The factory in Siberia where Urals are made

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It’s actually a misnomer to call the Irbit Motorcycle Factory a motorcycle factory at all. Don’t get me wrong, it definitely makes bikes, it’s just that it makes bolts, pins, spokes, rims and nearly all the other parts that go into the Ural motorcycles and sidecars too. And it does so using some of the most archaic, gigantic machinery you’ve ever seen. This gatling gun of doom? That’s actually one of six machines involved in the process of milling a small amount of material off each cast iron cylinder sleeve. Something it does with laborious slowness.

Pull open the heavy, foot-thick steel door that insulates the work space from Siberia’s sub-zero winter temperatures and you’re greeted by an overpowering odor of grease and ozone. You’ll swear you can see and feel the oily air as it pumps in and out of your lungs.

The other immediate impression is one of emptiness. Not in terms of space — the one building that remains in use is densely packed with over 800 machines, so tight you can barely walk through it — but in terms of people. There’s no one in sight. The factory employs about 150 people, down from a Soviet-era peak of over 10,000.

Walking the floor with Ilya, the company’s owner, we have to put in an effort to seek out his employees. Of course, it might just be because they avoid him. Implementing the changes necessary to turn a factory intended to work in a planned economy half a century or more ago into a modern production facility has been a painful process for everyone.

To understand how the factory ended up like it is today, you need to understand something of the story behind Ural itself. The original Ural, the M72 wasn’t actually the direct copy of a BMW R71 that everyone thinks it is. The exact sequence of events has been lost to history, but Ilya’s research shows that Soviet engineers seem to have started with that R71 as inspiration, designing their own vehicle to meet a different set of needs. The R71 was never intended to be or used as a military vehicle (German military sidecars were based on a later design), so the Russkies had to build something much beefier and more suited to the demanding life of a military vehicle.

Smiley face, rocket launcher. Somewhat ominously, my name was written on the white board next to this picture.

Designing in the relative vacuum of a massive-but-isolated economy, the Ural’s original engineers weren’t limited by things like standardized components or the realities of economical production. When the vehicles went on sale to Soviet civilians after WWII, they did so at a set price that had more to do with facilitating political visions than it did with making a profit. The factory’s workforce, at the time, was more of an employment project than it was an efficient use of resources.

The legacy of those conditions was still pervasive when Ilya ended up acquiring the company in 2000. Over a thousand workers were employed in a factory that now only made a handful of sidecars a year, filling contracts for clients like the Iraqi and Egyptian militaries. It didn’t help that the Egyptians paid in bullion cubes. The kind used to make soup. Production was massively inefficient, hugely expensive and produced products that were way behind the quality and reliability standards of of post-Cold War western economies.

These wheel weights are made here at the factory to a unique spec. The cost? About 12 cents a piece. If they could simply order them from a supplier, they’d be around 5 cents.

Having been spec’d by Soviet engineers with carte blanch authorization and in a manner described by Ilya as “fanciful,” components like spokes were made to a unique diameter that massively complicated production and ruled out the kind of outsourcing or simple ordering that other motorcycle factories around the world rely on to keep costs down. Today, those spokes are still kicked out by an ancient machine the size of a house before being hand-threaded by an old man wearing delicate reading glasses. Just in time? He just makes a box full, waits until they’re nearly gone, and makes some more.

Those spokes necessitate unique hubs, rims and even balance weights, all of which have to be produced in the same factory. That ridiculous over-complication is seen in nearly every component. 60 of these gigantic machines make up the production process for the crank cases, which are forged by a now separately owned foundry located within the old factory grounds. In a nod to modern quality, llya has the foundry specially use aluminum ingots in place of the old car bodies and other scrap they melt down to make parts for other clients.

Rim production starts with a spool of raw aluminum.

That ribbon of metal is then rolled into shape and cut to size before being looped into something recognizable as a rim.

In the final step before assembly, the spoke holes are filed by hand.

That specialization is symptomatic in the factory workers too. Back when communism was paying the bills, an individual worker specialized in a specific process on a specific machine, learning it intimately. Great if you’re trying to create jobs, not so much if you’re trying to operate a profitable company in 2011. Production processes were so out of date that the first thing a Canadian efficiency expert who visited just before me did was install compressed air lines to each work station, enabling the workers to quickly clear metal filings and other detritus from machines while they’re still in use instead of waiting for them to finish a part, then sweeping them out by hand. A move that was apparently met with much skepticism and resistance.

