production date looms, and every day is one short misstep from a crisis.

Spy shots of the Yamaha MT-07 test mule. Engineers and technicians don't do this for fun, somewhere under all that duct tape is a new part, or a reconfigured part, or its missing a part, and they need to know what happens next.
Spy shots of the Yamaha MT-07 test mule. Engineers and technicians don’t do this for fun, somewhere under all that duct tape is a new part, or a reconfigured part, or it’s missing a part, and they need to know what happens next (except that passenger, who is watching a bird or something).

There may be no letter “i” in “team, but “designer” is a whole other matter

I once spent three days holed up inside a windowless room working with a CAD jockey (computer aided design technician) to finalize a headlamp design. A motorcycle headlamp is not as simple as a bulb behind a lens, the shape of the lens, and the position of the bulb matter. The plastic housing surrounding the lens needs to integrate with the exterior bodywork as well as the frame support structure underneath and optical equipment inside.  It must all be as inexpensive as possible, while conforming to hundreds of international certifications.

On top of that, a headlamp is the most important character feature of a motor vehicle’s personality. Often described as the eyes, they define the tone and emotion that the vehicle presents to the world.

In short, the lights are mission critical.

After those three days and hundreds of hours of work, going back and forth from hand drawing, to clay model, to virtual model, we were satisfied. The complete CAD file was sent to a Spanish motorcycle lighting supplier for engineering post production work. The supplier would take that mathematically precise, concrete design and produce tooling drawings for mass production.

How you go from design rendering, to virtual surface model, to production, in 279 easy steps...

Only when they sent us some proofs three months later, the headlamps looked like ass. They were, at best, 50% accurate to what we had sent them. The chief engineer on the project, a man who had over the course of the job become a very good friend of mine, almost screamed when we opened the supplier’s file. What happened?

Suppliers in the automotive sector are not always reliable partners. Sometimes they are under so much pressure from manufacturers to cut cost that they say yes to win business knowing that they will have to cut serious corners to actually deliver the parts. Inside a motorcycle manufacturer, the R&D team responsible for creating the machine, and the purchasing department, the folks negotiating the supplier contracts, don’t coordinate enough so design and cost control can start to stray away from each other.

An injection mould cavity for a motorcycle headlamp lens. This is a serious bit of engineering in and of itself, but the surfaces and details must conform to the master clay model
An injection mould cavity for a motorcycle headlamp lens. This is a serious bit of engineering in and of itself, but the surfaces and details must conform to the master clay model

But this is not what had happened in this case. The lighting supplier had just gone and redesigned the headlamp from scratch using our file as a guide rather than the last word. Perhaps it was a miscommunication, perhaps it was incompatible software, perhaps it was just sloppiness, but what we got back from them was worthless. But worse still, it now threatened to derail the production start of the new motorcycle.

With a serious manufacturer, deadlines are non negotiable. As are supplier contracts, generally speaking. I heard later that the project leader, an extremely affable senior engineer with a penchant for knock-knock jokes, made one harrowing telephone call to the headlamp supplier and all was fixed.

In the end, purchasing and R&D are responsible, together, for aligning product needs and financial reality in order to make a new motorcycle. When they communicate well together then anything is possible and a great motorcycle is born. When that relationship breaks down, of course, you end up with something entirely different.

The ENERGICA Ego pre-production test model. The bodywork is rapid prototyped using 3D printed plastic, and the frame castings are what's called "first shot" prototypes out of a temporary mould.
The ENERGICA Ego pre-production test model. The bodywork is rapid prototyped using 3D printed plastic, and the frame castings are what’s called “first shot” prototypes out of a temporary mould.

Act Two : Tip Your Cap

The big difference between good design and crap is attention to detail. It sounds obvious, like an easily attainable goal, but after two or more years of fighting for a design it takes a stout heart and level head to keep up the positive pressure.

At one manufacturer long ago, the planners had been won over, the engineers befriended, and thus together with the design department the holy trinity of motorcycle R&D were in alignment for the final push. All was well in the motorcycle design universe until one day late into the bike’s gestation…

“Michael, did you place a change order for the fuel filler cap?” asked the chief engineer.

“No….” I answered. My radar was up, so after I hung up, my next call was the product planner. He too was in the dark. Collecting my coat I headed across the plant to the prototype building to see what was going on. Inside I saw that the normal, cast aluminum aircraft style cap had been replaced by a steel screw-on type, like the kind found on lawn mowers. One of the purchasing guys was talking to some technicians.

Mid-1990's Ducati Monster Dark was a cost-cutting masterpiece. It made a great bike into the company's best seller by taking things away.
Mid-1990’s Ducati Monster Dark was a cost-cutting masterpiece. It made a great bike into the company’s best seller by taking things away.

“Excuse me, what’s this?” I pointed menacingly.

