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Buell Motorcycle Engineering, Innovation and Dedication

In an industry marked by foreign domination, Erik Buell not only established America’s only sport bike maker, he changed the rules of design, engineering and procurement in ways the auto industry would do wellto emulate.

East Troy, WI—population 3,564, located 45 miles southwest of Milwaukee—is the home of Buell Motorcycle Company. Three gray buildings amid Wisconsin cornfields house the operations of this $93.1-million manufacturing company. It is physically and philosophically far removed from some paint-by-number tech park despite the fact that the sports bikes produced there are among the most technically innovative products on the planet. Erik Buell, founder, chairman, and chief technical officer of the company that bears his name, sits in an office decorated with logoed shirts and jackets and the first bike that bears his name, a 1983 RW 750. Unlike most executive offices, there is a sliding window that allows him to communicate directly with his long-time secretary. Throughout the day the PA blares with pages for telephone calls—just as they’re heard throughout the rest of the facility. Buell’s story is one about hometown values, teamwork and determination.

 

THE EARLY DAYS

It’s 1979. Erik Buell, fresh out of college and having spent a few years racing Yahamas and Ducatis on the Formula One and Superbike circuit, applies for an engineering job at Harley-Davidson, which was then part of the AMF conglomerate. They tried to give him the brush-off, telling the Pennsylvania-born and educated (University of Pittsburgh) Buell that Harley only hired folks from Wisconsin. But he wouldn’t go away. “I had to go work for Harley,” recounts Buell, “because I knew I didn’t want to do anything but engineer motorcycles.” He also knew he’d never rise as far at a bike maker headquartered overseas. Buell was eventually hired as a junior test engineer just as things began to fall apart as AMF pushed Harley executives to increase output without any concern for quality. Though Buell managed to get promoted each year–he worked on several new chassis and engines, including the FL line, FX RT and Sportster, and the Evo engine–AMF issued pink slips to 40% of the staff to stave off bankruptcy. Though they offered him the top Sportster job, Buell quit to develop a new breed of sport bike around a Barton engine and an English chassis. But then the American Motorcyclist Association changed the rules, requiring racing motorcycles to be based off production 750cc street bikes. His dream was put on hold.

In 1985, Buell’s RR1000 concept bike–the first with a Buell-designed chassis–broke cover, and caught the eye of motorcycle fairing manufacturer Vetter Industries which was looking for a “bike of the future” it could display at a trade show. With the funds Vetter provided, Buell acquired one of the few remaining Harley XR1000 engines, and spent the four months turning the chassis concept into a fully functional motorcycle. “Vetter wanted something that would just roll into the show, but I said, ‘Screw it, this is my chance.’” Just before the scheduled introduction, Buell called a journalist friend and had him ride the bike, which led to an article that got people talking. 

 

HITTING THE HIGH SEAS

Talk, however, is cheap as Buell found out. He spent nearly two years trying to sell the new bike on his own, and netted three sales in the process. But then things began to change. Invited by a Harley dealer friend to join him on a cruise for the top Harley retailers in the country, Buell took advantage of the situation by passing out brochures on his bike, hoping some of them would be interested in selling it alongside their Harleys. Unfortunately, Vaughn Beals, then chairman of Harley-Davidson, wasn’t amused at what Buell was doing. He confronted Buell with a curt: “What the hell is this about?” Buell took the opportunity to lobby Beals for Harley’s 50 remaining XR1000 engines, explaining that this would be just enough to homologate a race bike, something the Harley dealers wanted in order to enhance the company’s image. This discussion moved from below deck to the ship’s main deck, where Beals offered to sell the remaining engines to Buell directly–and on friendly financial terms. This paved the way for Buell to build 450 RS1200 and RR1200 bikes over several years, but it was not enough to satisfy his desire to become more than a boutique bike maker with 10 employees. While looking for venture capital to expand the business, Harley called. “They bought 49% and left me with 51% for five years,” Buell says, “but the most interesting part was that they left me in control because they said, ‘We’ll probably screw it up’.” Harley provided the cash needed to design a new generation of motorcycles, including the S2 Thunderbolt, which was penned under the direction of Mike Samarjza, who has led Buell design since 1991.

 

TECHNOLOGY TRILOGY

“The first bikes we did together weren’t designed to be built in the quantity necessary to support the Harley distribution system, and our supply base wasn’t ready for it. We were the worst quality of anything in the Harley group,” Buell says. Because of the high demand for the bikes but their low quality, Buell convinced Harley to invest the necessary capital to design a bike that would eradicate quality concerns and set the tone for the future. The result was the 2000 Blast, an entry-level cycle powered by a single cylinder 492cc engine that amazed people at Harley because of its high quality scores. But with success came additional demands: The Blast’s success forced Buell’s team back to the drawing board to develop a new series of larger bikes utilizing the same principles, and dubbed “The Trilogy of Tech.”