Factory manager Vladimir in his office. He’s worked at IMZ-Ural for 39 years, beginning as a factory test rider. Telling stories of weeks-long trips around Asia developing new products, you can almost see a tear in his eye.

Despite these difficulties, still present after over a decade’s modernization, Ilya has no plans to try and relocate the factory to a more accessible location or farm out production wholly to suppliers. Why? “We owe a moral debt to these people,” he explains. It’s this factory and these workers that make Urals unique motorcycles, something that’s not going to change as he slowly drags the company into the 21st century.

We’ll be rolling out feature content from Siberia throughout this week. Follow our Siberia tag page to find it all and don’t miss my story about riding Ural sidecars there, my first time back on one since that accident.

  • Troy R

    Fantastic Insight. It’s exactly what I would expect. Imagine what amazing machines could be produced if they updated just a little bit. A true 21st century Ural is my personal pipe-dream.

  • Glenngineer

    As an MIT operations management guy, this makes me so hard to read and look at.

    • Ilya

      We’re hiring …

      • dux

        Do you need a new test-rider?

        • Ilya

          Sorry, no vacancies in this field. Besides, we do most of the test-driving in winter, as in summer test-riders are busy working all these machines ;-)

      • Campisi

        What positions, out of curiosity?

        • Ilya

          Manufacturing management, quality assurance, and CNC machining

          • matt

            Ilya, I’ve seen this post soviet manufacturing facility transition in hungary at a bicycle factory operating outside of budapest. Very hard to remap dedicated, tooling intensive machinery into a lower work in process operating model – as you are no doubt experiencing every day. Your challenge to move this facility forward is not a simple job. What level of process mapping has been done to get a handle on production efficiency and opportunity identification/prioritization?

            • Ilya

              Matt, to scale down welding, painting and assembly was relatively easy. Machining is the problem.
              We have less than 50 people working 800 machines to turn 500 parts. Three years ago we had twice as many machines. There were so many moves and things have changed so dramatically that all the data we had for production mapping got irrelevant. Collecting new data is lengthy and expensive process, but more importantly, this “new” data will become irrelevant before you find a use for it.
              Our strategy right now is to get rid of as many “dedicated” machines as possible as fast as we can – by moving parts to a few CNC machines we have, replacing home-made parts with standard components wherever possible, and outsourcing some components to specialized suppliers.

    • pinkyracer

      go for it! you will likely also need a good change management consultant, as clearly the cultural shift to efficient production is the bigger challenge here.

      • Ilya

        I think I can start change management consultancy myself now ;-)

  • Emmet

    I’m surprised to see a laptop at the factory manager’s desk and not an abacus

    • Michael

      And its Windows!

      • Mark D

        Windows 3.1 for Forced Workgroups

        • BMW11GS

          hahah yes!

        • noone1569

          Strung together with the factory on a token ring?

        • M

          i giggled

  • Scott-jay

    Very good, great gallery.

  • dux

    Great stuff. These photos will resonate with anyone who appreciates human-made metal.

  • michael uhlarik

    My mother is Czech, and I visited a jet engine sub-assembly plant in Slovakia once under Communism, so these images and the description of the old way of doing business is familiar.

    Also familiar in some way is the do-it-yourself approach. In Canada, we take great pride in being self sufficient as individuals, so I am pleased to some degree to see an OEM manufacturing so much themselves. It may not be “lean” or the most economical way to do things, but then the Ural is not a high volume brand, and this largely in-house approach forms the backbone of the brand’s appeal. An Ural wearing Excel rims seems like a downgrade, after reading this. Hell, anyone can get those…

    Well done Wes, for covering this. And well done Ilya for making your company work.

    • Ilya

      Thank you, Michael! I disagree on the rims, though. Aluminum rims we use now are maybe less authentic, but they are at least round.

    • super20

      It’s actually very cool to see that they manufacture, not just “assemble”, the bikes.

    • rohorn

      It does shock a lot of people how many large machine tools were made and designed for one operation at one factory. A lot of old shops had their own foundries, forges, and pattern makers – pretty much a lost art – and made a lot of those specialized machines themselves.

