January 4, 2023
We told Mark not to jump the bike.
Every race champion has seen his or her failure - it’s simply the nature of riding the knife edge in competition. If you’re not on the edge, you’re not pushing hard enough. The Isle of Man TT races are some of the most harrowing on the planet. Every year that I led the race team of Motoczysz at least one professional racer died on the course - for four years running. It boggles the mind that such an event has a place in modern life.
The culture of racing permeated everyone at our company, from the guys sweeping the floor to the engineers at the desk. As the engineering team lead, I had to ask every member of my team to design to that edge, to shave grams and cut corners, to hunt down one-tenths of a percent of efficiency. And my engineers were well aware that if they cut too close, Mark Miller could find himself in a stone wall or barreling off a cliff towards the ocean.
During the 2021 race, Mark shattered the drive-shaft on his bike, landing under full throttle. If we’d designed it a couple of millimeters thicker, he might have finished. But our team won the race… with our second bike. Michael Rutter beat out the favored team, Mugen (led by Mr. Honda himself,) by just a few seconds over a 40-mile course. If we hadn’t designed to the edge, neither of our riders would have had a chance.
Instilling positivity around failure gave us that win. Many, if not most, engineers are conservative and afraid of failure. As a result, they tend to over-build. If I had criticized and laid blame for the drive-shaft failure, my engineers would naturally have started to add thickness to almost every part they touched for fear of reprisal.
At Photon we build to higher safety margins - are not racing (yet!) - but that doesn’t change the team culture I’m building. We are in development, and it’s our job to reach those failure points as fast as possible so they are resolved before we ship product. Pushing also one of the best ways to learn, and re-building often produces better results faster than slowly iterating.
One example hit us early while in development of the P80. We weren’t hitting our expected numbers and performance was sluggish. The team was prepped to completely rebuild the bottom-end of the outboard and consider a new motor controller when we had a sudden failure during routine tests. We were stunned to find a seized motor and wondered what we’d done wrong.
Dissection revealed a manufacturing error internal to the motor that had caused the issue. The DHX Hawk motor, while “new,” had a mis-seated o-ring from the factory that allowed coolant into the motor core. Fluid in the air gap of a motor had been the cause of our performance woes and ultimately seized the motor.
If the motor hadn’t failed so early in the process, we would have spent many weeks trying to hunt down the issue. Manufacturing errors will happen and, though the failure cause is external, the reaction is the same. Take stock of the situation, embrace the failure, discuss what we’ve learned and how we can move forward stronger. No finger pointing.
Fast forward just eight weeks and our new “P80” is pushing closer to 100HP - and we’re not maxed out just yet. We’ve switched to a high-volume European motor manufacturer with higher quality control standards.
We accept that occasional setbacks are part of the process in new product development. It’s our duty to our customers to try to find failure modes and make fixes early in the design process. By building a culture that finds fortune in failure, I empower my team to design and build at their very best.