Reproduced by permission
Few have an accurate vision of how a motorcycle is produced, and indeed it varies; long robot assembly lines churning out hundreds of identical Japanese machines at one extreme contrast with factories such as Husaberg, with 17 employees hand-assembling 'bikes. Companies like BMW and Triumph lie somewhere between. Last month we took you through the BMW's Spandau factory; this month it is the turn of Triumph, at Hinckley, England.
Hinckley is just as unpreposessing as Berlin on a chilly March day, but there's no missing the factory; its' great white purpose built warehouses are ranked behind wire with the Triumph logo printed hugely across the front.The gateman lets you through to a plush reception area; after all this is not just one factory, as with BMW, it is the factory.
Kiwi Rider was expected, and a young receptionist summoned Robert, who leads visitors past the plush carpet foyer, through sets of swing doors and straight onto the factory floor.
Robert is neither an office wallah nor an assembly employee; an unemployed actor with an engineering background, his sole function is to take tours round. Some days he leads 40 people round the factory, all plugged into earphones to aid listening - interested people don't wander and fiddle with machinery - but it's Friday, so it's just us. Triumph is very PR oriented; Robert is persuasive and personable, and there are displays everywhere for visitors to examine, and to aid staff checking of product. Everywhere we go Robert cheerily greets employees - impressive until you realise their uniforms are prominently named, but it contributes to a cheerful, energetic atmosphere.
The total number of employees from R & D through production to sales is 435, including the three in the warranty department, and their average age is just over 24, which soars to 45 in R & D. Triumph is still employing; last year it took on it's first 18 school leavers as trainees and its first three technical apprentices as maintenance crew. When the Hinckley Triumph factory started up no British bike manufacturers remained; all the employees had to be trained from scratch, bar six who had worked for Meriden, including test rider Jock Copeland.
While the factory is a decent size at 10 acres it is not vast, and the work stations and ranks of machines are impressive rather than breathtaking. There is a clean bright impression as employees clad in neat silver grey overalls trot past, pushing mobile racks containing everything from bolts to mufflers; the racks were designed by staff, as are many of the workplaces.
Many of the parts are drop forged in Japan or Germany and machined on the premises, using equipment whose function can vary according to its programming. Triumph is frustrated that despite Britain's great industrial heritage, it has to go elsewhere for drop forging. John Bloor aims to bring more under Triumph control, including drop forging, and get Japanese input down to 19 or 20 per cent; he is young at around 52 years of age, and he "likes to collect businesses", says Robert. Bloor constantly invests and reinvests, indulging his hobby of finding and using new technology, but there are problems.
Sir John Harvey Jones, a major industrialist who did T.V. series on industry, did a special on Triumph. He commented that Triumph was too labour intensive - hand pin striping, for example, was not good economy - and he claimed Triumph should buy in more of the complete items they now finish themselves. "But since the Conservatives came in, all these small businesses have gone", Robert said. For example, Triumph would like to source their con rods from English companies who already manufacture car rods in their millions, "but 50,000 per year is small potatoes to these manufacturers, and they won't look at it," so the con rods come from Japan.
The machine room that processes the parts cost 18 million pounds and took seven months to build - all of the development was done with capital from John Bloor, not with loans. We pass a machine producing swing-arms from extruded alloy (three versions can be produced from one initial shaped block) passing newly welded arms sitting for 24 hours to let stresses settle. Camshafts, drop forged in Germany, are being pre hardened and ground, while engine cases from the West Midlands are being treated in the paint shop for anti corrosion. Ranks of equipment tended by two grey clad figures completely machine a cylinder head in two hours, with a new one coming off the line every seven minutes. Alloy mig welder robots work under metal shields, there's bustle and hurry. "Every stage - Hi Gaz! - is linked and checked by people", says Robert. "Every piece is hand checked as much as possible and measured". The first product of each shift is ultra checked in the machining area and checking aids are dotted around. Pictures, diagrams and tools with measurements written on them make remembering easier, while Vernier gauges to measure microns are in constant evidence, though there seem to be fewer flickering screens than at BMW.