      Most of those old machines have probably been recycled at least once – but every once in a while, one can be found and trying to figure out what it did is sort of like neo-archeology. There was a huge old machine shop that was demolished about 10 years ago close to my house – a number of machines were left anchored to the ground since they were too big to move at the time. They were recently torn out, which was a drag, since they were just so darn “photogenic”, especially with trees growing around them.

      Reading this article isn’t like going to some frontier recreationist blacksmith’s shop and watching horseshoes being made, but it is pretty much half way between that and today.

      Yes, I love this stuff. Can’t build motorcycles with out it.

  • Kevin

    Please buy a camera. I have to call you out on this because these would be awesome pictures if it weren’t for your shitty iPhone. iPhones are great for tweens posting to facebook, not journalists.

    • Гена

      My thoughts exactly! An inexpensive SLR camera would greatly improve your shots.

      • Wes Siler

        Eh, the iPhone is capable of better photos than I am. But honestly, I do better on it than I do on my dslr.

        • jim

          I thought the pictures really captured the “feel” nicely.
          Maybe the dslr for the Aprilia factory ?
          Either way : GREAT piece, thanks.

        • Гена

          I wouldn’t say you are particularly good or bad photographer, but your shots can tell your story and this is what matters. Still, the exact same shots would look better without noise, muddy highlights, washed away colors and foggy focus.
          Cell phone pictures in a photo reporting may be appropriate for a high school blogger, but not to HFL, which positions itself as an alternative to the glossy magazines.

    • Michael

      Ah, the equipment or the artist argument. +1 get a 4/3rds

    • skadamo

      The pics are fine for 99% of us non-photogs that are stuck on the fact that Ural builds so many parts for their bikes. I want one more now. Nice one Wes! Most people probably assume they are built somewhere in China… just cuz most everything else is.

  • M

    absolutely beautiful. it’s a truly emotional experience seeing the machines and tooling of a production facility that still makes something from beginning to end.

  • Deltablues

    As an ex-CNC machinist, I would like to say thanks for an interesting article. I changed careers, but I miss working with raw metal and room-sized machines that can turn out incredible precision parts. Needs a video.

  • JMS

    I never really understood the appeal of a Ural. I do now =D

    Awesome feature!

  • nymoto

    This is rad.

  • Kevin

    “We owe a moral debt to this people.”

    A true contrarian. Most managers of publicly traded companies, while they might on some level actually give a fuck about their people, are all to happy to throw them under the bus in pursuit of a more profitable quarter, all in the name of “building shareholder value.”

    • Ilya

      Kevin, this is complicated. All of 3400 people we had to fire (95% of the factory workforce as of January 2001) think we threw them under the bus. You will never explain them the reasons. Sometimes you just do what you have to do.

      • DoctorNine

        Just keep making the motorcycles, Ilya. That is enough.

        There is this thing, here in Memphis, we call ‘soul’.
        You have it. In spades.

      • Scott-jay

        All the more significant, Ilya.
        Is there a book?

        • Ilya

          A book?

          • pinkyracer

            I see it now- Ural: Transforming Siberian Inefficiency Into Bespoke Artisanal Craftsmanship.

            At least, that’s the story I’d tell. But then, I’m in marketing. After reading this, it seems to me your best bet is to keep making at least most of the parts in house, but continue improving efficiency & quality as best you can. Make some new styles, that really evoke a Western perspective of a cold-war military vehicle (won’t be much of a stretch) and promote the hand-crafted old-world nature of the bikes.

            Every Harley owner who’s tired of hearing his Star-riding friends explain that a lot of his bike was made in China or Japan will want one. You could attract the ultimate “I Love America” consumers to a Russian-made brand. That would amuse me immensely.

          • Scott-jay

            Yes, or otherwise more of this story.
            It’s motorcycles, people, place, change, etc.
            I see another story, about when the factory printed currency.
            3,500 people, before & after.
            And, it’s good press for your brand.

            • Ilya

              Well, I have a title – “Motorcycle with the soul and a sidecar”. Now I need to find somebody who would actually put it together ;-)

      • Kevin

        I get it Ilya, but at least caring for the locals shows up on your radar enough to actually influence management decisions.

