Episode 03 – Principal Layout

Husqvarna-701-ENDURO-The-Perfect-CombinationThe Making of Motorcycles series asks the Where, What and Why questions to reveal just how people come together to imagine, engineer and design the most amazing vehicles in the world. In part three we take the renderings from the designers and hand them over to the engineers to do their magic.

Engineers are the closest thing we have to wizards in today’s world. Using applied science, engineers develop the machines that make our civilization work, improve our lives and, in the case of motorcyclists, literally propel us down the road.

Searching motorcycle culture for iconic engineers turns up names like Soichiro Honda, John Britten and Erik Buell. While these are certainly worthy icons, they don’t represent the bulk of what motorcycle engineers do, what they are, and where they come from.

Great engineers of motorcycling are many, and all of them are unknown. They are the people who toil in decidedly unsexy office cubicles on computer workstations to solve mechanical puzzles, calculate stresses and oversee costs. To some extent they are the anti-designer, but that does not mean that it is imperative for the two to be able to work together to make the motorcycle vision a reality.

Unlike designers who occasionally win public praise for a given work, engineers rarely get any spotlight at all. They stand silently in the background of press launches (those lucky enough to get invited) while the marketing guys loudly trumpet the virtues of their work. When engineers do get publicity, it is usually to act as teachers explaining the technical features rather than presenting their vision.

And that is unfair, and unfortunate. If the public could see even a small part of the struggle to give birth to a mass-production motorcycle, then engineers would be appreciated considerably more. The real magic of the modern motorcycle is not that fancy new feature splashed across the press release, it’s that the engineering team found dozens of small ways to reduce weight, simplify assembly, improve performance and reduce cost, all of which is what made including that new feature even possible.

The magic of the motorcycle engineer is that your new bike will do exactly what it was designed to do, repeatedly and in any conditions, at a price you can afford.  Simply put, it is a form of wizardry.

Happily, engineers inside the motorcycle industry are not all like this. Image : copyright Scott Adams
Happily, engineers inside the motorcycle industry are not all like this. Image : copyright Scott Adams

Act One : A Necessary Evil

The kickoff meeting with the engineering team was finished, and now the engineers, the project leader, two product planners and I were in a Japanese restaurant to eat, relax and bond. The project leader, himself an engineer, raised a glass of beer in a toast.

“Kampai!” He said.

As we drank, talking and exchanging smiles, I wondered how on earth I was going to relate to these guys. The engineers at the table were all dressed in the Dilbert uniform: ill-fitting, open collar white dress shirts with beige slacks, and hair parted to the side. They looked the same, talked the same, and laughed at the same unfunny jokes the same way. They seemed to me like some engineer clone army as imagined by a Hollywood casting agency.

The meeting had presented the team with the design brief, and from the word go their objections poured in. This will cost too much. That is going to require more resources than we have. We can’t do this, that is impossible…  Lots of “no”.

I had entered the meeting full of enthusiasm and with a can-do spirit, thinking that we were about to tackle the project together like a band of buccaneering, disruptive R&D rock stars. Four hours later I was depressed and utterly deflated. These engineers seemed like a timid, unimaginative bunch only concerned with maintaining the status quo.

One of them, perhaps sensing my mood, reached across the table and refilled my glass. “You know, I have been cautious with industrial designers in the past because they were difficult to work with. Always too far from reality. But I feel like we can do good work together.”

Had he just insulted my profession or handed me a compliment? “I understand.” I said. “I’ve always thought of engineers as a necessary evil.”

The engineer threw back his head and let out a great belly laugh.  From that point onward, we made it a point of mocking each other’s profession at every opportunity, which made every one else on the team relax and feel safe to criticize each other’s work, a vital component to making any motorcycle the best it can be.

The design office at Porsche in the late 1950's was pretty typical of the era: large drafting tables for executing full-scale technical drawings, and lots of ash trays.
The design office at Porsche in the late 1950’s was pretty typical of the era: large drafting tables for executing full-scale technical drawings, and lots of ash trays.  The scythe like shapes hanging on the back wall are called “sweeps”, that allow precise drawing of complex curves.
The Porsche technical centre today, drafting tables replaced by computer work stations, suits and tie replaced by polo shirts and hoodies.
The Porsche technical centre today, drafting tables replaced by computer work stations, suits and tie replaced by polo shirts and hoodies.

In the making of motorcycles, there are three critical units that must work together as a coherent team for a project to succeed: product planning, design and engineering. If the planning unit chooses to make the wrong kind of bike for the wrong market, then no matter how good it is physically sales will be low. A bad design can be salvaged by excellent engineering and market-fit, just as a brilliant design can float a poorly planned or marginally engineered bike.  In any case where one of the three pillars is weak, the project suffers.

