Motorcycle engine dismantled

Zuken and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle MaintenanceWhen Robert Pirsig wrote his book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” he used the motorcycle as a metaphor to explain fundamental philosophical and scientific concepts. Now I am using my motorcycle to reflect on what Zuken is doing.

B2B marketing has been my lifeblood for the last 30 years, but over the course of the last 10 years I have gradually built a second skill as a hobbyist motorcycle mechanic. Restoring – or “restomodding”, as petrolheads call it – a comparatively modern 1997 Speed Triple brought me in touch with what we at Zuken are doing from a completely different perspective; one that I felt worth sharing.

Of course, the technologies used in motorcycles are closely related to what we at Zuken are doing. For example, some of our notable customers use our software to design and build things with wheels that go fast – whether that’s motorcycles, family cars (sense the sarcasm?) or race cars.

The Zen Connection

There is a concept connecting Robert Pirsig and Zuken, as wrenching on my Speed Triple and talking to customers made me understand.

Here it is: Many of Zuken’s customers are in designing complex machines and plants based on an engineer-to-order (ETO) or configure-to-order (CTO) business model. This means that each individual product – be it an aircraft, a coach or a packaging machine – is different from each other.

This model of designing machines is attractive as is enables manufacturers to tailor their products to specific needs, while maintaining a stock of standard product components or modules. However, it adds significant complexity as the individual product needs to be configured based on customer requirements and configuration rules (I will leave it at that – there is good reading on the topic, including our own white papers, in case you want to dive into the topic of modular product architectures).

Configurable and functional design

If you want to make your stuff “configurable”, one of the key questions you need to be able to answer is:

“What defines the functions of my machine?”

A module – a discrete functional block – used to be defined by its mechanical properties. At the risk of overdoing motorcycle analogies, the front brake system would be such a functional module. It consists of one or two brake disks, one or two calipers, one, two or three brake lines and a master brake cylinder. So, this function (“front brake” – no, actually the function would be called “ability for the rider to willingly stop the vehicle without the involvement of a wall), could be fully described by describing its mechanical and hydraulic components.

Unfortunately, with the exception of dated hardware like my 20-year-old motorcycle, modules today can no longer be described with their mechanical parts alone. Why? The carriers of functions have changed from being purely mechanical into the domain of electrical, electronics and software. Examples are ABS brakes, linked braking systems, and vehicle stability control systems – I will spare you more analogies.

Functional design – the term I like best, although it is slightly misleading – requires that you are able to describe what a thing does (stop the vehicle) without specifying how this will be accomplished (brake system, wall). So how can this be done if the mechanical description is no longer sufficient?  This is where Robert Pirsig comes into play. And motorcycles.

Outer form and inner form

Pirsig introduces the idea of an “outer form” and an “inner form” that every motorcycle has.

The outer form is – obviously – what you see. It might tell you something about how the thing works, but understanding only the outer form will not bring you to the full understanding (and how to fix it, of course).

Understanding the inner form, the function, of a thing means you understand how it works. So, what is the inner form of, say, a packaging machine?

Well, certainly not its mechanical appearance of belts, conveyors, and sheet metal structures. The soul of the packaging machine is the sensor/actor table (or piping and instrumentation diagram). This is basically a list of things the machine can sense (such as a bottle passing a light barrier on a conveyor or a filling level indicator), process (the machine control) and act upon (open and close a valve to fill a bottle underneath it).

If you can describe each of these functions, you have a description of the entire machine. Once you have this, you can start to “modularize” it, which is one of the main goals in product development today.

The point I’m trying to make

Perhaps all the above was just a long-winded way of saying that we need to move away from a mechanical-centered engineering perspective. We might need to move towards an understanding of the inner form, which is defined mainly through electrical and electronic components, and less through hardware. Product development success, as a consequence, will require that we map the inner form of our machines in our systems, not only their mechanical appearance, their outer form, as we do today.

Understanding this, my wrenching has changed (my marketing, too). I still throw spanners around in my workshop, but more often these days I am hammering on the keyboard of a laptop connected to my bike.

So, do I understand better what Zuken is doing? Of course I do: we care about the inner form, the soul of the product.