When John Kroening dusted off a 1999 sketch he made of a motorcycle trike, he wasn't quite sure it would lead to a new business venture.
After all, he had already kept himself busy in his line of work. Kroening, a mechanical engineer who started Superior Design Inc. in Waukesha eight years ago, has usually been involved with helping other companies get their ideas off the ground.
Say a company has a new product it needs to develop but doesn't have enough staff to do it. "Rather than (that company hiring) for that project need, we come in and supplement their team with our folks and help them get a lot more accomplished and get their project done," Kroening explained. "We support a lot of companies simultaneously to pick up whatever they need from an engineering-support standpoint."
Superior Design allowed him to take his experience as a designer and engineer. To continue serve its customers, the 12-employee company evolved, stepping beyond creating just a handful of prototypes. It expanded into Superior Assembly Inc., assembling small runs of projects for their clients.
But the focus has always been on meeting the needs of its external customers — until he brought out that old sketch.
After finishing a project for the U.S. Army and before starting the next, Kroening realized his company had some time to try something different.
The idea was for a bolt-on trike kit, with two large front wheels, that would be able to attach to a motorcycle.
"We had a little window of time so we said you know what, let's produce this design," Kroening said. "So we actually took it upon ourselves to develop the project."
His design held certain attractive elements, from a marketing standpoint: it could be removed if needed, be more cost affective than current similar options and fill a need in the motorcycle market, Kroening said.
"Our sense was that the marketplace was changing, and it has. The baby boomers are the biggest market for Harley-Davidson and motorcycles to begin with, and as they age there is some inherent difficulties in riding a two-wheeler — such as weight, physical limitations — and so a trike is gaining more and more popularity," he said.
The project took perhaps nine months of designing and engineering and another four months to build before the first prototype was ready to show off.
The first design is meant for Harley-Davidson V-Rod model bikes and Superior Design believes the price point will be able to come in around $5,000. The kit is estimated to take a dealer approximately four hours to attach to a bike. An at-home engineer would need approximately eight hours.
"(The biggest challenge) I think for us, although we were our customer, (is that) we put it on the back burner whenever another customer came in with something to do — because it was ours," Kroening explained. "You want to prioritize it, but it was never our number one priority because our other customers came first. So I think ... it took a little longer than it would have normally because the customer was us."
When they finally took the Scorpion Trike out on the road, the response they got was better than expected.
Jim Ellsworth, Superior's sales and marketing manager, said that the Facebook page has already gotten worldwide interest.
"We have a Facebook site, and they've come as far away and consistently from Thailand, Japan, somebody the other day was from the U.K., so the interest is worldwide," Ellsworth said. "There's a lot of makes and models and interest. They all want to know when it's going to be available for their bike."
Kroening prefers watching reactions in person.
"When people see it in person, it's fun to be a fly on the wall and listen to all the comments," Kroening said. "There's a lot of backyard engineers that are just trying to figure it all out, and it's a lot of fun to hear them tell the other guy how it all works."
Because of the overwhelming interest, they hope to start filling orders in spring 2015 and continue to design them for other models of bikes.
Aside from coming up with a new product, Kroening said the lessons learned from completing the project were just as valuable.
"It was great to see both sides. It helped us be a stronger design company. It's great insight that you don't normally get to have," Kroening said.
"Whether or not this project was going to be something we get to the consumer or not wasn't really a concern to us," he added. "We wanted to do the project because it was fun to do. (Second), we need items like this to sit in our trade booth so people can look at it and say wow I get it, now I know what you do.
"We have everything from hip surgical tools to electrical devices, but those things aren't always a lot of interest to people. Having a big motorcycle in your tent — that's a lot of fun."
Others have seemed to agree. At the 2014 Wisconsin State HOG Rally in the Wisconsin Dells, the Scorpion Trike took first place.
"It was nice. You like it when other people appreciate the work you've done," Kroening said.