BACK WHEN I worked for BMW, the design process allowed around eight years for the development of a new car, and five years for
a motorcycle. That was from the ground-up, not just
a facelift, but even so, it seems an eternity compared
with today. Much of that shortened lead time is down
to computerization of the process, which allows data to be
transferred instantaneously between the various departments.
Rapid prototyping means we can turn 3D CAD data into 3D reality
in a matter of hours, even if the awful reality of the results might
mean reworking the surface by hand until it looks and feels right.
Then it’s just a matter of re-scanning the surface, smoothing the
data and sending it all to the tooling manufacturer. “Let’s go—dip
it and ship it,” as a certain Mr. Davidson once said to me.
Part of the design process used to involve living with a new
idea or shape for a while to see how it weathered. Fresh directions
can be both stimulating and daunting, and there’s nothing better
for uncertainty than sleeping on it. There’s something about your
mindset at 3:00 AM that gives a clarity of vision that’s inaccessible at any other time of day. Insomnia could actually be an asset.
Current development programs allow little time to get used
to a new idea or design, never mind develop it to its full potential before committing to production. Because there isn’t time
to rectify unexpected problems, by default firms will stay with
tried and trusted methods. This limits creativity. For those that
push the envelope, insufficient time can lead to snap decisions
and inadequate solutions. And the increasing number of recalls
suggests a similar pressure is affecting the R&D phases, too. With
established OEMs, this is mostly down to delivery pressure, but
with start-ups and relative newcomers, it’s also a matter of budget.
As someone who earns a living (hah!) by being in at the very
start of this process, it has become glaringly obvious that unrealistic time-frames, along with unrealistic budgets, have become
a norm with many companies. We’ve gone from spending six
months making a clay model, to six weeks, to just six days.
That’s what I was given to build a totally new motorcycle with
a full fairing by a company in China last year. That we got that job
done at all was partly down to the speed and professionalism of
the team of clay modelers who were flown in for the process, and
partly to my stupidity in going along with the whole thing. Was it
perfect? Absolutely not. Was it good enough? That depends. To
my eye, it wasn’t production-ready, but by nature, designers are
rarely entirely satisfied. To that particular management, which
has only recently progressed from ‘borrowing’ other company’s
designs in their entirety, it was above and beyond the call of duty.
Next time, they’ll probably see if we can do it in three days.
The quality of a design is, to a point, proportional to how much
time you invest in it. True, progress is not linear, so the added
value decreases the more time you allow. Ideas can even be overworked, so the magic that existed in the initial concept gets lost or
diluted. But when the schedule is unrealistically short, so there’s
little time for refinement, and none for experimentation, that has
to reflect on the novelty, quality and appeal of the final product.
Recently, I’ve been doing a short teaching stint alongside
Bentley designer Richard Gilmartin, who has had similar experiences with the Chinese car industry.
Although motorcycling doesn’t really have a two-wheel
equivalent of a Bentley or Maybach, the level of detailing on an
MV Agusta indicates a gestation period measured in years rather
than days—seven years, reportedly, in the case of the original
F4. But you don’t have to spend MV money to find imaginative
and well-executed designs. KTM can give you that, even from
their 125s, which suggests that its management understands
and values the design process sufficiently to support it with the
resources it needs.
What makes the least sense about cutting back on the initial
design phase is that it’s such a tiny proportion of the whole
process of getting a model into production. Yet the success of
that model in the marketplace depends disproportionately on
the appeal of the design. The difference is that the rest of the
program is essentially un-shrinkable. Cut back on the production
engineering and you won’t get to the tooling or assembly stages,
which means you won’t have a product. Design, being un-mea-surable, is the only area that can seemingly be cut. So it often is.
Another reason is management’s lack of understanding of
the design process. They often view the finished product as an
answer that should somehow have been known at the outset. The
fact that it represents just one of an infinite number of possible
answers is less apparent, even assuming they were asking the
right questions in the first place.
Reversing the trend won’t be easy. Simply refusing such rushed
schedules might gain a designer some extra time, but qualified
consultants are easily replaced by more desperate rivals, or eager
students, willing to work all night without pay to put a “real”
project completed for a “real” manufacturer in their portfolios.
Designers could, of course, show solidarity, but a motorcycle
designers’ strike would likely have as much leverage as the threat
of a national Philosopher’s strike in Douglas Adam’s
Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. So I guess we’ll all just have to get
used to working harder
for less and teaching a
few courses now and
then to help pay
R Not all new
as refined as
they should be
Refinement takes time—seven years
in the case of the original MV Agusta F4.
Des ign Des ig n
by Glynn Kerr