  • Roman

    Fascinating stuff. Hope to see more interesting stuff come out of Ural in the near future. Russia never lacked brilliant engineers, it’s just the planned economy never really gave them a chance to stretch their legs. Very interested to see where this goes.

    • HammSammich

      “Russia never lacked brilliant engineers, it’s just the planned economy never really gave them a chance to stretch their legs.”

      I’m not sure that is necessarily true. In many cases, engineering projects that had very little economic incentive and would not have existed in a market economy, were given massive funding. Take the various Ekranoplan projects for example. I’m not suggesting that it was all happiness and roses for Soviet Era engineers, but they did get to do some pretty interesting things…

      • Roman

        Right, I mean in terms of motorcycle design specifically and anything commercially viable in general. Often times, innovation and efficiency were either actively discouraged or the incentive system was set up in such a way that discouraged it. Nothing new, just saying it would be cool to see Ural show what’s possible when you combine a deep pool engineering talent with modern management practices.

  • quint7

    I am looking forward to more stories from the East.
    I would love to see a modernization of the plant that would result in what I could imagine a 50% drop in price for a new Ural. Sales of them would rise accordingly, especially in developing countries where the knock off Hondas and Toyota Hilux are the 2 main means of motorized transport……
    BUT, I completely understand why that hasn’t happened. Not from an economics POV, but from a people POV. Americans, especially you youngn’s don’t understand what being Russian (in the broad sense, not just the actual geographic borders of the current nation) means. Growing up with Polish and Ukranian kids who’s parents were off the boat in the early 70′s you heard about one thing: the war. The “Russian” people suffered like none other in history and it didn’t start with Hitler or end when Berlin fell. The pride in self sufficiency is like nothing this side of a Cuban car repair shop. I know recent immigrants that still look at life through the eyes of their great grandparents. A nurse at my doctor’s office is Ukranian born, 26, gorgeous and was professionally trained as a singer. I asked her a few weeks ago why she went into nursing instead of singing and she said “this is America, the medical field is where you make a living, not signing. I sing on the weekends, American Idol won’t pay my bills”. That idea has been lost on so many people here in the States.
    I wish I could get a 100% reliable, modernized Ural Patrol for $6000 new, but I don’t blame Ilya one bit for doing things the way he is.

  • paul redican

    Great article, Ilya a pleasure to see inside your factory. There are a few Urals on the road down under in N.Z. always makes me smile to see them on the road.

  • Mr.Paynter

    I want a Ural so bad and this makes me want one all the more…

    I know this sounds cheesy but I feel the romance of hand-fashioned machines, it harks back to real people and reminds me personally, of my grandfather who was an armature winder and genius on any machine in his workshop!

  • Case

    I loved this article super hard. Just renewed my yearly subscription and I already got my money’s worth. Great job. But they are right about the photos: take the dslr with you next time. Or take Grant.

    • Wes Siler

      Yeah, grants the photographer here.

      • Troy R

        Even one of those cheap Cannon point and shoots will do an amazing job compared to this crap. That’s not to say I don’t still love the photos.

    • equ

      Great article (along with great quality for most of HFL output in this age of declining attention and quality).

      I’ll make a point & shoot recommendation. Get a panasonic lumix. Mine is an lx3, they’re up to lx5 now. Lens goes wide to 24mm equivalent. I hardly carry/use my DSLR equipment/lenses these days.

      • pinkyracer

        thank you! my Canon is getting quite long in the tooth, and I have the same problem with the old iphone…

      • Miles Prower [690 Duke, MTS 1200]

        +1 on Lumix recommendation. I have an LX3 also. And I too rarely take my DSLR out of its bag — the LX3 is that good!

        Plus, Panasonic is really good about keeping its firmware up to date — very easy to apply the updates too.

  • isambard

    Great read.

    I’m curious what regular folks and younger bikers in the former Soviet Republics think of Urals…would they consider these manufacturing processes as admirable and as “honest” as most of us seem to? Or would they find it all a bit embarrassingly old-fashioned? While we’re admiring their Communist chic army bikes, would they rather be riding gaudy Harley trikes like Putin?

