All hail the engineers

Gary Gustafson Blog 8-13I believe that engineers are the most undervalued and vital human resource in the powersports world – possibly the entire world. Whatever you are riding, driving or flying is the execution of an engineering design – and many of them are flat-out amazing. Many people have a mistaken notion about what engineers contribute. Here is some insight into the challenges that an engineering team overcomes in product design and development.

Cost and Supply Chain pressures. As a business colleague once told me “there is no limit to the appetite of the American consumer for cheaper products,” so OEMs are pushed to keep retail prices low. Purchasing departments at OEMs and tier-1s aim for year-over-year cost reductions with all of their suppliers to hold Cost Of Goods Sold (COGS) down. Purchasing Departments also select which suppliers the OEM will be acquiring their various components and systems from. These dynamics sometimes result in engineering personnel working with “what is available to them.” Perhaps some metal parts will only be e-coat painted, not powder coated. A connector might be left unsealed instead of being waterproof. A plastic part might be sourced from a low-cost supplier that is using “re-grind” rather than virgin material. A tire or shock might not be from a premium brand. These types of design decisions are often driven by non-negotiable cost targets. An engineering team’s ability to meet cost targets while still exceeding quality and performance expectations can make the difference between a manufacturer being a leader or an also-ran.

Timeline pressures. The timelines for new programs are set by Corporate Marketing or even by the CEO. In powersports there is no doubt that “new sells” and the pressure to develop better products in less time is continual. The opportunity to de-bug a product might be limited by the testing department resources and the time of year. Major OEMs schedule blocks of off-site testing when it is too cold to ride a motorcycle or too warm to run snowmobiles. Engineers must deliver (hopefully!) the latest versions of hard parts to testing before these road shows depart because it becomes much more complicated for everyone involved to add the parts to the test vehicles if they are shipped later from hundreds or thousands of miles away. A poor financial quarter can suddenly drive new product development to be accelerated, as can people who are preparing to put a company up for sale. Some engineers demand more time to perfect their designs but they must have a certain level of clout to do so. Martin Heinrich, one of the fathers of Polaris’ domestic engine program once said “It takes nine months to have a baby and it doesn’t matter how many doctors you put on the job!” Nevertheless in this age of instant gratification, everyone wants what they want — when they want it. Engineering teams do their best to meet these demands.

New technologies. Powersports enthusiasts tend to be technology buffs, and powersports OEMs are among the most avant-garde vehicle designers in the world. Therefore engineers must stay up-to-date with new vehicle technologies to improve the riding experience as well as learning new software and development tools because “time to market” and of course improved performance are competitive advantages. Most engineers are enthused about staying ahead of the technology curve but with all of the choices in today’s world it takes exceptional insight to identify which new tech is right for the product line.

Safety, Regulations and Intellectual Property. There is a plethora of fine print that true industry experts design around, and the constraints are always evolving. Gross Vehicle Weight, Electromagnetic Susceptibility, design patents held by others, stability factors, shipping standards and much, much more all affect product designs. In many cases the consumer is unaware of how much regulatory and scrutiny the product has been under but the engineering teams are keenly aware of the importance of passing these certification tests.

Let the fun begin. While clearing hurdles like these, and others such as designing for manufacturing and for service, engineers get to do what they love to do — create great products. Blissfully unaware that their pay levels are sometimes dwarfed by employees in the sales department, most engineers consider themselves to be living the dream. There is no one who knows more about a particular product than good engineers do — right down to the corner radiuses. Product designers develop a visceral connection with what they are working on, a sixth sense of what “feels right” and this gift can build brands. Engineers take as much pleasure in designing that throaty growl, that perfect seating position, that effortless landing as we take in experiencing these qualities on a Saturday afternoon. Engineering should be treated as a marquee career in powersports. We need to compensate engineers proportionately, respect the knowledge that they harbor and invest in developing new talent. Great engineering equals great powersports.

Powersports Industry Analyst Gary Gustafson is president of G-Force Consulting Inc, a company that connects great suppliers with great OEMs as well as providing strategic market consulting for any manufacturer looking to grow in the Snowmobile, ATV or Motorcycle sectors. Visit to learn more.

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