Meet the Expert: Neil Wright

Meet the Expert: Neil Wright

Ahead of this year’s Ricardo Motorcycle Conference 7.0, we speak with Ricardo Motorcycle Director Neil Wright about long-term trends, challenges and opportunities for the industry and the value for manufacturers of working with Ricardo during challenging times.
 
Neil Wright has enjoyed a 40 year career in engineering, but it is for his 32 year association with the motorcycle industry that he is best known. Having left school at 16, he started out as a technical apprentice at Caterpillar, working on earth moving machines. He combined his apprenticeship with a B Tech in Mechanical Engineering at Loughborough University. His bias towards hands-on practical engineering has stood him in good stead during his career when he has been able to be the sounding board and sense checker for any high-end engineering solutions before they are presented to customers.
 
After eight years at Caterpillar, he moved to Triumph Motorcycles, spending 10 years with the brand, where he was responsible for powertrain including transmissions, and gained his MBA. Having been headhunted by Excelsior Henderson, he spent two years in Minnesota as the company’s technical director undertaking a clean sheet vehicle development project, before coming back to the UK in 1999 to establish his own company, Vepro, to fill a much needed gap in the motorcycle and powersport OEM market for blue chip quality consultancy with engineering and manufacturing excellence. Ricardo was one of Vepro’s biggest consultant customers, and in 2014 acquired the consultancy: Neil is now Director of Ricardo’s Motorcycle group.

Neil’s career and experience has given him a unique perspective on the global motorcycle industry, particularly some of the long-term trends or challenges for the sector. He said: “One of the biggest changes we have seen in the industry over the last decade is the rise of joint ventures. They make perfect sense when you consider the different functions or perceptions of vehicles in the developing world and developed world. In the developing world, vehicles are small: 175cc and below, but typically 125cc, cheap to maintain, and are essential modes of transport; the market is high volume, low cost. In the developed world vehicles are non-essential and are really about fashion, leisure or sport; the market is low volume but high cost.”
 
“Joint ventures or partnerships have become a lot more common between mature motorcycle brands and emerging brands. There is mutual benefit: a footprint in emerging markets; access to partners’ suppliers and shared resources; the opportunities for reduced costs of manufacturing and product development; and for emerging brands the potential to raise their profile and sell their product in higher value markets.”
 
“For Ricardo, the rise of these partnerships has offered us opportunities: in most cases, we know both brands before they become partners, so we can often act as a trusted knowledge broker or adviser to make introductions or connections. The continued rise in the number of partnerships globally will only offer us more opportunities in the future.”
 
Ebikes or electrified two wheelers are regarded as having great growth opportunities,  particularly during the ongoing global pandemic and perhaps even to replace the smaller moped and scooter market, but Neil is cautious about the short-term potential for this market sector. He observed: “Our customers among mature motorcycle brands are still not convinced about the market and usage. Yes, ebikes are very handy for nipping around town, but I don’t think any OEM will be making any money from these products before 2025.”
 
“So what does that journey into production look like for manufacturers? This is the value of Ricardo’s holistic service which combines product and market analysis with  engineering and manufacturing consultancy: our ability to provide a strategic plan for OEMs looking to get into this market sector profitably will be of great use to global manufacturers.”
 
An ongoing challenge for the industry is development times, particularly for electrification, and model role out, and on this topic, Neil is passionate about the criticality of digital engineering, virtual product development and the effective use of data if manufacturers are to reduce product development times. He said: “A real danger for OEMs is that a vehicle can be obsolete before it even comes to market. In the near future, manufacturers could well look to deliberately introduce controlled volumes into production, and get validation into the hands of the end users, although of course not by compromising safety and quality.”
 
“The digital world: simulation, analysis, virtual calibration and validation will be critical. Ricardo engineers have a compelling set of skills to help our customers replace traditional or real-world testing or processes using hardware with digital toolsets and techniques. Our access to data is a very definite benefit. Without access to quality data, you can’t be efficient in consulting without it, and our customers have a high expectation of wishing to benefit from the data we have and the actionable insight we can offer them in terms of enhanced efficiency, product performance or reduced cost to market or cost.”
 
The final long-term challenge that Neil identified was OMEs with a high degree of vertical integration. He explained: “Many OEMs produce their own engines, so if products are migrated to electrification, it leaves them with a big hole. I can see two scenarios: first, OEMs who won’t replace their engine with edriveline components, so they will need to rely more heavily on tier one component suppliers. In the second scenario, other OEMs will look to use their engines as much as possible, so here, we will see the diversification of vehicles so that the engines can be used in as many vehicles as possible. Ricardo is typically being asked by these OEMs for our help to create new platforms and specifically for our expert advice in vehicle engineering on those projects. We are already seeing a trend for Ricardo to be involved in this diversification projects.”
 