    • Гена

      As a former USSR citizen I can tell you that just as here, most people want a high performing reliable modern machine- would it a bike, a car, a TV or anything else. Domestic Ural sales are non existent. Even Russian Ural web site is extremely basic and lists no dealers, although I found one with Google.

      • Ilya

        We actually sell Urals in Russia, although not many. I’m sure we could have sold more, had we enough resources invested in marketing. It just more difficult to convince somebody in Russia, that new Ural is not the same Ural his (her) grandpa was fixing in the garage all the time.

        • rohorn

          The book “Well Made In America” describes how H-D went though the same thing a few decades ago, including how they went from some seriously archaic manufacturing practices to modern CNC machining cells in a few years, among other things. A good read.

        • Гена

          I know, selling domestically is an uphill battle. People have a long history of considering Russian civilian technology products to be inferior to anything else. Although, as I understand, Chinese managed to put a dent in this attitude.

  • mugget

    Wow – a very interesting article!

  • Campisi

    … You’re greeted by an overpowering odor of grease and ozone. You’ll swear you can see and feel the oily air as it pumps in and out of your lungs.

    The smell of a proper machinist’s shop cannot be synthesized, and is to be savored when encountered. The continued presence of places like these and the products they make is of intrinsic value to a complete and wholesome world beyond the scratch-paper calculations of economic rationality.

  • Jesse

    Yep. This only further drives my desire for a Solo (mostly because I don’t have room in the garage for a Patrol).

    • ike6116

      Do Solo’s have 2WD?

      • aristurtle

        The Solo doesn’t have a sidecar, hence the name.

      • BigRooster

        That would be a neat trick.

    • Jesse

      Of course.. now I found a patrol relatively local on CL. Damnit.

  • Andy Gregory

    Great story and images, what an fascinating place! I’d love to watch the process of rolling, cutting, and looping one of those wheels. I don’t suppose there was a Russian Mr. Rogers? Surely he would have visited the Ural factory.

  • BigRooster

    Great article! Well worth the price of admission.

    I dont know if this makes me want a Ural more or less. More respect for sure.

    After reading this I’m amazed Urals dont cost more in the US than they do. Are the bikes profitable?

  • BigRooster

    I imagine the job opportunites above are not “remote” positions. I can only imagine selling that move to the wife.

    Me – “Honey, guess what?”
    Wife – “What?”
    Me – “I just got offered my dream job working with a motorcycle company!”
    Wife – “Im not moving to Milwaukee.”
    Me – “No, not Milwaukee.”
    Wife – “Italy!!!”
    Me – “No not Italy”
    Wife – “Japan?”
    Me – “No, not Japan. It’s eh… Siberia!”
    Wife – “Well…at least it’s not Milwaukee.”

    • Thom

      LoL !!!!

      +1 x 10

      I’ll have to tell that one myself if’n you don’t mind me borrowing it .

      Too damn funny . I’m still laughing .

  • rvfrules

    But when the shit hits the fan and the global supply lines are being skullf*cked, they’ll be able to keep producing motorcycles while everyone else is up sh*ts creek.

    • aristurtle

      …except they couldn’t; there was a gap in production when Japan had a tsunami because they’d long ago ditched the Soviet-designed carbeurators for nice modern ones sourced from Keihin. There was an article here and everything.

      Losing the source to one single part can grind the whole show to a halt, that’s just the way it is. Ural still makes most parts in-house but they replaced the worst stuff with externally sourced replacements after the factory went privatized: the front brake is from Brembo, the alternator is from NipponDenso, the carb is from Keihin; I forget where the ignition is from but it’s from somewhere else.

  • Miticale

    & After reading through the comments + 10 points to the owner himself responding to these threads with his first name as the username instead of some ridiculous acronym or username pretending “he just knows A LOT about Ural”.

    • Ilya

      Weill … I must admit … I do it sometime. I was even busted once … bad experience.

  • Johndo

    Gotta love this stuff.

  • Gene

    I have nothing to say, but “How It’s Made” (one of my fave shows) has just had its butt kicked into next Tuesday. Great article.

  • Tony

    Awesome feature, thanks!!

  • Braden

    Fantastic article and great insight into what exactly makes the Ural brand so unique.

  • stickfigure

    Damn. I have to agree with the other commenters about the camera – what were you thinking, Wes? This is the most interesting photoset on HfL, and it’s taken with the shittiest camera.