However, the bilateral relationship that is by far the most vital is the one that exists between the engineer and designer. Often portrayed as a rivalry, the engineering and design teams must in fact function as a singular unit. This arrangement stems from the fact that the two are trying to accomplish the very same thing, to invent the physical motorcycle from a sheet of ideas, but they are coming at it from opposite angles.

Industrial design is concerned with human interface, both physical and emotional. The look, controls, ergonomics and “feel” of the motorcycle are the industrial designer’s key drivers. As we saw in the last episode, the tool bag for this kind of work is abstract and often highly subjective. It also invites risk, because only by innovating and bringing out something new can the design hope to captivate its intended market.

The engineer on the other hand, is attempting to satisfy the design brief by connecting what is and what can be with hard facts. Their role is to produce the simplest, most expedient mechanical solution with the least probability of risk to the end user or the company. Innovation is desirable, but only if it is at least as risk-free as a tried and tested solution. The engineer’s outlook is therefore by definition, entirely objective and conservative.

Inevitably, these contrasting philosophies lead to tension. Designers feel like the engineers are stubborn, unimaginative squares, while engineers think the designers are flakes completely out of touch with practical reality. Both stereotypes are often true.

Suzuki engineers give the V-Strom 1000 clay model the once over. Image : Suzuki
Suzuki engineers give the V-Strom 1000 clay model the once over. Image : Suzuki

Act Two : It is Written

Most large manufacturers have some kind of technical standards manual, a big book of proprietary knowledge that represents the sum total of all they have learned about their craft. Before the internet was so ubiquitous,  physical copies of these manuals were locked inside the R&D offices of senior engineers. Each copy was numbered and accounted for every night before the staff left. Internally, they were referred to as “the technical Bible” and revered by the engineers.

Once, while working on a small displacement sport model, I submitted a front fender for review to my engineering counterpart. Every week, we would meet and go over the design as we worked in parallel to develop the new motorcycle, him from the inside out, and I from the outside in. He would provide the latest mechanical layout, while I would present the latest renderings and schematic body drawings so that we could flag any potential cause for technical interference.

The engineer took out a small ruler, and measured the line of the front fender on my drawing and denounced it as too short and too close to the tire. He then produced two papers, one showing a faint dotted line above a sideview layout of the motorcycle indicating a minimum fender height, and the other one a photocopy of the English translation of the technical standards manual regarding fenders.

“Front fenders shall be raised a minimum of 25mm from the dynamic tire radius” he read. “Your design is 15mm.” he added. He went on to explain that a front fender was required to cover nearly three-quarters of the tire, thrusting his copy of the technical manual in front of me.

The text on the page indeed confirmed the tolerances he was claiming, next to a line drawing of an early seventies 400 cc roadster model. I looked at the bottom corner for the citations, which revealed that this standard had last been updated in 1981.

“This does not correspond with most of our company’s current models.” I said. I pointed to the two current sport models we had in the office for reference, neither of which had fenders like those in the technical manual. Borrowing his ruler, I measured. “The front fender on our 600 cc model is 15 mm off the cold tire surface, and this bike has four times the horsepower of the design we are working on.”

The engineer measured and re-measured the offending fender, made copious notes and then promised to re-evaluate the design. One week later my fender was approved, and I was faxed a copy of a revised technical standards manual, which now featured a separate section for sport bikes allowing closer tolerances.

Engineers work with facts, not feelings.

A few rough notes scratched on grid paper and the principal layout is born. Image : author
A few rough notes scratched on grid paper and the principal layout is born. Image : author

The best engineers are also artists. While their starting point may be established precedents or technical standards, they too ache for innovation. The pressures of limited time and resources are what hold them back, not the will to try. Unlike the industrial designer who can persuade management to change direction on a motorcycle project with one sexy rendering and a good pitch, the engineer has to justify any technical risk with a detailed costing and mathematical analysis.

The tug of war between engineering and the other two poles in motorcycle R&D is hard fought. Senior engineers attain their position of authority because they have demonstrated the ability to deliver projects on time, on budget and make products that are reliable. Reliability, more than any other factor, is the measure of engineering success.

But that does not mean that engineers automatically seek the path of least resistance. Creative invention is often hidden inside the most mundane technical choice, and usually required to make any meaningful product advance.