Triumph uses neighbour checking; each employee has an average of seven tasks, including checking the work of the work station before theirs and checking the parts used. Each area marks checked items with coloured ink. Each work station has six minutes and forty seconds for all their jobs on that bike; we don't know what they do if they need the loo! Employees don't have much chance to get bored, they are moved from area to area, on less critical areas every two months; the aim is for everyone to be able to do anyone's job. Gradually the whole factory is coming into pace with the six minutes forty schedule, though at the moment two engineering and parts shifts feed one assembly line shift.
We pass the chrome plating shop, introduced for the Thunderbird, but can't go in. All the big chrome items are done in house as, "John Bloor is not happy with quality otherwise. He is uncompromising". Handlebars, headlamp bowls etc. are made in Birmingham, while five layers of nickel and chrome are applied here. The words "John Bloor" are scattered so generously they almost appear as a mantra. Triumph enthusiasts worldwide have his phenomenal energy to thank for the success of Triumph, and his employees are not going to let a passing journo forget it.
We pass racks of cut pipe lengths; they don't look up to much when they arrive, but all the down exhaust header pipes, bar the three-into-one sports system which comes from Sabring, Germany, are made from these, shaped and chromed in house. Crankshafts come drop forged of micro alloy steel from Germany; 19 different processes form a crank, only two of which are not done on site. The rough is machined a little, sent out for stress relieving, and returns. The new computer technology governing its producton is four times more accurate than what Triumph started with in 1990; the computer measures each crankshaft, drilling here and there to remove exactly the right amount from each crank and working to strict tolerances under an employee's eagle eye. "Bikes in Europe are always going to be more expensive, so we have to push that little bit harder," says Robert. In a corner stand £40,000 worth of ovens, each containing 42 crankshafts. A door flips sidewise over a tiny window, and through a purple haze of heat glow racks of stacked cranks, cooking at 540º celsius for 32 hours in a mix of Hydrogen and nitrogen. Once out of the oven they are lubed and polished to remove soot. Air measuring guns are used to measure each crank, which is labelled according to size with a bar code; later con-rods will be selected to go with each crank.
Like BMW, the factory is based on a flexible system allowing all the models to be built simultanously. Production starts with coded sheets, and can be varied from day to day according to market requirements. The assembly line is constantly moving. We stood and watched each colour coded engine grow as it travelled slowly past; from a crank to a whole engine in a journey of 20 feet across the factory floor. Among the jostling trolleys of arriving parts I spotted a ripple in the chrome of a crankcase cover sitting among perfectly shining rows on a stand; Robert trotted off to report it and it was whisked away.
Before travelling further, the complete engine is filled with oil and 'driven' for four minutes to cold test the engine, clutch and gearbox - it is connected to a machine via a gearbox and rotated. Any problems encountered sideline the engine. One engine a day at random is hot bed tested for a couple of hours, though not under stress as it isn't run in. If it passes, it goes back on the line. If not, they have to find why not, in case a glitch is passing into the production line. The engines pass to another team and their roller driven line where the chassis is prepared, frame numbers added, suspension and airbox attached and the wiring loom and engine mounted. All these tasks must be completed before an arm comes down to suspend the bike and take it onwards; the line doesn't stop. A Tiger was taking shape ahead of an Adventurer, with six grey clad people rapidly adding and testing.
We pass the paint shop, but can't go in. Rows of petrol tanks (except for the Thunderbird, Adventurer and spun nylon Tiger tank all made in Germany) gleam like serried ranks of polished, uncut jewels. Here is the lair of Triumph's pin striper. Pin striping is done by hand, not by a row of women steadying their wrists on the gleaming flanks of each tank as per BMW, but by Norman Wall, a grey haired codger well over Triumph's average age, who stands out among the bustling grey overalls in his paint stained blue coat. Watching him work was like watching a poem; forget transcendental meditation, study Norman for an hour instead. Balancing the tank on end he dipped his brush and ran it in a smooth sweep of line, tailing off with a light flick of the wrist. The tank swivelled and the line began elsewhere; it joined the first perfectly, apparently without effort, with no jink, no change of thickness. Another change of angle, another smooth line swooping down the golden paint. "You don't drink a lot, then?" the hand sweeps away from the tank for Norman to chuckle, then swoops back into the flow. Norman works all over the place, pin-striping cars, vintage stuff; he's about to do some pin-striping on the Continent. He's not on exclusive contract, this is a dying trade and Norman is in demand. "I thought we were training someone?" says Robert. Norman points out you can't just train someone, "you can put them on how to go about it, but they have to go to it themselves, they have to have a flair for it".