Of course the biggest global challenge currently is COVID-19. Neil offered his insight into what the pandemic could mean for motorcycle manufacturers: “A lot of companies have put short-term plans on hold,” he said, “which has seriously dented cash flow and reduced production by 25% in some cases. I feel, however, that bounceback is going to be strong for two main reasons: first, when it comes to motorcycles, consumers want to buy and will make the purchase anyway. Secondly, one result of the pandemic has been the migration towards personal transportation as opposed to public transport: getting on a motorbike, scooter or moped is regarded as a much safer option for moving into or around town than getting on the bus or tube.”
 
“Most of our customers have re-evaluated their product role out strategy. But what does that product line look like in three to five years’ time? There will be a right-shifting in production, and there will continue to be uncertainty, but this is where Ricardo as a global consultancy can help.”
 
“Another way in which Ricardo is looking to help and perhaps even disrupt the market is in relation to support occasioned by travel restrictions. All the major OEMs now have global design teams who are not able to travel between sites easily. Ricardo has teams in India, China, the USA and mainland Europe and so we are very well placed to represent our customers in these territories: for example with supplier management. In the near future, we could end up being an agent, supporting a manufacturer in electrification, or partnering with a tier one supplier. From years of innovating, adapting and evolving in highly competitive markets, we have vision and the ability to see disruptive opportunities early, and we share our insights with our customers.”
Every challenge always brings an opportunity, and Neil is clear that changing times and changing consumer behaviours mean that there is good potential for new platforms and different ways of developing products to meet the changing market needs. He said: “In many ways, the global pandemic is the most extreme example of the market and consumer needs changing and requiring – in this case very urgently – new mobility solutions. I mentioned a little earlier the rise of personal transportation, but the other big change we have seen this year is the exponential rise in online shopping and takeaway food consumption. This means that there is an immediate requirement for more sustainable solutions in last mile delivery – this means L Category vehicle engineering, which is perfect for Ricardo and it’s an area we are very focused on currently.”
 
“L Category vehicle engineering offers speed, adaptability, versatility and agility. Our business model and engineering capability built on motorcycles and powersport vehicles are much more suited to be able to get into low volume, niche vehicles cost effectively, than the big car manufacturers. The current opportunity undoubtedly requires different, disruptive thinking: a bottom up not a top down approach to urban mobility.”
 
“At our Rimini Technical Centre in Italy, we have vehicle engineering specialists who are expert in modular platforms. So, for example, different modules could be put on the back of scooters depending on whether the customer wanted to deliver pizza or parcels.”
 
“This closeness to customers again gives us another opportunity to be the agent or trusted broker to find the mobility solutions for the postal services organisations or logistics, food, or retail brands, but also provide the engineering services to develop and implement the applications and modules per vehicle type. Ricardo is uniquely placed to support these global FMCG brands because of our consultancy and technical capability – very few other companies can do what we can.”
 
Holistic end-to-end service provision from initial product and market analysis to vehicles driving off the production is Ricardo’s unique sales proposition in the motorcycle and light vehicles market. From the close relationships that Neil has built up with customers over his long career in the industry, he is clear of the value to them that Ricardo offers. He said: “Our customers always tell us that there are five things they value about Ricardo, which is why they come to us and keep wanting to work with us.”
 
“First, our global footprint. We are located in all the places around the world where our key customers are. In these current times where global travel is restricted, local alignment with our customers is essential and appreciated.”
 
“Secondly, our network of experts across Ricardo and our customer network means that more often than not, someone somewhere internally has worked with a particular customer before, or can leverage their personal connections to introduce a customer and a supplier, or foster good new partnerships. Customers know that they will be getting world-leading engineering as well as the care and support of a trusted adviser or business partner.”
 
“That brings me onto my third point: what I call external governance. Because we are trusted advisers, when manufacturers are dealing with very challenging technical issues or crisis, such as large scale warranty resolutions, they rely on our team of experts to be with them on site or virtually, providing technical counsel, and the Ricardo engineers are regarded as part of the OEM’s team: taking part in brainstorming, or interacting with governance or regulatory bodies. Ricardo has a strong track record in this area.”
 
“Being a global organisation, we have a very robust global sourcing strategy. For OEMs looking to develop new platforms or achieve electrification, they are very interested in the research of our strategic consultants who have undertaken in-depth analysis of multiple components suppliers, because it derisks a significant element of new product development for them.”
 
“Lastly, unfortunately many of our customers have lost a lot of internal resources, so they really value being able to access our engineering and design specialists. Many of our customer, often up to very senior level, have a strong personal investment in their products, because they not only engineers but also bikers themselves. Our people at Ricardo are engineers and bikers, too, and know bikes inside out – and our customers really value and appreciate that personal and professional passion.”
 
Summing up the Ricardo value to the global industry, Neil said: “We are an external catalyst. If a senior director at a big global brand feels that their own internal design team is not giving the solutions they want, or that their technical teams are not making decisions fast enough, or the right decisions, it’s not unknown to drop a Ricardo person into the mix and get things moving with different thinking, innovative solutions and sound, rapid decisions. That’s the Ricardo difference.”

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