Asking the right questions: Taking a premium vehicle from prototype to volume production

So you’ve designed an electric car/truck/motorcycle/bicycle/scooter/skateboard/other madcap machine – congratulations! Completing the design in itself is a massive achievement. But now comes the really fun part – prototyping!

2020 C-Series Prototyping at Stanley Street, West Melbourne

2022 Prototype during ADR Compliance testing

Prototyping in the engineering and manufacturing world is a little like a free kick in football: you can do almost anything you want. 

Typically when evaluating how something is going to be made, we start by looking at how many of that thing we’re going to produce. Each manufacturing technique has its pros and cons, and each has a different component cost, upfront investment, and timeframe associated with it. As such, when you’re creating only a small number of items, manufacturing techniques that may be more expensive on a piece-by-piece basis but come without tooling investment (billet machining, for example) become more economical. On the other hand, when you’re going to produce hundreds or even thousands of an item, the economy of scale allows you to invest in tooling to access more cost-effective manufacturing techniques, such as casting, moulding or pressing. However, you may need to slightly adjust your design to accommodate the constraints of the selected manufacturing technique – or the capabilities of your potential supplier.

Logistics and warehousing are similarly simplified when it comes to prototyping; you’ve only got one or a few of any single item (ignoring small items which are typically only sold in bulk like bolts), so tracing how many you have ordered, when they’re expected to arrive, where they are in the manufacturing and delivery process, and where they are in your garage, factory or workshop, is significantly easier.

Fun and frustration

Building prototypes is typically equal parts fun, excitement, challenge, frustration, and pure determination. Some parts may not fit together how you’ve expected and require some ‘persuasion’; others may go together more simply. If you’ve forgotten to order something, break something, or something unexpected comes up, the build can stop and wait for the issue to be resolved. One of the outcomes of building prototypes is learning what tools or equipment you need to get a job done, what works well, what needs improvement – with prototypes, at least, you have the time and space to make these observations without a customer waiting with high expectations at the other end. If the prototype doesn’t quite live up to what you wanted it’s not the end of the world; as long as you learned as much as possible for the next iteration, it’s been worthwhile, and another round of prototyping can duly begin.

All of this is to say that, in the absence of a paying customer awaiting a product, the pressure on prototyping is entirely internal. Some companies will prototype solutions and scrap them, with no reputational loss for the company – simply a bit of time and money. However, delivering something that’s not entirely right to a customer carries huge reputational risks, and can undo all your hard work and marketing in an instant.

Preparing for volume manufacture is about dotting i's and crossing t’s at every step along the way, and trying to prepare for every eventuality by asking yourself the right questions at the right times:

Dennis assessing cast components with Supply Chain Coordinator - Allen Lin

On Suppliers

  • How are we going to select suppliers? 
  • Do we expect them to have quality accreditations? 
  • How are we going to score price against lead-time?

At Savic Motorcycles, we have developed a cohesive Production Parts Approval Process (PPAP) to shortlist suitable prospective suppliers and obtain examples of our parts made by these suppliers – giving us the chance to provide feedback and make necessary tweaks. We also test these parts, ensuring they perform exactly as we expect them to, and then, once we’re ready, we can negotiate the best deal to be as cost-effective as possible – and ensure we’re not passing on any unnecessary costs to our customers.

On Shipping

  • How are we going to ship items from suppliers to our factory? 
  • What does this cost, how long does it take, and does it include time and cost for any international items to process through customs (import duties and taxes)?
  • How does this total ‘landed cost’ compare to obtaining the item from somewhere with cheaper manufacturing or cheaper shipping?

Thankfully, we have a number of people in the team who have experience at moving parts from different suppliers at different volumes around the world. This means we can come at this with knowledge of the necessary bureaucracy to get items to our Melbourne factory. Working with third-party logistics partners, we have ensured that we can make the most efficient use of our shipping volumes, so that the landed cost of getting parts to the factory is split across as many items as possible.

Quality Engineer inspecting Rear Pullie

On Parts Quality

  • What is going to happen when parts arrive in the factory? 
  • Are we going to inspect every unit of every item? 
  • How do we track the results of these inspections?
  • What happens if the parts aren’t good enough (supply contract clauses, and waste disposal)?

Once parts arrive at our factory, they are receipted on our bespoke inventory management system, which is configured to prompt quality checks depending on the part, the supplier, and the potential impacts of a component being not up-to-scratch. Our system doesn’t allow parts to be moved into our production stock warehousing until these checks have been completed and passed. For items that don’t pass an inspection, an alert is triggered to ensure we get to the bottom of what’s caused the issue, and promptly sort it out.

First batch of cast components for Pilot Production

On Logistics and Warehousing

  • Where are we going to store particular parts? 
  • How do we know we have enough space? 
  • How do we know how many are on the shelf at any given time? 
  • Are any of the items Dangerous Goods requiring special storage requirements?
  • How are we going to move items around the warehouse?
  • Do we have enough capacity for disposing or recycling of all packaging?