Leaving Norman's calm backwater for the assembly line our ears are assailed by whooping alarms and running feet; alarm buttons are pressed if there is a parts shortage or a problem on the line. The line can stop, but the employees treat the possibility as an offence and hustle to fetch more parts or sideline the hiccup.
Finally the bikes come to the rolling road test. One booth takes care of Triumph's total production, and every bike goes through it. A row of bikes sits on the platform waiting to go in. A temporary seat with a battery sunk in the foam is fitted. Each bike's bar code is entered, and the technician mounts the bike inside the booth. Each is 'ridden' to 77mph, though only one wheel turns at a time and the technician's feet do not leave the ground. The front and rear brakes are checked, and the rear rollers become a dyno to check the gears and clutch. These guys are highly tuned to the bikes; they can notice a balance weight gone or a spoke problem; yesterday a T-Bird was rejected for a buckled back wheel. Each sump is then drained of oil and the bike cleaned and checked over before being crated.
On the way out I talked to Alan Hurd, the Senior Production Engineer. Employed by Triumph for nine years and employee number 13 back at the beginning, Alan is involved with development of the bikes. He was at the Cologne Show in '91 when the first new Triumph appeared; he stood and listened to comments on the bikes, as a result of which some changes were made before the bikes hit the road. Back then a design team of 14 or 15 people stood by ready to react instantly to market comment; this team has grown to 48.
The department listens to the market through constant dealer feedback, keeps a record of first owner of a bike and reads what journalists say. Their objective was to produce bikes perceived to have the quality of BMW with the performance of the Japanese, thus providing a true alternative to both and finding their own niche. By year two Triumph was confident enough to have a two year warranty. As feedback trickles in they look for signs of a pattern and decide whether to act immediately or wait for the model year change. They had felt the three cylinder bike was a better package and would be better recieved than the four by a 60/40 ratio, but not to the extent it was, almost 80/20, hence the increasing emphasis on the three cylinder range.
Triumph tries to take a balanced view and not place too much weight on any one source of info, especially from journalists; Alan feels that "not all journalists reflect what people actually want". Feedback from demo rides is particularly good - why people don't buy a bike, what they expect etc.
There's a constant rolling four year model plan, though none of it is set in concrete. For example the launch was in 1991 with consolidation in '92, but the Tiger, launched in '93, was already being planned at the start.
And the modular concept?
When the bikes were launched by definition they had a lot of common components across the board - chassis, engine and bodywork, Alan said. The benefit to a new company was that bikes with so many common components were easier to produce, and parts supply was eased. He added that the spine frame works on all of the models, looks good and is simple and light, and the modular concept relies on it, but when they started they did not appreciate that it takes four litres of space from the middle of the bike; they now understand why the wrap around frame exists. Are they likely to change their frame? A grin; "possibly."
John Bloors vision is working. The 10 acre site was outgrown in five years; and there's a new factory under construction on 42 and a half acres.
From day one Bloor's vision encompassed 15,000 bikes a year; this year 14,500 will be built, with 49,000 Triumphs off the line since day one. In March '96 a finished bike left the line every six minutes and forty seconds - not bad starting from eight bikes a week in March '91.
It is often possible for ordinary punters to visit the factory. If you're heading to Blighty and would like to tour the factory, fax Hinckley, England on 00 44 1455 251 367 with the dates you expect to be there, and you'll be faxed back with some suggested times for a tour.
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