Motorbikes - back from the brink?

Two major motorcycle brands came close to collapsing under financial pressure, but Triumph, through innovation, and KTM, through focusing on core competencies, have been resurrected.

It was a brand coveted by the hottest celebrities of the time: fashionable, chic and stylish. During the 1960s motorcycle manufacturer Triumph's iconic Bonneville model gained celebrity status with endorsements from the likes of Bob Dylan, Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood.

Despite such – well, triumphs – the company was forced to close its doors in 1983, left far behind by the meteoric rise of the Japanese motorcycle industry. But the brand was too strong to lie dormant for long. Just two years later the name was purchased by business magnate John Bloor, and Triumph began its second life in Hinckley, near Coventry.

Passion and innovation

The new company retained its iconic brands and built its renaissance on two attributes: passion and innovation. "If you were to ask a Triumph employee to list some adjectives that relate to Triumph – and I'm talking about the whole business, from junior apprentice to the John Bloor the owner – I would hazard a guess that most would have 'passionate' and 'innovative' in their top five," Ian Kistruck, design team leader of chassis engineering at Triumph Motorcycles says.

"Now those aren't characteristics that I've picked up by being a Triumph employee, they come from way before that, they're from both nature and nurture. I don't think Triumph would be what it is today if we relied on new team members converting to the culture along the way; we each brought with us our own history of passion.

"My story is typical for an engineer, I guess: my Dad was a CNC machinist, the type of job where you could smell the cutting tool lubricant when he walked through the door. My brother and I used to tinker with everything and anything, from making improvements to our push bikes, to taking apart our parents' stereo, to helping my dad change the discs and pads on the family car.

"I think when you have a desire to find out how every product you come across is made and you get a warm fuzzy feeling when the world around you is logical and ordered, you're destined to be an engineer.

"Then we come to Motorbikes, and this part of my psyche is 'nurture'. My stepdad's profession was a fire-fighter, but his life was biking. From a young age he was my gateway into this unique world. When I think of a real riding obsession, images like these come into my mind. It's about the machine, about camaraderie and the open road."

Motorcyclists are a passionate breed, not driven by marketing whims. And while heritage and style are core values they also demand excellence in engineering. Most bikers wouldn't buy just any motorcycle. True, for some it's simply a matter of cost. For most though it's about the experience, a matter of image, of style, quality, reliability, and again a matter of lifestyle. "Our customers aren't buying a commodity," says Kistruck. "They're buying an experience that they get to enjoy every time they ride out on to the road."

So passion is a mindset, it's an ingrained behaviour, but it's only half the story: raw passion alone will only get you so far. To create a successful product and company; that passion needs to be focused in the right places. "At Triumph we channel that passion in a number of ways. We're passionate about quality, about the riding experience, about safety and we're passionate about innovation. But even with regard to innovation, we recognise that we need to focus on the areas that strengthen our brand. For Triumph those are originality, purposeful products and iconic styling. Focusing innovation on these elements enables us to produce the desirable range of motorcycles we offer."

Form and functionality

Unlike other engineered products motorcycles are highly visible. Any required functionality needs to be merged with design aspirations. "It is extremely difficult," Kistruck agrees. "What happens is we tender sketches for the new concept. First, we do our market research for which segment of the market we are looking to aim at, and we probably do that at least five years before as a planning project.

"From an aesthetic styling point of view [these sketches are] the best they are going to get, because [the designers] have been given constraints of what needs to be put into the bike from the research, but will sketch what they really want the bike to look like. From that point onwards you are going to have to make engineering compromises. Our task, as an engineering department, is to keep it as close to that sketch as possible when it goes to the market and not have to compromise on those aesthetics. The more information we can give the stylists up front, before they sketch, the more accurate their sketch will be when it comes to the reality of the bike."

The automotive sector has been advancing down the path of standardisation of parts and aggressive platform strategies, but this does not work for the motorbike industry. "Our bikes are exposed to the world so if you want to show someone that we have something new we need to change the look of the bike," Kistruck says. "There is simply not much hidden underneath that you can use. The bits that you can't see are the areas we try to focus on to try and re-use and commonise, but that is not a large amount of components on a bike. The frame, the wheels, the fuel tank and the bodywork are always going to be new. The one thing that we don't change would be the fixings, but that is more from a cost perspective."

Triumph makes use of the Alias Showcase CAD software to undertake internal reviews during the design process. A big projection of the design is beamed on to the wall and rotated so that the bike can be viewed on the floor. "It allows us to stand around it at full scale. However, this review is not the final piece. We still have to build the bike. We have done a number of trials of trying to go straight from CAD to a hard model and we have always had to prototype a number of bits between that phase, because when we have tried that big leap and built that bike for the first time, you realise there is just something not right about the shape or the proportion that you couldn't pick up on.

"It is just like hindsight; once you have built it solid you could go back to the 3D and see the flaw then, but it isn't something you can pick up in the 3D view. This would usually be things like a belly pan that is underneath the header system on some of our bikes, and unless you can see it in a solid model you may not be able to tell that in a 3D model it is just far too thin. You need to build things."

Modelling vs simulation

The traditional route up until the last few years would have been to produce sketches; those sketches would be taken and used as a 3D tape drawing. They would'take'the front elevation, side elevation,'top elevation and then intercept those points in space, literally by hand, and'from that they would create a clay model'of those interceptions so you would have a very blocky model of a bike. That would then be smoothed down by a clay modeller to get the refined surfaces and that would then be scanned and reverse-engineered in CAD, cut in solid model and then that solid would be refined, painted up and then reviewed.

"The problem there is that it is not until that point that you really see the final model and the senior manager will come around and decide on things they want to be changed," Kistruck explains. "But it is now a solid model and it is a slow process to get the final refinement in. What we are trying to do now is to remove one of those solid steps whereby we take the process as far as we can in CAD, and then cut a finer model; basically, we are looking to cut out the clay stage.

"We want to be able to get it as close as we can in the CAD stage using Pro/Engineer Mechanica [software], cut the final model and approve the final model as a prototype. Then, even further than that, when we get running bikes we would make up prototype panels to go on these in their early stages. There is only ever one final styling model, but from that stage onwards we make 10-15 P2 bikes, which are the very first running prototype bikes and they will have some form of representative bodywork."

Running concurrently with the styling and prototyping will be the creation making an ergonomic and geometry prototype – dubbed the mule bike. After analysing customer feedback they would modify an existing bike or even one from a competitor and modify that. "As we are doing the styling we are already doing modification work on real, physical bikes to know whether those changes are going to make the stepped improvement that we were after," Kistruck explains. "We don't use simulation software to do that. We could do if we had had experience of them correlating with each other, but not with the time that is takes us to modify an existing bike and go out to prove that has done the job that we expected it to do. We keep validating it all the way through as the design gets more and more solid, but we have never had much luck in analysis software on chassis performance."

At Triumph, it is well understood that a failure to innovate would be to risk failing again as a business. "Rather than needing to promote innovation, we focus on facilitating it," Kistruck says. "We understand the value of sharing best practice and reporting lessons learnt, through working groups and accessible documentation. It's this attitude to knowledge management that gives us, quite simply, the time to innovate.

"We have seen that innovation teamed with passion, can create truly desirable, and inspiring products. Some businesses have products that go hand in hand with passion. For those that don't have that luxury, perhaps that passion needs to come from what their products enable downstream?"

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