Yamaha – Passion for motorcycle design. Part 1: The Process


“A designer has to be an artist, an engineer and a craftsman at the same time”, designer Olivier Béboux tells us enthusiastically.

“You have to understand the technical issues, you have to be able to sculpt something from nothing, and you have to be able to build everything yourself, as a craftsman. And that is what makes the job so exciting.”

“You are an artist because you have to sketch, express yourself, to draw, to paint, to sculpt. Sometimes in magazines, we see this kind of ‘photo montages’ of new models. These are very nice illustrations, made by picking up parts of existing bikes and pasting them together. But no matter how nice they may look, we do not consider them real ‘design’.

In reality, you need a three-dimensional mind to sketch and model a motorcycle and to make everything fit together in a proper way.”

This three-dimensional thinking is a key issue for the designers. Even when they sketch on two-dimensional paper, they are thinking and imagining how it will look like in three dimensions.

The artistic side however, has to survive in a business environment and that makes things tough for them. “Because you put your heart and soul in a design, it is sometimes very difficult to accept comments and criticism. By definition, you cannot please everybody. During a presentation of a new design, you stand in front of fellow designers, product planning people, marketing people and sales people and they all have a different perspective.”

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How does the whole design process go, from idea to final motorcycle? “It always starts with the concept, the idea behind the new bike. Usually we have a meeting with product planning people to discuss what type of bike it should be, what ideal usage it has and what kind of dream it should represent. We always develop “key words” to describe it: what should the bike say to you, what personality does it have?”

“Then we continue with sketches. We create the first ideas in our minds and then express them with rough sketches on paper. These sketches are presented and discussed, and the best directions are then selected, and based on those, we continue. More stages like this follow, so we narrow down more and more until we have a final sketch.”

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Technical issues
“At the same time during the sketching process we have to consider the technical factors: what is the wheelbase, the tyre size, what kind of frame can we have, where and how big is the engine, the airbox, how much fuel capacity is needed etcetera. All those things together form a ‘technical package’ that represents the limits within which we have to work. Of course we always try to push those limits in order to get a real innovative design!”

“Then based on the sketch and the technical layout, we start to build a fullscale clay model, that shows all the shapes the final production bike should have.”

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Clay or CAD
The first mockup of a new motorcycle is always made in clay. Isn’t that strange in a time of CAD (computer aided design) and computer animations? “You always feel the three-dimensional shape better with a real and tangible clay model. The shape generated by the computer is a two-dimensions image projected on a flat screen. For this reason it is difficult to get any real three-dimensional feeling. Also the lighting conditions that you have in real life, are not there in the computer.

It is simulated by a thing called shading, but that doesn’t show the detailed nuance you have in reality. So with computers, you have a virtual and cold barrier between you and the product, which makes it far from what the customer will feel in front in the motorcycle.”

“For structural parts and items such as footrests we sometimes use CAD from the beginning but not for body parts. CAD programs are fantastic tools, but in the end the computer is a tool, not a creator. To create the best design, we feel that a clay model is a must. It is tactile, you can see the whole thing in front of you, see all proportions, sit on it, touch it. So for the whole sculpture of the bike, and the body parts, we create everything in three-dimensional clay.”


The clay is a special one for this type of modelling design, also used in the automotive industry. It is heated to around 40 degrees Celsius, to make it soft.

“Because there may be bubbles inside, you have to apply it with your thumbs and push hard. Sometimes you get blisters from that, but that doesn’t matter because creating the clay is really a fun part of the job, you get a very quick first result in a short time.” After the clay is applied by hand, it is left to cool off, so that it hardens and can be shaped by tools for the finer adjustments. “The finishing work and symmetry can be long and difficult, though. But if you are not happy with the shape you can always heat it again on the surface and adjust it. Clay is very versatile. You can even re-use it over and over again, you don’t have to throw away anything!”

Indeed, usually during this clay stage, the shape is continuously being modified and improved until it is finally approved.

“Actually, to judge a bike when it is made of clay needs a lot of experience. It is a brown colour, not shiny, and that makes the shapes look less pronounced than when it would be painted and shiny. And some items that are normally transparent, such as the windscreen or the headlamp, are also made of clay. That makes the bike look heavier than it would be in reality. So you need to adjust all those things in your mind.”

After the model is finished, it is measured three-dimensionally and all surface data are transferred to the computer.

Based on that, the engineers can start to create real ‘parts’, which is again a very challenging job because they have to consider all the mounting points and attachments behind it, the production possibilities of the materials, the strength it finally should have.

Show models

The biggest challenge starts when the designer has to prepare a so-called ‘show model’, a one-off proto machine that is to be shown on motorshows when there is no production planned yet. In that situation, the bike has to have a perfect finishing, and all parts have to be made by the designers themselves. Clay as a material is too fragile to use, so all body parts have to be made separately.

This is usually done with the so-called ‘fast prototyping’, for instance through stereo lithography, where (after a clay model is measured into the computer) computer data is used to create the parts out of liquid resin, utilising laser beams.

Also the structural parts such as chassis, swingarm, triple clamps etc. are hand crafted. Here, specialist crafters come into play because the designers don’t have the time, the machines or the specialist skill to create everything by themselves.

Credit: Yamaha-Motor.edu

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