Mark Venables takes a look at the manufacturing methods in use at motorcycle maker KTM – a company where automation is kept to a minimum
In 1934 Hans Trunkenpolz opened a motorcycle repair shop in Mattighofen, Austria, selling DKW bikes. By 1951 believed he could do better himself and two years later – with the KTM R100 – KTM (Kronreif, Trunkenpolz, Mattighofen) had arrived
It may have emerged from humble beginnings, but today the motorcycle brand oozes a sporty chic. The company manufactures most of its 80,000-plus yearly production at the Mattighofen facility which opened in 1999, although a few of the price-sensitive models are manufactured in India at major shareholder Bajaj Auto.
It has not been all plain sailing for the Austrian bike maker. Two decades ago the company filed for bankruptcy, ravaged by debts and floundering from a lack of direction. It appeared to be the end of the road – then a saviour appeared in the guise of CEO Stefan Pierer, supported by an Indian automotive group, and under his direction the company has made its way back from the brink.
At the heart of the renaissance has been its focus on a core product of sports motorcycles – as opposed to bicycles and the company’s attempts to compete in the mass-market road motorcycle sector or become a component supplier. “KTM was reorganised from 1992 onwards, and yes, a major consequence was to split the bicycle and the motorcycle business,” says Thomas Kuttruf, communications manager. “Getting back onto the core values was the right decision.”
Kuttruf says that, since 1992, Pierer has “given massive energy and always clear vision to the company”, adding that there is “a very strong management team” supporting him. “The KTM management stands for a combination of business knowledge and motorcycle passion,” states Kuttruf. The aim for KTM now is to become the world’s largest manufacturer of sports motorcycles. The company intends to sell 200,000 units annually by 2017, which would be a far cry from the dark days of 1992.
Despite the high numbers in KTM’s sights, quality is valued over quantity at Mattighofen. “Any manufacturing philosophy is always a compromise, but at the end our target is more quality- than quantity-oriented,” Kuttruf adds. “KTM stands for state-of-the-art sports motorcycles. To fulfil these expectations we invest a lot of energy, which means a lot of in-house production and the involvement of a highly skilled workforce.”
It is not possible for a company of KTM’s size to keep all manufacturing in-house, so it works to maintain full control over all the critical performance parts without the distraction of manufacturing readily available commodity items. “We want to have the know-how and overview about all essential motorcycle parts, and if there is no partner available who can deliver our sometimes very specific parts, we organise this in-house,” Kuttruf adds. “No compromise on the product side – that’s the KTM mindset.”
One example of the quest for quality is the wheels. “We tried a couple of years ago to find the ideal supplier to make spoke wheels, but we struggled with different issues, most of them related to quality,” Kuttruf explains. “As a consequence, it was decided to build up the know-how in-house.” He says the spoke is “a kind of business card for the whole vehicle”, adding that “proper wheels are a must for a motorcycle”. KTM now produces its wheels in the Austrian factory.
Questioned as to whether a production target to more than double output within four years will necessitate a change in manufacturing methodology, Kuttruf is ambivalent.“Yes and no. The factory is capable of delivering up to 120,000 units per year, but as we expect a huge growth, especially in small capacity street models up to 390cc, which are already assembled at the India facility of our partner Bajaj, we are well prepared to follow the sales target.”
Much like high volume automotive manufacturing, the process steps at KTM are kept running smoothly by moving lengthy procedures away from the main line. “Certain assembly operations are very complex and therefore time consuming,” Kuttruf says. “To compensate for this, in the marrying process of engine and chassis at least two people are involved. Other components like fuel tanks or swing arms are prepared outside the line as there is a lot of variation in the specifications.”
The chassis moves through a series of stations on manually propelled sleds. KTM has shunned further automation of the line because the company’s belief is that it would have a negative effect on production. “We always have an eye on the latest production techniques, but I don’t believe we will ever see a more automated manufacturing process at this plant,” says Kuttruf.
He describes it as ‘half automation’. “We call it this because in a sophisticated production you need the assistance of technical equipment to optimise the workflow. On the other hand, all major steps in building up a vehicle need to be handled by a skilled worker and not by a machine,” he states.
Kuttruf believes there is a ‘borderline’ at which “even the latest technology cannot replace the skills of a technician”. “Ideally, the technician uses the support of the line, but when it comes to crucial points – like adjusting the torque in triple clamp bearing – the technician needs to feel the operation,” he says.
Setting up a wheel is a complex and very manual process. First of all, the spokes are connected to the hub one by one, all by hand. Then the outer rim of the wheel is fitted, also manually, followed by a first torque adjustment. Before the other components – bearings, brake disc and tyre – are mounted, a robot adjusts the torque a second time, eliminating the imbalanced masses. When all components are mounted, the unit is checked again for imbalances.
“We use a machine for completing the wheel process – it readjusts the spokes before the tyre is mounted,” Kuttruf says. “But the crucial point, connecting the hub with the outer rim and pre-adjusting the spokes, is a heavily manual operation which demands years of experience – know-how which no machine can replace if you want to create the best wheel component.”
While automation is kept to a minimum, the weight of some components means that hoists are used to aid assembly. As at automotive plants, the lines are surrounded by racks and totes containing sequenced and just-in-time (JIT) assembly kits.
The KTM line runs with a nominal takt which is more of a guideline to maintain focus. “You need a certain time per unit – and this takt should be executed in a good rhythm. Again, we don’t have to create a product in line with timing down to a second; we have a target to complete about 350 high-end sports motorcycles a day,” explains Kuttruf. Depending on the model, takt is between three minutes for the mini cycle and up to ten minutes for the twin cylinder.
The lead times are one of the plant’s biggest challenges. At present it will be six months from point of order to delivery because of the high number of variants, but this is often shortened by good market knowledge and the ability to retrofit to order at dealer level.
“We are always trying to optimise the planning process, but with more and more models coming up, at the end the challenges get bigger,” Kuttruf says. “The production plan is updated regularly and adjusted in meetings between production, purchasing and sales. Parameters can change from all these departments and the challenge is to adapt the overall plan to the situation, for instance a supplier issue or market request.”
Kuttruf says KTM aims to set the production plan so that the maximum number of bikes in the same specification are built in a row. “Also, different technical homologation and colour specifications have to be considered. We can change the model in less than one hour by adapting the parts supply and in practice that means that we can even assemble different models on the same line.”
Staff are trained in multiple line positions, adding flexibility to the process. “With this system we can build up more responsibility and motivation between the assembly line team,” says Kuttruf. “Most of them love motorcycles and to be involved in the entire range creates more satisfaction – and we avoid more mistakes, as many people can offer the same skills.”
This care, pride and attention to detail sets KTM apart from high volume manufacturers and with much of the planned growth in smaller capacity road bikes being swallowed up by the plant in India, quality will still guide the process in northern Austria.