When design demands that the inside of a headlamp contain all kinds of styling flourishes, it is the engineer who has to take those drawings of CAD models to the headlamp supplier and negotiate. When planning demands a price point, it is cast in stone and the engineer has to find savings in other areas.

A wonderful hand made assembly sketch that clearly describes this Yamaha TRX swing arm. Image : TheTRXProject.blogspot
A wonderful hand made assembly sketch that clearly describes this Yamaha YZF 750 swing arm. Image : TheTRXProject.blogspot

It all begins with principal layout. That is the first basis drawing that sets the wheelbase, seat height, and locates the major systems like engine and induction in a side view. That is the easy, conceptual part. Then the engineer has to actually design all those things.

Two components must be fastened to a frame. But how? A flange that’s welded on? A separate part that bolts on? Is it metal or plastic? These choices are legion, and they all start to affect each other. If you make an effort to design a very attractive and high performance component, then you have used up engineering hours and production budget that must be subtracted elsewhere. Design might want to emphasize a different component, or planning may say it’s changing market perception.

The only way to make good choices is to communicate a lot with the team and make sure the motorcycle’s design priorities are clearly set. A great motorcycle engineer thus becomes a conductor, a pivot around which the orchestra of R&D must orbit, each master in their own craft, but held together by the principal layout.

The completed principal layout of the Ducati Desmoseidici reveals the location and details of every major system. Bodywork (in green) is represented as a rough outline.
The completed principal layout of the Ducati Desmoseidici reveals the location and details of every major system. Bodywork (in green) is represented as a rough outline.

Act Three : A pinch here, a dash there.

The 2005 Yamaha MT-03 was not a big budget production project. Unlike programs in Japan, the team in Europe was small and resource constrained. The motor was a legacy item, with limited support available from the vast engine R&D staff in Japan, so the three engineers at the factory outside Milan had a lot of work to do.

Fortunately, two of those engineers were geniuses. The project leader was a veteran Japanese engineer who had taken to life in Italy with gusto. Always impeccably dressed in tailored Italian suits and hand made shoes, he had from the start established his desire to make the MT-03 special. He was dedicated to crafting a bike that would be a refined looking as the best Italian motorcycle, but with the reliability and price the market expected from Yamaha.

His deputy engineer was a man named Giorgio, who in addition to being a brilliant technical mind was a connoisseur of fine wines and an excellent chef. For his master’s degree thesis he re-engineered the front end of the radical Yamaha GTS-1000, eliminating all of that iconic motorcycle’s infamous handling issues. (In an odd twist of fate, Giorgio attended the same same automotive engineering course as Editor ‘Arris in England in the eighties.  It turned Giorgio into a engineering wizard, and turned Rob off of engineering entirely).

Giorgio and the project leader left our kick-off meeting determined to make a principal layout that would mirror the bold look of the early concept renderings, yet be lightweight and low cost. While I obsessed over form and keeping the product planning team happy, the engineers overcame most of the technical challenges within the first few months. So thorough were they in their detailed analysis, that when the project leader was replaced mid-stream by another, altogether more conservative engineer, even he had to conclude that the original layout was superior.

Bold style elements like the MT-03’s horizontal shock absorber was a design led initiative, but the cast oil reservoir used as a stressed frame component was all Giorgio. His initial shape, with cutouts for the twin exhaust headers and ribs for cooling the internal oil temperature was so good, so fundamentally right looking, that it became a  design solution that made the whole motorcycle better.

Exhaust headers exit cylinder head via cutouts in the oil cooler, to drape around the side in charismatic fashion on the 2005 Yamaha MT-03. Image : Yamaha Motor EU
Exhaust headers exit cylinder head via cutouts in the oil cooler, to drape around the side in charismatic fashion on the 2005 Yamaha MT-03. Image : Yamaha Motor EU

Great principal layout in motorcycle design comes from this kind of symbiotic working relationship between engineer, planner and designer. Unfortunately, when the engineer tries to work alone, making critical design decisions without consulting design, it usually results in ugly motorcycles.

The designer and product planner can gang up on the engineer too, which is equally harmful. The classic tactic of ambitious designers is to convince the planning committee to accept some wild new layout idea as a pillar of the project at the concept stage, and enshrine that into the design brief. This forces engineering to spend lots of time and resource capital harmonizing mechanical and production considerations, with consequent negative effects on the rest of the project.

For instance, the low profile shape and silhouette of the 1998 Ducati MH900e Mike Hailwood concept was “cooked” into the later production bike’s brief, which left engineers with precious little space for mechanical components. Without any flexibility from design, engineers had to squeeze things like airbox, fuel tank, fuel pump, battery, fuse box, etc., into a reduced volume.

The end result was a production bike two years behind schedule and with a nearly useless 8.5 litre fuel tank capacity. The press heaped praise on the design, and scorn on the engineering, a judgment that was really unfair.  Principal layout is a give and take process.  When either the engineer or designer take too much, the whole project suffers.

Very pretty and tidy looking, the 1998 prototype Ducati MH900e refused to give an inch to the engineering team, much to the detriment of the final product.
Very pretty and tidy looking, the 1998 prototype Ducati MH900e refused to give an inch to the engineering team, much to the detriment of the final product.  Style is important, but cannot come at the expense of real world functionality.  Image : Ducati

But when the relationship between designer and engineer is truly symbiotic, great things happen. The engineers move the designer’s representations of a motorcycle on paper and in clay into a mass production vehicle. Seeing a giant 180 Kg lump of clay transform into a functioning prototype one year later (albeit with some sketchy looking parts), is not just a magical experience, it is  humbling.

Coming up next in Episode 4 of The Making of Motorcycles : 3D Without Glasses

The layout and concept art are done, and engineer and designer are still on speaking terms. Now comes the hard part of translating virtual thinking into a real, physical design prototype to find out just how much is right and wrong.

From rapid-fire, straight-from-video modelling; to the renaissance-like epic of one man’s seven-year odyssey to sculpt motorcycle perfection, it takes all kinds to escape virtual reality.

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. 



  1. I just happened upon this series and wow, really interesting. As a motorcyclist of many years, with an artistic bent but no practical knowledge of just how bikes get from idea to sales floor, this series really opens my eyes to the practical aspects of motorcycle production. It also explains some quirks I have seen in the many motorcycles I have owned (especially but not exclusively the small manufacturers driven more by passion than resources…). Thank you muchly for this series Michael!

  2. Yet another fantastic article. I spent 14 years in the very niche realm of localizing testbed automation and data post-processing software for the Japanese, Chinese and Korean markets while at the Japanese affiliate of AVL List GmbH. I have never ceased to be awestruck by the majick of bringing a product from the infancy of an idea to the reality of something sitting in a showroom. Amazing, really.

    • Thank you, Christopher, for that enlightening film. I can always depend on you to elevate any discussion about motorcycle technology to its natural, professional zenith.

  3. Excellent article! I’m involved in tooling and automation for the automotive industry. The challenges and compromises are the same.

    I too curse when things are designed without consideration for maintenance … I shudder to think of the eventual spark plug replacement job on my van (transverse V6 on which part of the intake manifold has to come off to get access to the valve covers) … good thing it’s not due until 160,000 km. But I know how it happens. The engine gets designed by one team and the body by another, and the main consideration is that the vehicle goes down the assembly line easily, not what happens afterward. The spark plugs in my van went in before the intake manifold went on during engine assembly in a completely different factory from where that engine eventually gets plonked into a subframe and the whole deal stuck into the bodyshell in one big piece. In this case, this vehicle was never originally designed for a V6 gasoline engine at all, and sticking that engine in there was a complete afterthought for the North American market.

    At least in the case of motorcycles, usually the frame is designed for that particular engine, so they can do thoughtful things, like putting a strategically placed hole in the frame that allows a T-handle to be inserted through the frame to get to throttle body clamps that would be beyond reach otherwise. The trouble with sport bikes is that everyone wants smaller, more compact, lighter, but with more power (and more heat to deal with), and you end up with an awful lot of equipment in a very small space. With my ZX10R, you have to take apart everything in order to get to anything, but at least there’s some logic to the way they’ve done it.

    My favorite beefs? Electrical connectors with no readily apparent indication of which way tabs need to be poked or prodded in order to get the connector apart … and (*cough* Honda) bodywork that is not only put together with screws but also with clips and tabs so that you can take off every screw in sight and be no closer to having the body panel off the bike!

  4. What Jimo368 said – ease of maintenance is often overlooked in designing something.
    Try to replace a Honda Gold Wing hydraulic clutch line some time, or where BMW hides its oil filters.
    Keep it up Michael !

  5. I worked for many years with Westinghouse engineers doing maintenance on steam and natural gas powered turbines, and I have the utmost respect for their knowledge. We both would shake our heads though at the Cirque du soleil level of fitness and contortions it would take for us to access such things inside such ceramic coated vanes, IGVs or bleed off valves.
    I still want to meet a few Honda engineers though, especially the one that required half the Gold Wing to be dissasembled to change the air filter.
    I enjoy your continuing stories.

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