    I would *love* to see video of one of those rims being rolled. What does the factory sound like?

    • T Diver

      Sounds like:
      Clink clink clink! Bang bang bang! Swoosh!!! Shoosh!!! BANG BANG!!!
      “Bak to werk or no porridge for you!!”

  • Lama glama

    Excellent feature. This is what HFL does best.

    Ilya – what you do is amazing. Thank you. Motorcycling is better because of people like you.

  • Thom

    Nice string of articles on Ural M/C’s and now the factory

    Hell , keep this up damn it and you’ll be having me send some profits back to the homeland ( of my grand father who was from the Carpathian mountains )

    These Ural sidehacks are looking more and more likely to have one wind up in my garage

    Damn ! Spending MY money like that . Shame on you Wes !!! :o)

    Any of the models separable ? ( use M/C apart from the sidecar )

  • tomwito

    Wow, those photos look like they’re from 1977. Fascinating and depressing all at the same time.

  • Slothrop

    I think this sort of stuff is a lot more interesting than hipster parties. Just my $0.02.

    • Kevin

      Ah, the hipster trope. Here’s another one: the motorcycle industry caters to rich fat guys!

      Just can’t get enough of those around here.

      • Jesse

        Blah blah gripe flatbill.

        I think we’ve gotten them all in. Back to the awesome photos!

      • Thom

        @ Kevin

        6’4″ Mid fifties . 175 lbs . And yes reasonably flush . And here’s a clue sonny boy . There’s more like me than what you’re describing .

        FYI if it wasn’t for us , there’d be no motorcycle industry right now considering most of you youngins can’t even be bothered to get a drivers license , never mind learn how to ride and maintain a motorcycle ( NYTimes 12/6/11) Wimps !

    • Thom


      Anything is more interesting than watching or reading about a bunch of eternally lost and clueless Fashionista wanna be’s who stand for nothing , believe in nothing and worst of all….. know absolutely nothing

      Hip = In your face , couldn’t give a damn what you think about him and will fight to the death for what he/she believes in – e.g. A badass

      Hipster = Wouldn’t know how to deal with conflict if it smacked him/her in the face . Doesn’t really give a damn about anything except posing and posturing as a Hipster and wouldn’t know how to fight for anything even if he/she did believe in something – e.g. Just an ass !

      ( and that Hipster definition is paraphrased straight out of the dictionary my friends . Not my own . )

  • David Dawson

    Silly as it may sound, I’d love to see Ural keep making parts in house but to international standards. The last few HFL articles really make me want a Ural now… the bikes are as much art and rolling sculpture as they are motorcycles.

    Also, this makes me think of the similar situation of GM and Buick in Flint. Except GM wasn’t broke, still bailed on the town, closed the factory, and told the town (and the UAW) to go pound sand.

    With all of the factory updates, does this mean parts for older bikes are no longer being made or even possible to be made?

  • Ilya

    David, unfortunately, we had to stop making parts for 650 engines. We would’ve not survived otherwise. The good news is that the most of the drive train components are interchangeable and one can always upgrade his old Ural with the newer power train.

  • Corey Wilkinson

    I really appreciate this article. Great subject matter and good combo of words and pics. Icing on the cake is reading the owner’s dialogue in the comments. Seeing how these bikes come to life has me engaged. That settles it, I will own a Ural someday.

  • Braam

    Having toured the Ducati factory three months ago , and now having seen this album, makes me want a Ural so much more than any Ducati..

    Hope there is a dealer in South Africa

    • Ilya
      Very, very nice folks

    • Campisi

      I’m hoping there’s a good one in South Korea. There’s a website for one, but it’s pretty outdated; things like the Wolf and “new for 2009″ run amok.

  • Plotts

    Wow, awesome story, all the more reason to buy one of these cool bikes! Love it.

  • windmill

    I have owned my Ural Patrol for 4 years now, and have gotten more enjoyment out of it than all the other vehicles I have owned combined. These stories showing the factory make me love it even more. Would like to see more of the companys history.

    Ilya, I’m more than happy to be available for testing the new stuff in my daily commuting. Don’t forget I’m right in the neighborhood, hint, hint.