As well as knowing what quality checks are needed for every part, our inventory management system knows where we store each part. It knows how many we have in stock, how many we are scheduled to use with each build, how long it should take from supplier order placement to parts delivery, and when we need to place another order. In establishing our storage plan, we’ve had to assess safety risks such as manual handling to make sure our team stays safe and injury free, and technical needs to ensure our shelving is up to the task of holding the amount of product we’re planning to store on it.

Assembly of 2023 Pilot Production C-Series

On Assembly

  • How are we going to assemble the end product (static build, subassembly build, moving assembly line)?
  • How many people will we need and what skills should they have?
  • How long will this take and how many products will we be able to build in a year in this factory?
  • How can we make the assembly process as efficient as possible?

In developing our prototypes, we tried a few different methods of building the C-Series and landed on what we think is the most efficient; now, we’ve distilled this down in our ‘build manual’. This manual is our version of Ikea instructions, telling us what pieces we need, what order to assemble them in, and what tools to use. This is loaded onto our production management program, which, integrated with our inventory management system, allows us to plan our production requirements well ahead of time.

2022 C-Series Prototype

On Product Quality 

  • How are we going to ensure assembly is done the same way every time? 
  • How do we know that assembly has been done properly and the bike is ready to be delivered to a customer?

As with receiving parts at the factory, quality checks are an important part of ensuring that every bike is built to Savic Motorcycles’ exacting standards. Planned into our build manual is a series of through-build quality checks, to ensure that critical assembly processes are independently verified, and give us certainty that every bike we build is something we can be proud of. Our finished bikes are also subject to rigorous inspections to ensure they are working exactly as they should be, and there’s nothing that won’t meet our customers’ expectations.

On Workplace Safety

  • Have we checked all the processes we’re going to complete are safe and won't injure our workers, or do we need PPE and other controls? 
  • Are there any zoning restrictions on the facility that prohibit us from performing a specific activity in the building?
  • Have we got the appropriate insurances in place?

Building and delivering motorbikes is what we want to do, but we also want to continue doing this for a long time. So it’s vital that we’re not just complying with all the rules and regulations that apply to us, but really looking after our people and making sure there’s nothing we’re expecting the team to do that could cause anyone injury or harm. This is definitely not the sexy part of developing a motorcycle company, but it’s necessary to ensure that we’ll continue to deliver for years to come.

2022 C-Series Protoype test riding

On After-Sales

  • How are we going to deliver the bike to the customer? 
  • What happens if the bike gets damaged – do we have spare parts available? 
  • What if our supplier needs to recall some parts, how do we know what bikes those parts are on?

Once our bikes have been built and checked over, it’s time for the most exciting part – handing them over to the customer. While a lot of our customers will come to our flagship dealership and factory in West Melbourne to collect their bikes, for a number of customers, this is not really practical, and delivering to these customers is just as important – albeit a little more complicated. To transport the bikes, we’ve partnered with a specialist motorcycle transport company, experienced in moving bikes all around Australia. Once in our customers’ hands, if a bike has suffered any damage we will have contingency spare parts in our Melbourne factory, and can have these shipped to our authorised maintainer network to get the bike back to perfect condition.

Setting up a vehicle manufacturer is also about planning for worst-case scenarios, so they can be managed properly if they ever do eventuate. Recall planning falls squarely into this category. Thankfully, our inventory management system comes to the rescue again, as it tracks the batch and serial numbers of every part from our suppliers, so that if a supplier notifies us of a need for recall, we’ll know exactly which bikes these parts have been installed on, and we’ll be able to manage the recall on a personal basis – rather than having to bring back the whole customer fleet!

2022 C-Series Prototype in Perth during Australia Customer Tour

On the Future

  • If we wanted to manufacture 10 times the number of vehicles in a year, what size facility would we need?
  • How should we lay out the new facility?
  • At what production volume would certain efficiency boosters be economically feasible (moving assembly lines, for example)?
  • Should we enter a new overseas market to sell our bikes?

If you’ve made it this far, you’re now building bikes, delivering to customers, and looking after them as they enjoy their pride and joy out in the wild. So naturally, you’ll be asking yourself: what comes next? Future planning now becomes more important, to help you scale your business for the next challenge, to meet the demands of more customers, or to tackle a new market or segment.

Being able not just to answer these questions, but to examine the situation and ask them in the first case is the key to scaling into a volume production capability and beyond. Having the perfect answer isn’t always the most important thing, but knowing that you need AN answer is critical.

Matthew James

Matt has degrees in Aeronautical Engineering and International Automotive Engineering, has been published and presented at the SAE World Congress, and has 15 years of experience in engineering and management with Triumph Motorcycles, Prodrive - Aston Martin Racing, and General Dynamics, among others. Matt has spent the past five years supporting organisations transitioning towards series production and is the Chief Operating Officer of Savic Motorcycles.

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