Ducati’s Bologna factory exudes the heritage of the brand, but houses the production facilities for state of the art motorcycles. The plant operates both mixed and dedicated lines for engine and finished vehicle assembly.
For someone who’s used to seeing high volume car production, the first thing that you notice is the absence of automation. Only a very small percentage of the production process requires, or even allows for automation, to be used. The exception to this is the machining operations for the crank and camshafts. Brought in from an outside supplier as forged steel blanks, the crankshafts go through a fivestage process that includes grinding, drilling, heat treatment and balancing in automated cells (one for each operation), explained machining unit manager, Pietro Palma. Kuka robots perform the component handling at each stage. The cranks for the seven ‘families’ of engines are produced in batches of 100. Quality control checks take in one in 10 components, which are performed using a Zeiss 3D measuring system.
For the Panigale engine the machining operations have to be recalibrated for the high-performance engine’s larger main bearing journals; this change over takes about three hours. The camshafts follow a similar process but without the use of robots for component handling.
The Panigale production line is one of the most recent additions at Bologna. This is the company’s flagship sports bike model and features a highly innovative cast aluminium monocoque derived from Ducati’s MotoGP racing programme, and bristles with sophisticated electronics. Due to the Panigale engine’s particular design it has a dedicated assembly line and kitting area. The prepared crankshafts are paired with matched connecting rods, which are then attached using a set procedure and an Atlas Copco, computer regulated torque driver. The pistons (delivered in the liners) are then attached using special positioning jig. In the kitting area certain parts are held in special electronically ‘locked’ units. These only allow the operator to take the component required for that specification motorcycle once they have registered its unique identity code. Crankcases are also fitted with bearings in this area before the complete engine kit (fully assembled desmodromic cylinder heads are prepared by an outside company ready for kitting) is sent to the production line. Kitting is something that’s quite common in car manufacturing but, seen in operation at Ducati, is an ideal ‘lean’ solution for assembly of compact motorcycle systems.
Ducati operates a ‘start-stop’ engine line (for the Panigale). This means with the completed kit passed to the line, the assembly operators follow the engine they are building through the various different stations. A small but necessary piece of automation involves the delicate application of sealant to the mating surfaces on one half of the crankcase (by a Janome system), while the worker begins assembly of the various kitted components in the other half of the casing. Electric drivers are used to bolt the two halves together along with the fitting on the various ancillary parts; again precision is critical. Uniquely for a Ducati engine, the barrels are incorporated into the crankcase casting on the Panigale, so the ‘wet’ liners are pressed manually into the casting with a special (albeit simple) tool. It’s this contrast between high-tech engineering and hand-built assembly that makes Bologna an interesting study. With such a high level of manual assembly operations it’s unsurprising that there is a lot of focus on optimizing the ergonomics of the process, and the Panigale engine pallet is a clear example off this. The pallet is fully adjustable, so the engine is repositioned as needed allowing the operator to perform almost all the assembly tasks from one position. The kitting of parts also helps with this.
At each stage the manual operation is monitored and recorded via the tooling, and this characterizes Ducati’s manufacturing process with sophisticated, centralized computer control and monitoring. Through each stage of production the motorcycle is identified and tracked using a code specific to that machine. This relates to the specification required and allows centralized calibration of electric screwdrivers, ratchets and torque tools as the operator inputs the ID number at each station. It also allows very accurate error tracking, alerting not only the operator performing the task but also the line manager and his team, should the system detect any operation that is outside of the set parameters.
At present the Panigale engine line produces around 20 units per shift, but capacity can be increased to 80 units per shift, with a full complement of 20 assembly workers, as demand requires. And here is another distinctive feature of motorcycle manufacturing; production capacity is heavily influenced by the time of year. The motorcycle market experiences seasonal peaks and troughs in sales and, as much of Ducati’s output is built-to-order, the capacity varies accordingly.
The mixed engine line produces both air and water-cooled versions of the company’s V-twin engine for the rest of the model range, but has a much higher volume with around 230 engines produced per shift. Another feature of production at Bologna is the focus on quality control. As well as computer controlled tool settings, 100% of engine production is cold tested. This involves a two-speed cold run test for a duration of five minutes. Attaching the various sensors for engine testing is a common bottleneck, especially when it’s a 100% test requirement. But it’s also an area where you can see the process developed and improved through solutions from the operators (something encouraged across the entire plant) and Ducati is no exception to this.
For Ducati, ‘hand-made in Italy’ is a key element of the brand. This type of product positioning is not uncommon among premium segment vehicle manufacturers, but where motorcycles are concerned there is also a degree of pragmatism being applied. Modern motorcycles feature a high level of electronics that have to be packaged into a very limited space, and the Panigale is a good example of this. The finished (and cold tested) engine is moved to another assembly section to have the ancillaries (exhaust, inlet system, etc.) and the frame attached. Most of the range uses the company’s famous tubular steel trellis frame, but the Panigale uses a high-tech, race developed cast aluminium monocoque. This is a key part of the motorcycle’s architecture and breaks the conventional mold in being a small cast alloy ‘box’ that houses the air box, filter, and steering-head bearings mounted on top of the engine. The simplicity of the design is impressive and though developed for its lightweight and handling characteristics, it must also benefit the assembly process.
Here a two-man team dresses the engine ready for the next in a total of four phases of final assembly for the motorcycle. This section has a takt time of 48 minutes (24 minutes for each operative). It then progresses to next phase of forks, steering-head and swing arm being fitted. The front fork assembly is offered up to the headstock on a special jig that presents the parts at the correct angle and lifts them into place. This again shows the focus on ergonomic assembly, with the operator making a minimal number of position changes. As with the engine line, assembly here uses the same electronically calibrated tools at critical points. From this point the bike is transferred to a conveyor line where it has the remaining components fitted. As mentioned earlier the Panigale features a lot of electronics and as the bike passes down the line you see the engine gradually disappear under a variety of braking, traction and emission control systems. Space is very tight and the systems are carefully packaged.
Once complete the motorcycles undergo final quality control checks, which include two hot, rolling road tests, braking and emission checks and a final visual assessment before the bike is ready for shipping. Although Ducati’s production volumes are modest compared to their bigger rivals, the company has developed simple and effective production processes for technically sophisticated machines. Components flow through the factory in a single direction and the kitting of parts makes the process much quicker and simpler for the assembly workers. Walking though the production lines at Bologna it’s easy to see where Ducati has focused on ergonomics for the operatives and high-tech tooling and tracking to reduce errors and ensure quality.