Risen from the ashes
by Neale Batly
It was a typical British day as we made our way to Jacknell Road in Hinckley, Leicestershire, for an official tour of the “new” Triumph Motorcycle factory. Swollen gray clouds hung low in the sky and light squalls of rain lashed against the windows of the rental car. I was traveling with Triumph’s North American CEO, Mike Vaughan, Joe Delmont from Power sports Business magazine, his wife Bobbie and motorcycle industry PR guru Beverly St. Clair. We had all flown over a couple of days earlier from the US and had been eagerly awaiting our chance to tour the Triumph facilities. Cold and damp the weather may have been, but not so the reception we received on entering the Triumph factory. Triumph’s dynamic Export Sales Manager, Ross Clifford, greeted us with a big smile and a hearty handshake, before we were led into the conference room for tea and biscuits. (Cookies in American) Sitting amongst a small collection of journalists from around the world in Triumph’s brand new conference room, it was hard to imagine that just six short months earlier the whole area had been a large pile of smoldering rubble.
I am sure most of you have probably read something in the media in the last six months about the fire that consumed the Triumph factory, so bear with me as I update those who have not. As one of the largest industrial fires in the United Kingdom, the blaze, which started on Friday, March 15th, simply devastated large sections of Triumph’s main factory. Over the next five months, Triumph lost the production of more than 20,000 motorcycles due to effects of the fire. Mercifully, no one was in the building as the fire began outside of working hours. Starting in the facility known as T1, within minutes the fire was ripping through the Hinckley factory. By dawn, the fires were out and the true extent of the tragedy slowly became clear. It was catastrophic: Barely recognizable motorcycle parts, that had once been completed bikes, lay amongst the twisted metal remains of the buildings. Huge metal roof supports were twisted and contorted by the incredible heat and in many places had completely fallen in. The losses were horrendous, and the grit and determination of the company were going to be tested as never before.
By the end of the weekend, emergency meetings had been held and a plan of action was in place. The world was not going to know how serious the situation was and the Triumph staff rolled up their sleeves in preparation for the upcoming battle. Temporary offices were erected, and the task of moving current motorcycle stock around the world to meet market demands began. Mercifully, spare parts and clothing were largely unaffected, so Triumph was able to keep their large number of worldwide dealers fully supplied. Construction crews rolled in, and the enormous task of clearing the rubble and rebuilding the factory went into action.
Now, a disaster of this magnitude could have caused some serious problems for the relatively young company, but, like the bikes they produce, Triumph people are made of tough stuff. All the production employees were sent home with full pay after the fire, but quickly returned to help with the enormous job at hand. Ross Clifford was quick to praise their actions, stating that they certainly played a large part in the amazingly quick rebirth of the factory. Which brings me to something I found very inspiring. As Ross talked about the events of the last six months he constantly used the words “us” and “we” when referring to anything factory related. He talked of the great Triumph spirit, and with one of the lowest percentage employee turnovers in the United Kingdom it was certainly not something manufactured for the assembled scribes. These guys live and breath Triumph motorcycles!
Conference room presentation over, we were taken by bus to the factory known as T2. Here the manufactured parts are produced, powder coating and chrome plating done and the engines assembled, a task, which had previously been done in T1. “Triumph prides itself on the fact that all processes connected with the manufacture of engines-with the exception of the initial casting or forging &endash; are carried out in-house.” Surgically clean, Ross gave us a detailed narrative as we learned about how the various parts of the engine are made. Everything is done in exacting detail, and many sophisticated computer checks are in place. For instance: The crankcases are machined and measured before being stamped with a bar code. The crankshafts receive the same treatment. When the two parts are selected for assembly the computer runs both these codes and is able to select the exact size shell bearings needed. All of this information is stored on the motorcycles job card, or did Ross say “Birth Certificate?” This stays with the bike all the way through the assembly process, and at any time, now or in the future, the complete history of each motorcycle’s components is readily available. The engines are assembled by hand in a different part of the 20,000 square meter building, before being transported to T1, where they are inserted into their awaiting frames. All through the assembly process, the parts are continually washed and on completion the engines are subjected to two different tests. First they receive an “Air Decay” pressure test for the oil and coolant systems before the “Cold Test” which checks the gearbox, ignition pick up, neutral switch and oil pressure by turning the motor over. All of this helps prevent possible problems with gaskets and such at a later stage, and is just a part of Triumph’s vigorous pursuit of excellence.