The first part of the trilogy is mass centralization, which requires engineers and designers to place everything, including the muffler system, in the center of the bike. Part two of the trilogy dictates that each bike offer the lowest unsprung weight possible. Finally, the third part of the equation demands that each frame be unusually rigid—especially in terms of torsional rigidity–in order to keep the wheels firmly planted. “If you could put the whole motorcycle in the pit of your stomach, that would be ideal,” says Buell. “Since that’s not possible, the things out on the ends have to be as light as possible, and anything that is heavy has to go in the middle. Plus, I also want my team to make one part do two jobs, three jobs, or four jobs, not just one.” This requires a lot of out-of-the-box thinking in an industry that claims to be innovative, but more often than not follows convention. Because the Buell team didn’t follow convention, one result is several patents for breakthroughs including fuel carried inside the frame, inside/out brake rotors, and an underslung exhaust system. (See “Engineering: The Buell Advantage.”)

“We wanted to show off the technical aspects of the motorcycle, but–even though Harley bought us–they never threw a pile of cash at us and told us to be Honda,” says designer Samarjza. “We had more limitations than many people think, and that was good because we learned to do design on a shoestring with great results.” Samarjza also wanted to incorporate a few key details on every new Buell, most notably the upswept tail section that provides a lighter look. “We’d rather have a few lines that are instantly recognizable as opposed to a bike where the pieces are nice, but together they are a mess,” he explains.

The new motorcycles also brought sourcing challenges, requiring Buell and his team to look beyond tradition and the U.S. borders. Though the team invested significant capital to devise a frame with Alcoa, too many obstacles arose so frames were sourced to Italian fabricator Verlicchi–which also provides frames to Ducati, BMW and Aprilia. “These guys know how to do aluminum frames,” Buell says. The unique brake system was sourced to a Nissan subsidiary due to its technical complexity, while construction of the injection-molded airbox–located in the space used by a traditional motorcycle gas tank–was given to Bemis Manufacturing Co. in Sheboygan Falls, WI. It devised a way to use a single injection mold to construct the box using Lexan polycarbonate: “It’s my favorite design feature because we were able to cut in knee pockets for rider comfort and still form it in one easy tool. That is amazing,” says Samarzja.

 

SUPPLIER RELATIONSHIPS AND ELVIS

The company’s relationship with its supply base is just as unique as its engineering, as Buell says cost is not the determining factor when it comes to sourcing decisions. “I don’t give a crap about cost, although I will tell you we are winning the cost battle,” says Buell with typical candor. “Cost is more than just the bottom line of the parts you bring to the door, it’s also about how many parts you are rejecting and how much time you are spending beating up the supplier. What the hell is the cost of that?” He laments the auto industry’s track record of shifting its financial burdens onto suppliers by demanding price cuts, sometimes retroactively. “That’s just insane, lazy bullshit,” he says, adding automakers should coddle their suppliers and work jointly to develop high-quality, cost-effective solutions that benefit both business partners. That’s the charge he gives his 180 team members, including the 50 dedicated to new product development and engineering. However, everyone who interacts with the bikes–be it in manufacturing, engineering, design or quality–has direct input into the development process.

“Everyone gets a say in the initial design, and they have to buy off on it,” says Buell. Accomplishing this takes a specially developed computerized system that allows each member to sign-off on the changes. “This gives everyone in the process in-depth knowledge of the products and we find that works to our advantage,” he says. Knowledge also brings accountability, and at Buell each component has a purchasing, design, and quality engineer responsible for it from concept to obsolescence. If a customer or dealer notifies the company about a potential issue via email or the company’s website, the message is sent directly to the team that worked on the component, and they are required to address the issue as quickly as possible.

This has led to “Project Elvis,” a massive information systems initiative designed to help the company respond to product issues in a more uniform and time-effective manner that Buell heads up. “We want to develop one place where data is never repeated, but is accessible to everyone who needs it. People love to write instant messages and emails, but I don’t want them doing that. I want them to put all the information in a web-based database so that the little comments made about a particular part or issue aren’t lost and so the next guy who comes along and notices the same issue will have immediate access to it,” Buell says. The goal is to use feedback from customers and dealers to boost quality, customer satisfaction, and improve motorcycle development while making sure the family-feel of the company remains intact as it grows. “You need to feed this primordial soup with information, and I want to know everything about the customer, what they like and don’t like and have that feedback directly into the system. I want to make sure we do that without spending our lives in meetings, and focus on the pooling of minds and not ‘commiteeizing’ the organization,” he says.

