The Concept: An OHV + Inclined Cylinder that Changed the World of General Purpose Engines
Traveling upstream on the Menam (Chao Phraya) River past Bangkok reveals many "longtails" floating on Thailand's giant river. Longtails are small boats equipped with general purpose engines instead of outboard marine engines. This type of engine has a long propeller shaft that sticks out of the boat, resembling a dragonfly's tail. The boat is called a "longtail" because of this propeller shaft. Longtails are indispensable to the lives of people in Thailand, as well as to those in other developing nations in Southeast Asia. They are an important means of livelihood, facilitating transportation and fishing.
The Honda ZE engine series, featuring OHV+inclined cylinders
"I found one! Let's go after that boat!"
Running ahead in the direction the voice had indicated was a longtail with an engine painted red and white. That particular color combination meant that it was an ME, the engine developed by Honda in 1977. The voice came from Yoshinobu Yamaguchi, who had been involved in the engine's testing. He and his colleagues wanted to verify how their engine was being used, and whether or not there were any problems regarding its real world use. They were chasing the boat ahead of them, searching for the kind of information they could not obtain simply by analyzing data in the cold environs of a distant office. They had managed to make time during their business trip in order to travel up the Menam, all the while hoping they would make contact with users and obtain some feedback.
General purpose engines are used in a number of ways, meaning one cannot develop a truly applicable product unless its conditions of use are understood. Therefore, the ME engine's notable success was largely attributable to the efforts of a development staff that had traveled the world identifying its requirements. They had the ability to see things and analyze them from the standpoint of engineering. For example, during a visit to a retailer the staff would go to the repair area and search the drums and other waste containers filled with damaged engine parts. It was a noisy process going through the parts, but in the process they could usually find worn cylinders and other clues. They would examine the oil deposits and find them to be filled with dust, proving there was a need to improve the air cleaner. In this way, every damaged part would tell its own story, often inferring a great deal about the harshness of use and the environment surrounding it. Ultimately, improvements would be made and ideas for new models proposed. This indeed symbolizes the Honda's principle of "focusing on real-world, on-site operations while facing up to the challenges inherent in reaching a goal."
"It didn't matter that we couldn't speak the language," said Yamaguchi. "As engineers we knew what kinds of data we'd need to apply in our workstations. We simply had to watch the users as they brought their products in for repair. That way we could find out more about the problems they'd been having."
Yamaguchi held firmly to the belief that such a strategy was of paramount importance in the development of reliable, high-performance products. Each time he went abroad, he would make time available in which to study the market. He would journey through the dry cattle lands of Australia, visit busy rental shops in America, and wade into the rice paddies of Thailand. The world market was to Yamaguchi the very soul of research, and knowing something of his customers and their lives kindled in him a sense of ambition. It was the desire to build an engine that would satisfy the needs of each customer who bought it.