Science: A Triumph of ingenuity: Advanced production techniques have allowed the British flagbearer to defy world trends and put its motorcycles back on the road, says Patrick Matthews

In the week that the British- owned volume car industry disappeared into history, a name came roaring back from the past. Triumph Motorcycles was in the news for its plans for a second factory in Leicestershire, where it hopes to increase production five-fold over the next three years. The workforce is likely to grow from about 250 to almost 600.

Meanwhile, in the showrooms, the big motorbikes that Triumph created for the company's relaunch in 1991 are in demand. 'Most bikes are discounted below the catalogue price,' said one salesman. 'But not Triumphs. The company doesn't do it - they sell so fast anyway.'

Even so, the list prices are competitive, from about pounds 6,000 to more than pounds 9,000. The mystery, to those unaware of the revolution in modern production technology, is how machines turned out in relatively tiny runs of only a few thousand can sell as cheaply as those made by giants such as Honda, Yamaha or Suzuki and even undercut BMW.

More surprising still, the total production of 8,000 in 1993 was divided between no fewer than 10 different models. At Bikerama in Hornsey, north London, they find that this variety is essential to the success story. The choice includes a sports machine, a long-distance touring model swathed in a streamlined fairing and an off-road bike with an upright riding position.

Common sense suggests that to be competitively priced you have to go in for mass production as understood by Henry Ford, leaving niche markets to those able to pay the difference. The reason Triumph has been able to square the circle is that it was equipped from scratch in the era of computerised manufacturing.

The company is an industrial phoenix that shares little but the name with the undertaking run by the Meriden co-operative of the Seventies - itself the last-gasp incarnation of a manufacturer which had made 250,000 machines a year as recently as the Sixties. John Bloor, a publicity-shy Midlands property developer, bought the name in 1983 and put in pounds 70m of his own money, restarting on a new site with a new range of designs.

In any previous period, someone contemplating reviving the British motorcycle industry would start with a strategic choice: either find the funds to create a tailor-made automatic production line for mass sales, or offer hand-crafted motorbikes, putting resources instead into paying relatively high numbers of skilled operators.

Traditionally, short-batch production has been slow and expensive. A part would make a laborious journey around the factory as it underwent the necessary cutting, grinding and drilling operations. The received wisdom was that machines should never stand idle. Consequently, parts could sit around for a week awaiting their turn on a lathe or a mill. Progress-chasers and expeditors ran from end to end of the production process trying to speed things up. The main bottleneck was caused by resetting time, adapting non-specialised machines for different orders; this could take eight hours or more.

Only a minority of Mr Bloor's team came from within the motorcycle industry. Alan Hurd, the manufacturing engineer, had previously been with Unipart. These outsiders brought with them a knowledge of the new systems which in the Eighties were transforming all manufacturing processes.

The Japanese had largely abandoned Henry Ford's production line in favour of an approach devised in the Soviet Union in the Thirties. This is called 'group technology' or 'cell manufacture': groups of components are made from start to finish in a 'cell' of machine tools, rather than passing from department to department.

Mr Hurd adopted this approach and also chose a Japanese manufacturer of machine tools: Enshu, which also supplies Yamaha motorcycles. These were off-the-peg machining centres of a type that can as easily be programmed to turn out food mixers as motorbike engines. They are descendants of the numerically controlled machine tools invented in 1952 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, preset originally with computer-generated punched tape to follow a pattern of cutting and drilling without using expensive jigs. Numerical control was first devised to ensure consistency, but its most revolutionary implication was to speed up resetting.

'We can change one of these machines over in as little as three minutes, where it would take hours for an operator on an old-fashioned machine tool,' Mr Hurd says. His teams can switch the whole production line to manufacture a different- sized engine in half an hour.

The big, liquid-cooled, three-

cylinder engines are Triumph's unique selling point, distinctive because of their unmistakable growl. Seven of the 10 different models share the same 900cc version. Minor production changes reduce the engine size for a 750cc engine, and there are two four-cylinder models.

'There are really three elements in the bikes,' Mr Hurd says. 'There's the engine, the heart if you like, the chassis, which is the bones, and the bodywork, the skin. Our range is based on a modular approach, which means a number of common components can be put together in different combinations. The motorcycle business is a fashion business. Our approach meant that when we saw one segment of the market growing we were able to bring in a completely different style of bike, the Tiger, at short notice, using the same engine in a slightly modified form.'

Much of British engineering, notoriously, was liquidated in the meltdown of the early Eighties - including most of what was left of the motorcycle industry. But even after the factories were bulldozed the dealers and enthusiasts remained. Triumph takes pains to read the signals from this sophisticated and tradition-conscious market; they run factory visits and have made small changes in the bikes in response to the feedback.

But it would be rash to believe that a combination of engineering tradition and new technology can usher in a new age of British manufacturing. Triumph is different from Rover chiefly in having an investor prepared to pass up short- term returns. 'We have to take a long-term view in this business,' Mr Hurd says. 'We couldn't have done it through the banks - they wouldn't have stuck with it.'

(Photographs omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
Life and Style
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Primary teaching roles in Ipswich

£21552 - £31588 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education re...

Science teachers needed in Norwich

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Science teachers requ...

Semi Senior Accountant - Music

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful, Central London bas...

English teachers required in Lowestoft

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Qualified English tea...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits