How Engineering Software and a Dream Changed Motocross Forever

When Sean Hilbert and Phill McDowell met at Ford’s powertrain research lab, they bonded through a shared love of all things off-road and two-wheeled. However, they noticed that the options available to the U.S., especially for youth, were very cookie-cutter. To be motocross-ready, these bikes required the racer to dump as much money into customizations as they paid for the base vehicle.

The pair dreamed of offering bikes to young racers using the Dell model, as Hilbert described at the 3DEXPERIENCE World 2023 conference. The idea is that people can customize the bike they want, before they buy it, so that it will fit their needs the day they get it. But there was a big roadblock to this dream. It was the 90s and the cost to get a seat of CAD software was about $30,000. Hilbert added that this didn’t even include the $30,000 computer needed to run the software in the first place.

Then, Hilbert went to a talk at his school that would change his life forever. The speaker was Jon Hirschtick—the card-counting founder of SOLIDWORKS. At this talk, Hilbert realized that by using this affordable CAD tool, he could compete with the big players.

“I tell you, the power we had by being able to design literally on a laptop in the late 90s—it completely changed the game for us,” he said.

How Cobra Moto uses SOLIDWORKS. (Image courtesy of Cobra Moto.)

Little did he know that as his dream evolved with that software, he would become CEO of Cobra MOTO and McDowell would become his Chief Engineer. And that their company would use the expanded features of SOLIDWORKS to change the world of motocross.

Motocross and the Start of Cobra MOTO

The sport of motocross consists of a group of racers navigating a course made up of different terrain, using a motorcycle. It became popular in Europe after WW2, with all the bikes that were left over. However, the sport didn’t really take off in the U.S. until the 60s. That delay explains the cookie-cutter market that Hilbert and McDowell found themselves in during the 90s.

When Cobra MOTO was created in 1993, it effectively built the marketplace of 50cc automatic bikes—as no one was serving that market. That’s because the audience was a niche of a niche: those interested in powersports, motorcycles, off-roading, motocross, youth products and competition-ready equipment.

“One of the really cool things about doing what we do is that we get to work with kids that are absolute phenoms,” said Hilbert. “They’re some of the best athletes in the world and we get to see them grow up. If anybody happened to watch the Tampa Supercross … almost everybody that was at the very top of the field started out on a COBRA when they were kids.”

Cobra was first started by Bud Maimone, another motocross enthusiast who was attempting to address that market. He offered bikes that didn’t need self-modification, were race-ready and were therefore reliable. But Hilbert explained that Maimone was exhausted and looking for something new to do after running the company for so long. By 2003, Hilbert and McDowell took over.

They now had their dream to offer highly customized bikes to their target market, the software to make those designs and now the brand to make it all a reality. All they needed was the implementation.

The Cobra MOTO Design Strategy

To compete with the big boys, Hilbert and McDowell have implemented a design philosophy at Cobra MOTO that focuses on quality and speed—while keeping the workflow appropriate to the company’s small size. The crux of the philosophy centers around the 80/20 rule, using SOLIDWORKS for the hardware design and digital simulations and physical testing for final iterations and safety.

The design and development philosophy of Cobra MOTO. (Image courtesy of Cobra MOTO.)

“One of the things that works really well within the SOLIDWORKS platform is a lot of the built-ins: the built-in flow simulation, the built-in stress analysis and FEA. These aren’t incredibly complex pieces of software. There aren’t high-end capabilities where you can adjust all kinds of boundary conditions, moving boundary conditions, multiphase and this-and-that. But they’re good enough to get us the solution 80 percent of the time,” Hilbert said.

To ensure speed during the design and simulation side of this design philosophy, Cobra Moto uses HP Z4 workstations with NVIDIA GPUs. McDowell said after his presentation that “the biggest waste of time for my team is if they’re waiting. Whether it’s graphics or regeneration or just transferring files, if they’re waiting…idle hands, idle minds. So the quicker the results, the more they can stay focused and the hardware is huge on that.”

Once the team is 80 percent certain on a design, they use tools such as additive manufacturing to speed up the physical testing/iteration part of the design process. Additive manufacturing enables the team to quickly build a prototype and test it for things such as rider grip or “getting a wrench where it needs to go” during maintenance, as Hilbert joked. He noted that if this was done with an outside organization, the iterations would take weeks, maybe months. But they can do it in days. He called it, “hardware at the speed of thought.”

Hilbert also reiterated that a design philosophy centered on speed and the 80/20 rule must keep safety as the highest priority. This is another reason why he believes in physical testing.

“You’re putting a kid on a rocket ship. That’s what we do,” said Hilbert. “Safety becomes incredibly important. It informs almost every decision we make in terms of how we design and how we deal with our customers. As far as the testing goes, nothing surpasses testing. You can do a lot of work in the digital realm but until you get a product into a [test pilot’s] hands— and realistically multiple [test pilot’s] hands—you’re never going to understand the use case fully until something’s out there getting hammered-on in the field.”

How Cobra MOTO Offers Custom Made Bikes While Making a Profit

Now Hilbert and McDowell have a means of designing and testing parts. But how can they turn those parts into customized bikes and offer them to customers at a reasonable price while making a profit? After all, that target market is, by their own description, a niche of a niche. So, it would require small production lines that typically turn out expensive bikes. Cobra MOTO learned the solution to this problem during the Great Recession: when supply chains are tight, build it yourself.

“We kept our guys and gals working,” said Hilbert. “[This was a better] strategy versus trying to manage global supply chain in an incredibly uncertain time.” This verticalization strategy is especially efficient when you take into consideration the small production sizes. If they were to outsource production at 1,000 parts per run, then they wouldn’t have been able to keep the business profitable and few, if any, manufacturing outlets would go along for the ride.

Cobra MOTO makes its own tooling and fixtures. (Image courtesy of Cobra MOTO.)

Cobra MOTO produces its own tooling and fixtures using SOLIDWORKS. The challenge here is that as a small company they can only work on one injection mold at a time. To compensate for this, the company again uses additive manufacturing. They get to market with additive parts and slowly replace them with injection molded ones as they become available.

The build-it-yourself strategy of Cobra MOTO enabled the company to expand as a part supplier under the brand CARD and into the aerospace market with Cobra AERO—which even serves military drone customers. But that is another story.

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