The man from purchasing turned around and the technicians, sensing a confrontation, slinked away. One of them increased the volume of the radio slightly, others made a cigarette gesture with their fingers and walked out the door.

“I found this filler cap in our back catalogue, from a cruiser model. We own the design rights and it costs less on a per unit basis too.” said my adversary.

I pointed to a high-end, 1000 cc naked roadster model the company made that was in the corner. “Do you see that? That is what people expect from us: fearsome, elegant motorcycle weaponry. This…” I turned my accusing index finger to the offending filler cap “…this is a [expletive] insult to the people who buy our motorcycles and pay our [expletive] salaries! It says ‘we are tasteless, cheap morons’ every time they fill the tank! Which suggests they are cheap and tasteless for buying this!”

I lifted the screw cap off the prototype and tossed it into a parts bin on the ground.  “It’s the motorcycle design equivalent of wearing socks with sandals.”

The man stared blankly at the prototype. It was not my finest professional moment, one made worse when I noticed to my horror that he was wearing light grey sports socks with open strap Birkenstocks.

“So, uh… let’s just stick with the aircraft type cap for now…” I trailed off. I asked what the budget shortfall was on body systems and promised him that I would find the savings somewhere else by the end of the day. I had certainly not made friends that afternoon, but the motorcycle design quality was preserved.

The Company’s Dollars and the Designer’s Common Sense

Massimo Tamburini, the great motorcycle designer who gave the world the Ducati 916 and MV Agusta F4 was an artist. Trained as a plumber and sheet metal worker, he was self-taught in sculpting bikes and as a co-founder of Bimota, developed his style in a time insensitive environment. If a model came together in six months, terrific. If he was unsatisfied he would redesign it again and again until it was ready. In the case of the MV F4, that was seven years.

Massimo Tamburini works on MV prototype. The master designer was given a lot of leeway with company owner Claudio Castiglioni which gave the designer the time to create magnificent bikes. This did little to help MV's financial position.
Massimo Tamburini works on MV prototype. The master designer was given a lot of leeway with company owner Claudio Castiglioni which gave the designer the time to create magnificent bikes. This did little to help MV’s financial position.

Let’s put that into perspective: in that timeframe, a senior motorcycle designer at Suzuki, Kiska, BMW, GK or Honda will have modelled perhaps as many as seven bikes, and seen at least three into production. If your business is developing motorcycles to sell at a profit, that is the pace you must maintain. If, on the other hand, you are an artist seeking perfection, then you work whenever you feel like it. That is the difference between a commercial motorcycle designer, and a fashion motorcycle designer like Tamburini, or any of the “builders” like Roger Goldhammer or Roland Sands who make one-offs that don’t need to be reproduced.

Cost is by far the most sensitive factor in the final stretch to full production. At this point in the process, every project is over budget and out of time. It is only a matter of by how much. This is when a motorcycle design is at its most vulnerable. Around every turn is someone from the purchasing department with a clipboard who is under enormous pressure from the project leader to trim the price of everything in existence.

They are doing their job and defending that mandate as fiercely as the designers and engineers are defending theirs. As the time counts down to Start-Of-Production (SOP, sometimes called Job-1, or Gate 6, depending on which industrial management book the CEO read last summer on vacation), the cost cutting gets ever more vicious. It is no longer a matter of saving whole dollars, but pennies.

That painted plastic panel? Unpainted injection colour now. Those custom-made cast wheels that took four months to design, test and procure using three different suppliers? Gone. The wheels from last year’s model will do for another production run.

2002 Yamaha R1 : "Dude, are you wearing my fender?" 2004 R1 : "No way bro. Totally my own fender"
2002 Yamaha R1 : “Dude, are you wearing my fender ?”                                               2004 R1 : “No way bro. Totally my own fender”

This exercise is not limited to low-cost or high volume motorcycles or small factories. The Yamaha R1, the flagship product of the world’s second largest motorcycle manufacturer, had to do with the same front fender for three model changes (that was a run of 9 years), because tooling up a new, untested fender is marginally more expensive that replacing the worn out tool of an existing, proven design. When the bean-counters come, everything is on the table, and woe betide the designer, product planner or engineer who fails to watch their baby every second of the day.

The tiniest change can mean the difference between keeping a design or losing it. In plastic moulding, each and every hole in the part (like a screw hole, or an air vent) means adding a very expensive and complex mechanism to the mould called a slide. Accounted across an entire production run of tens of thousands of motorcycles, one extra slide can add a dollar or two to the unit price.

When costs are high, it is the designer and engineer who must creatively solve the twin problems of reducing production cost while preserving as much as possible the design integrity of the motorcycle. They can do this with simple tricks like eliminating slides, or merging two parts into one, or recycling parts from other production models.