Back on the bus, we did a quick review in the conference room, before walking through the lobby and into the “new” T1. Here we toured the paint shop and watched Triumph craftsmen applying pin striping to all the classic tanks by hand. No second chances for these guys. Under the pressure of a dozen or so pair of eyes they didn’t flinch and the finished tanks are a work of art. With around forty hours of work in each tank, this is a very labor-intensive part of the build process. Moving on, we next watched the injection molding machines at work. New equipment was needed, as the fire damage was too extensive, although the mould tools were able to be refurbished. Daytona and Speed Triple bodywork is currently being produced, along with a few parts for the Bonneville range. This will increase as Triumph introduces new models to their line up.
Leaving this area of the factory, we headed off to see the new assembly line; the part of the original factory that had been hit the hardest. Ross told as we approached that, “Triumph does not batch build their motorcycles.” The engines are brought over from T2, nine at a time, and can be from any of the fourteen models in the Triumph line up. This keeps the workers on the assembly line in a state of higher concentration as well as making their job more interesting. Engines are slotted into frames, wiring harnesses fitted, and forks; exhaust pipes and radiators take their place on the rapidly forming motorcycle. The line drops down a little for the handlebars to be added and the semi-automated wheel and tire fitting station provides the rolling material. Cables and hoses go on next, before it is the turn of the foot pegs, instruments and sub frames which take the bike to a nearly completed stage. The next phase is for the addition of brake fluid and coolant, which is done automatically to avoid any human error.
Moving on along the line, the bodywork in attached and the fuel injection, where necessary, is added to the fuel tanks. The build card reads and downloads the correct tune for each individual machine and the completed bikes heads for the fuel cell. Here a computer adds just the correct amount of gas to perform the necessary tests each new machine is put through. This unit is state of the art, with no chance of any unwanted accidents. At the slightest smell of leaking gas or any other problem, the system shuts down and closes up, allowing a suitable time interval for who ever is operating the machine to evacuate the area. Triumph is taking no chances here. The bikes are all warmed up until the cooling fan comes on and then head to the rolling road. Here they are tested for performance and gear selection before being removed to have the remaining fuel and oil drained. This then just leaves a short trip to the packing area. Motorcycles bound for the UK and Europe are packed into reuseable metal containers with wooden crates for overseas. It really is incredible to think that, in just a short walk along the slow moving conveyor belt, we went from engines on palettes to running motorcycles.
At full production the factory can produce 170 motorcycles per day. At present, production is running at around 40% of that number and rising steadily. Ross told us that Triumph is not interested in setting a deadline to reach that number. With highly exacting standards they are more interested in maintaining quality, and fully expect to be up to full production by the end of the year. In keeping with this thought, we learned that Triumph has a no blame policy in place. At the end of the production line we saw the two bikes Triumph randomly pick out every day for a thorough quality inspection. On one of the build cards was a note to say that a certain bodywork lug was broken. This system ensures that the customer is not the one finding small problems like this, as the worker has no need to hide any mistakes that might happen from time to time. Always thinking about the end result, and how the customer is going to receive their product, Triumph motorcycles do an incredible job. I have tested a lot of Triumph motorcycles in the last few years and found them to be very tough and ultra reliable. My own Triumph lives with a large amount of neglect and has been trouble free for the last four years: Touring the famous factory at Jacknell road I can see why.
As one of the most modern motorcycle manufacturing plants in the world, the Triumph Motorcycle manufacturing facility is one incredibly impressive place to visit. Knowing that six short months ago a pile of smoldering rubble stood where new, shiny motorcycles are rolling off the state of the art production line is just amazing. Congratulations to Triumph motorcycles and the best of luck for your exciting future.