 

TALES OF BRAVE ULYSSES

This feedback was used to develop the newest member of the Buell motorcycle family, the Ulysses XB12X, the first touring supermotard (that is, designed to provide enough comfort for on-road performance, with the durability and capability for minor off-road pursuits) developed by the company. Powered by the signature 1203cc Thunderstorm V-Twin–revised in 2002 to provide better performance thanks to unique valves, heads, crankshaft, etc.–the Ulysses took more than two years to develop, and posed several challenges for the designers and engineers. “A lot of people complained our bikes were too small, and that they wanted something that rode a little higher, yet was fun and edgy,” Buell says. Design chief Samarzja and his team worked to craft a machine that was cross between a motocrosser and sportfighter, with unique functionality traits built in.

Says Samarzja: “We kept the core Buell attributes in place while raising the suspension and stretching the bike two inches to 54 inches to give more room for passengers and luggage. Then we put a fender high on the forks and added another down below so air could reach the motor while still protecting the rider from debris.” Also, the frame stampings were enlarged to increase fuel capacity without abandoning a key element of the Technology Trilogy. Buell challenged the team to maintain the near vertical fork ratio found on the brand’s performance bikes. “We had to kick the head angle out, but I wanted to keep the forks as vertical as possible to provide a more compliant ride without degrading handling,” Buell says, pointing to the Ulysses 22° fork rake. The team met all the required criteria, but had to be creative in a few respects. First, it had to grapple with a major challenge: an underslung exhaust on a bike expected to ford water. “If the muffler had to move, that was OK, but I wanted the team to make sure that was a last resort,” says Buell. During testing they discovered water never progressed beyond the outlet, even when the bike was stopped in water, shut off, and restarted. Water, therefore, would be extracted upon restart and not sucked up into the engine. What about gravel and debris? That was never an issue, because the exhaust system was meant to act as a jacking point or skid plate from inception.

Next, the team revised the transmission design for improved shift quality and reduced noise via the replacement of traditional moving/sliding gears with thin steel “dog rings” that slide to effect gear changes. This results in quicker shifts thanks to their lighter weight. Belt drive was the next obstacle to overcome. Erik Buell has a steadfast allegiance to belts, thanks to their clean look. “We went through multiple iterations with Goodyear and they created a new cord construction and protective coating that acts as a guard layer along the tooth face. They pushed themselves and got us there,” he says with pride.

With the technical fundamentals buttoned down, it was time to get creative and the design group developed a unique passenger and luggage solution called “Triple Tail.” It’s a reconfigurable backrest/luggage rack that can be set in the normal, or mass centralized, position to provide added back support for the rider along with a flat surface with tie-down hooks for luggage. Or it can be moved into a vertical position to become a passenger backrest with grab handles. Or it can be moved to provide a luggage rack with grab rails for the passenger. “This was something we really wanted on the bike and customers were asking for it,” Samarjza says. The result is a bike with good on-road prowess, and just enough capability to handle the rough and tumble back roads.

The Ulysses is manufactured on the same line as the Firebolt and Lightning at the 40,000-ft.2 manufacturing plant adjacent to the headquarters building. Workers produce approximately 50 bikes in a single shift each day on a line with 17 stations in a J-configuration. Unlike vehicle assembly plants, where a number of subassemblies are delivered line side for direct installation, Buell does many of its own subassembly operations adjacent to the line. The wheels, tires, and brake system, for instance, are joined line side, and more than 125 suppliers provide parts to the manufacturing operation. Buell says he would rather improve throughput or add another shift at the existing facility to meet growing demand, as opposed to adding another plant, because he does not want to lose control of product quality, an issue he contends could develop if resources had to be divided between two plants. “I want to keep manufacturing integrated with our engineering and operating facilities,” Buell says.

 

THREE WHEELS, DIESELS, AND MESSING UP

Now that the Ulysses has hit the road, the future will be more of the same, as Buell rules out the possibility of adding cruisers or non-sporting bikes to the line: “I want to continue to do athletic personal transportation. I want to put more people on motorcycles because I truly believe they are a very valid means of transportation. They are fun, don’t use a lot of fuel, don’t take up a lot of space on the roads, and don’t take a lot of resources to make, which seems very smart to me in this day and age,” he says. Optimistic that Americans will catch on, he’s intrigued by the auto industry’s interest in tapping into the motorcycle genre through concepts like the Dodge Tomahawk and Volkswagen GX-3, although he’s skeptical of their potential success: “I am not into gimmick engineering at all. How do they compare to a Porsche Boxster or Cayman? What’s the benefit?” This doesn’t mean, however, that Buell doesn’t respect the people who run the industry, and design and build automobiles.