Every time you walk into a motorcycle showroom and wonder how manufacturers get to a specific price point, know this: it is not arbitrary. Every single thing you see and touch and use on that bike has been costed, fought over and redesigned a dozen times to get down to a price. It is gruelling work.

At 99% of press launches, the machines at hand are pre-production models that are entirely hand made from many prototype parts.
At 99% of press launches, the machines on test are pre-production models that are entirely hand made from many prototype parts.  If you look closely, you can see a journalist giving an R1 the once over.  Bad paint, dodgy fueling, and loose parts come with this territory.

Act Three : Full of Hot Air

In my head, the TZR was done. I had not heard from the chief engineer for weeks, and I was deep into the clay model process of the next project while also participating on early concept sketches for yet another motorcycle. But inevitably a problem had arisen in pre-production, and I got a call.

“You have to change the clay model. The heat interference from the catalytic converter is melting the body.” I was told. The clay master model was in Barcelona, and I was at the design office in Amsterdam. I got off the phone with the engineer, called the travel company and was in Spain the next evening.

At this point, the TZR was weeks away from being signed off for production, which meant that everyone was working at breakneck speed. All issues left open on the technical problem list had to be closed so overtime was being clocked in by the entire organization. I had been emailed photos and computer simulations of the heat issue and sketched out a simple solution. My boss approved it based on the drawings alone and sent me to the airport.

The TZR 50 in Yamaha racing speed block livery. The heat-bulge mentioned in this article is visible in the black lower belly pan, just below the "2D" sticker. I cringe every time I see it.
The TZR 50 in Yamaha racing speed block livery. The heat-bulge mentioned is visible in the black lower belly pan, just below the  “2D” sticker.

I was given one day to remodel the affected area, get it optically scanned, review it with the engineer on the computer and close the issue.Which we did. I added a bulge to the belly pan of the fairing, and sculpted a sharp wedge shape that roughly corresponded to the main arc thrusting across the body. It was not brilliant design and I didn’t love it, but with one morning to solve the problem, it was the best we could do.

No matter, the motorcycle was signed off and the TZR duly began production. On time.

Motorcycle design, ignoring all the pompous nonsense that it is usually associated with, is really just a job. Industrial designers are not artists, but artistic technicians that use shape and colour to help manufacturers develop new commercial products. It’s a job that requires pragmatism, a practical set of skills, and an ability to know when to fight hard for something as subjective and esoteric as a line on clay, and when to let cold hard engineering or economics win the day.

The dream come true : motorcycles assembled on a mass production line at Honda Thailand.
The dream come true : motorcycles assembled on a mass production line at Honda Thailand.

The TZR was born into the market in 2003, and is still in production 13 years later. It has aged well, and teenagers across Europe still seem to like it despite the many styling trends that have happened since its launch. I remain one of a handful of people in the whole world who see the flaws, who know what could have been, and cringe at the half-measures and bitter compromises that had to be taken in some areas just to get it done.

But that comes with the job. Industrial design is not art, even if occasionally some products can be considered art. After many years I think most of the artistry comes in understanding people, not just the end users who will buy and operate the motorcycles we design, but the people we have to collaborate with just to get the machines made in the first place.

Only when a new motorcycle design begins to roll off the production line and gets shipped off to dealers and customers, the design is finally, totally and completely frozen. Small running changes will occur regularly on the line, as faults are discovered and new cost savings implemented, but the designer’s role has formally ended. The R&D team get off the hamster wheel, and sit down to enjoy a well deserved drink together.

That is, until marketing take hold of the product story…


Coming up next in Episode 6 : All Good Things…

…must be marketed to death. The day has come to tell the world about the amazing new motorcycle. The ad-buy is four times the design budget, media companies have made short films, and the press releases are flying. Wait, what? This was not in the design specification…

There are lies, damn lies, and then there is the delusional fantasy world of motorcycle marketing. Like the time that the final word on actual horsepower and weight came from corporate communications department after the motorcycle entered production.


About the author

Michael Uhlarik is an international award-winning motorcycle designer with over 16 years of experience creating bikes for Yamaha, Aprilia, Piaggio, Derbi and many others.  He is a seasoned motorcycle industry analyst and part-time industrial design lecturer.  He is based in Nova Scotia. 

6 thoughts on “Episode 05 : Mass Production”

  1. Did you ever see the guy from purchasing wear socks with sandals again after that?

    Great read, looking forward to your take on marketing…!

    1. I almost never saw the same purchasing staff more than once. Inside the big OEMs, they report to the lead project engineer, who then downloads body and styling cost issues to the design department. Meetings like the one described only happened when design had to stage “an intervention”.

      It happened in Italy, but despite that country’s reputation for fashion, they have the same ratio of badly dressed people as anyone.

      1. Well I for one am glad you made it on time, and agree with you 100%.

        People who wear socks with sandals shouldn’t be allowed to make adult decisions.;)

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