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Creating the 'American Design' for Motorcycle Aficionados

Nowadays, behind even the most meticulously hand-crafted machine, is some high-tech design software.

"There's a true American design. We've just gotten away from it," says Brian Case, president and CEO of Foraxis Design Solutions, LLC, (Pittsburgh; www.foraxis.com), a three-year-old industrial design firm, speaking about working with Confederate Motor Co. (New Orleans; www.confederate.com). They're working to capture "true American design" for the ultimate American machine—an American motorcycle. But not just any American motorcycle. It's Confederate's latest bike: the Wraith. Expected to sell for under $50,000, the Wraith weighs in at under 400 lb. and is powered by a 91-in.3 engine that delivers 120 hp to the rear wheel. The prototype Wraith is brutally fast and handles beautifully. Confederate is targeting the Wraith, the first of which is scheduled for delivery October 31, 2005, for street riding. However, between the prototype and the finished street model, some work needed to be done.

 

The ideal motorcycle

Founded in 1991, Confederate is a small manufacturer of luxury, handcrafted motorcycles. "Handcrafted" means meticulously machined, fabricated, and assembled—in batches of five or less at the company's New Orleans location. "Handcrafted connotes that the person who builds your motorcycle is a happy person. The motorcycle is a part of that person," says Matt Chambers, Confederate's chairman. As a result, these machines "have a life force." The Wraith has neither excess ornamentation nor flashy paint schemes. It is not tricked out with stylish pictures of a dragon eating a butterfly or some other skinhead-prison-looking graphic representing thug life. The Wraith, says Chambers, is essentially a "stripped down example of acute minimalism." The bike's beauty comes from its stark, minimalist form.

JT Nesbitt, Confederate's chief designer, sees his work here on earth as, "if nothing else, to make a bridge between conceptual modernism—fine art—and vehicle design." Nesbitt is steeped in the world of fine arts; his degree is in sculpture. "I think it is a good world because it's probably more enduring."

Talking with Nesbitt soon leads to a discussion about the struggle between art and industrial design. He says that when talking of what they do, "It's real easy to get the industrial design people to say that's a ‘sculptural thing.' It's quite another thing to get sculptors to say ‘that motorcycle is a sculptural thing.' It doesn't go both ways." Nesbitt's design philosophy, even at the concept stage, is causing quite a stir in the motorcycle world. In December 2004, the Motorcycle Design Association in France awarded the Wraith second place in the Concept Bike Category. However, Nesbitt felt it needed more refinement. For instance, he wanted to move the weight of the Wraith forward, while maintaining its fluid design and without significantly increasing the cost of production. Nesbitt took the concept bike to an industrial design conference in Pittsburgh last May. There, by chance, he met Case. They talked. Soon after, they agreed to have Foraxis help Confederate refine the Wraith and see it through to production.

The serendipity didn't stop there because Case immediately had a problem: Foraxis didn't own a CAD package. Neither did Confederate. All of Confederate's design work was done by a third-party design/engineering firm on Autodesk AutoCAD v14. The industrial design conference wound up being a good place to search for a CAD system. Case discovered thinkiD from think3, Inc. (Cincinnati, OH; www.think3.com). The price was right—about $4,500. Even better, think3 offered free and personalized training, which eventually proved "awesome," says Case. Foraxis was able to master thinkiD in about two weeks and, continues Case, it enabled him to do this project.

 

The CAD software

The think3 9.0 product suite consists of three products: thinkdesign, thinkteam, and thinkiD. thinkdesign is a parametric solid modeler that lets designers work with data from virtually any design source and maintain data currency and integrity between design systems through bidirectional data translators. thinkteam is a product data management (PDM) system fully integrated with the other two products, yielding 2D/3D/PDM functionality in a single design environment. It's that last product, thinkiD, that Foraxis glommed onto for creating complex, interesting shape-based designs—shapes so complicated or so important that they themselves "make" the product. Such as a motorcycle. 

think3 is one of the first hybrid modeling kernels that lets designers work in 2D and 3D, and work on wire frame, surface, and solids models—everything—in the creation of complex shapes. Foraxis can instantly view 3D models while designing and redesigning the 2D CAD files or the 3D solid models.

Case likes that thinkiD lets him and his team perform multiple operations at the same time. For example, Case can just drag-and-drop designs into a part library. Then, to reuse that part, he only has to drag that design onto the thinkiD workspace. The software knows what plane the user is working on and automatically snaps the dragged-in design to the right point.

Another capability that helped Case in refining the Wraith design is think3's Global Shape Modeling (GSM) tool. This is a tool for morphing and modifying designs in real time; it can be applied to any shape, native to the system or imported. GSM makes the process of changing designs very, very simple and intuitive for the people making those design changes. In thinkiD, GSM goes a bit further. Zone Modeling lets designers apply GSM construction (i.e., localized "freeform" modifications) to a specific area anywhere on a part and define it in the history tree as a historical feature. With this history-supported associativity, designers can modify solid models without the need to rebuild those designs.

thinkiD capabilities such as these helped Confederate and Foraxis halve the time it took to take the Wraith from concept to completion, claims Case. Ironically, Nesbitt doesn't use the software. "I'm a paper-and-pencil guy. I've got a stack of scale drawings and a pile of conceptual drawings." But he's quite aware of the software's benefits. "Software is like the proverbial Colt 45 Peacemaker. It's an equalizer." Chambers agrees. "Now an itty bitty company like us can do things with the rapidity of a giant like Harley. Our tools are just as good."

For Case, the "coolest" aspect of this project has been that 95% of the bike design exists in one "space." "It's nice to be able to open up the main full-bike model and tinker around with it." By the way, Case built the workstation used for this project: a gigabyte of RAM, a 2.4-MHz processor, and plenty of hard-drive space for "gigs and gigs and gigs of files."

 

Hand crafted in the age of technology

Confederate and Foraxis solved the problem of moving the weight of the bike forward and maintaining the bike's design by creating a fuselage, a large flat piece of sheet metal folded around the underside of the bike and bolted to the backbone. The fuselage eliminates the need for costly welded steel and the associated and redundant fasteners. Using thinkiD, Foraxis was able to quickly see how all the structural members fit together, and which parts could be eliminated.

The backbone itself went through a dramatic design change. This is the piece that connects the steering neck of the bike to the motor and the frame, and then connects to the seat, the rear shock mounts, and the swing arm mounts. The backbone went from an unwieldy four-inch-wide aluminum tube to a seamless, one-piece, hollow carbon-fiber tube weighing 14 lb. "The backbone shape on the Wraith is one of the most complicated pieces I've ever done," says Case. With thinkiD, creation became an exercise in surface modeling. "Just create the shape and then edit," says Case. The alternative would have been to settle for a simpler shape based on primitives (i.e., pre-made solid objects) that had to be added or subtracted to create the desired design.

The Wraith bolts together using an Allen wrench. Assembly involves no frame jig. There is no welding. With no welding, there's no distortion. Mounting points are fully machined from hard-stock billet aluminum. These parts take a lot more time to produce, but they last forever. They create "an heirloom quality part," says Chambers.

Nesbitt observes: "We're using modern [methods] to make the motorcycle the most precise motorcycle that has ever been made. I think things can be hand crafted as long as love, care, and attention are spent with the assembly of the machine. I believe a machine can be imbued with a soul."

Concludes Chambers, "Little by little, we can make a difference. That's what we're trying to do with this motorcycle, which is a pretty good venue to reach people. People might not think they want minimalism, but our bikes are sexy. They're hot. They're not like other [bikes]. They are artifacts. These things are going to go on and on and on. You'll never see one junked like you see Japanese motorcycles junked."