Buell gives props to Carlos Ghosn for revamping Nissan’s brand’s image and product range at lightning speed, and calls him a leader worth following. “This guy might have actually harnessed the French weirdness [of Nissan equity partner Renault] and made it practical. It is rare that I look at products from companies and say, ‘Wow, that is frickin’ cool,’ but when they came out with the Quest minivan I said, ‘They are really on their way…and breaking the rules along the way.’” He’s also keeping a close eye on the Audi R10 race car, and rooting for diesel engines to progress into the mainstream in the U.S. How he manages to keep on top of what’s happening in the rest of the world while running a multi-million dollar motorcycle company, taking the time to enjoy life with his wife and six children, dabbling in guitar making–Buell machined the guitar used by Mike Stone in the rock band Queensryche out of a billet of mahogany–and playing in a band called The Thunderbolts–which is putting out its first all-original CD compilation this fall–is mind-boggling. Driven by “not wanting to screw up,” Buell thanks those around him for his success: “I have a lot of great people around me, and I don’t want to let them down. After all, I am just a mechanic.”

 

Engineering The Buell Advantage

“If you have some crazy idea, I am listening,” Erik Buell says when asked about the philosophy behind the engineering breakthroughs found on his motorcycles. That unconventional attitude has netted several patents—although he says he doesn’t know the exact count. Three stand out:


1) FUEL IN FRAME (U.S patent 6,484,837): Unlike traditional motorcycles, which have a fuel tank sitting atop the frame and engine, Buell and his team spent more than a decade devising a way to distribute the weight of the fuel (as much as an additional 50-60 lb.) throughout a production feasible aluminum frame. The idea was to have at least one hollow beam that could be adapted to hold the fuel, along with a separating wall between the beam and the steering head. “The idea really came about while I was racing at Daytona and when I came in for refueling and left the pits the bike transformed from this light and agile machine to a big fat whale and it took me two laps to get used to the additional weight and that got me thinking what if there wasn’t a gas tank and the weight of the fuel could be better distributed throughout the frame,” Buell says. The change created another advantage for cooling the Harley V-Twin motor by allowing the space for the gas tank to be used for the plastic injection molded airbox, providing an enormous amount of cooled air directly onto the engine.

2) ZERO TORSIONAL LOAD INSIDE-OUT ROTOR FRONT BRAKE SYSTEM (U.S. patent 6,561,298): Motorcycle manufacturers have been touting for years the benefits of front dual disc brake systems, but Buell thought otherwise, pointing to the redundancy and weight disadvantages of the traditional setup: “I never understood why we had to put two discs on one stinking wheel and it drove me nuts. I don’t want two calipers and those bolts that hold the calipers and the additional brake hoses—which 50% of the weight of the brake hoses is unsprung—filled with brake fluid,” he says. His idea was to devise a single rotor mounted along the outer edge of the rim, which required only one caliper clamping the radial inner edge of the rotor. The heat devised by a single rotor system could have nixed the idea, but Buell and his team discovered the placement of the rotor on the outer edge of the wheel provided better cooling performance and the use of a single rotor reduced overall weight of the brake system by 7 lb. when compared to the traditional dual disc setup. Additional benefits were realized in performance and manufacturing: “It’s really easy to assemble because there are no spacers or other unnecessary pieces to screw around with and the less parts we have to bring in the door, the less chance we are going to screw it up. If you have a bike made out of 800 parts rather than one made out of 500, the one with 500 wins every time,” Buell says.

3) UNDERSLUNG EXHAUST (U.S. patent 6,267,193): Exhaust systems give off heat, which begs the question: Why place hot exhaust pipes near the legs of riders where they can possibly injure themselves and why have the pipes off on the side of the bike where they impede on aerodynamics and cause weight distribution issues? Those are the questions Buell asked when devising an exhaust system that rests under the center of the bike, providing improved mass central-ization and better comfort for the rider. The design of the underslung exhaust is also beneficial thanks to its triangular shape, which flows into the lean angle of the bike, while the use of high-grade steel enables the muffler to act as a jack point. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Buell should be proud as other bike makers are adopting the underslung exhaust concept: “It’s great to see that others are getting wise about this,” he says.