BIKES FROM THE 3D PRINTER

The dream of making bikes in a 3D printer has been reality for a couple of years now. There have been a number of prototypes made with the help of revolutionary printing technology. However, that’s as far as it went, until now. Currently there are a number of companies offering initial serial production.

Additive manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing, deposits material, layer by layer to build precise geometric shapes. There are a number of different approaches. The German company Urwahn is using 3D technology with powdered material that is widely applied in other industries. In a generative laser-melting process, connecting parts are built by spreading metal powder layer by layer and using a laser to fuse them together. This is similar to the way that an inkjet printer works, only instead of ink, the print head applies a liquid binder to the layers of powdered material. The printer then draws a 2D image on the first layer and then glues the subsequent layers, until the finished product is ready. The amount of material required is carefully calculated so that the layers bond to one another. However, Urwahn only uses 3D printing to make the connections. The main frame is composed of steel and is still made using traditional means, i.e. by hand. Why is this? “There are currently no printing machines large enough to print whole frames” says CEO Sebastian Meinecke. 

“There are currently no printing machines large enough to print whole frames."

Additive manufacturing has the advantage that the manufacturing process to make complex connecting parts is dramatically reduced and no cost-intensive tooling is required. In addition, designers have virtually unlimited design freedom to create parts. This makes it possible to integrate attachment parts, which in turn opens up further possibilities for design and individualisation. “We’re aware that this production method might still sound like an abstract concept to many, but we wanted to explore new avenues,” says Sebastian Meinecke explaining why the company has been pursuing this course for several years now. At present, it takes around 30 to 45 days for Urwahn to build a bike. In return, the customer receives a customised bike built according to their own specific requirements. However, it is (currently) not cheap. Price is an important issue for Sebastian Meinecke. “The production costs are high because the industry is thinking and moving so slowly.” There might be new companies coming into the market, but 3D printing is still not widespread. This is why Urwahn continues to maintain its manufacturing character. “We put quality before quantity”, says Sebastian Meinecke.

"The production costs are high because the industry is thinking and moving so slowly.”

Over the pond, US manufacturers Emerybikes and Superstrata are looking to reach a wider audience. They both specialise in building bikes using carbon. And their bikes are based on the ideas of the start-up company Avero. Normally, to build a carbon frame, numerous small parts have to be bonded and screwed together. Their connections are manufactured in a thermosetting process. Although the Avero method requires no connecting parts at all. What makes it special is its one-piece production using a reinforced thermoplastic process, which is said to make frames significantly stronger. Manufacturing is made possible by using higher pressure and also by special software. The system analyses the fibre paths of the individual carbon elements to determine how the forces and stresses will affect the finished bike. This makes it possible to optimise frame-building to make it impact-resistant and lightweight. Superstrata is even taking it one step further: The young company builds custom-made 3D-printed unibody carbon fibre bikes that can be adapted according to body size, weight, arm and leg length and riding style. The brand offers over 500,000 combinations, which, according to the manufacturer, makes Superstrata the most versatile carbon fibre bike on the market.

They claim that their advanced 3D-printing process allows for an unprecedented level of customization and design flexibility – and that it will be more cost-effective in the long term. Conventional carbon frame production was done by hand with the process taking a long time. In addition, it involved greater quantities of material as there were large amounts of offcuts. Manufacturing with 3D printing intends to solve all these problems. Not only are frames quicker to build, they have the same quality. Nevertheless, it does require a high degree of digitalisation and data capture to ensure customer satisfaction and that no incorrect frames are built. Superstrata bikes are currently limited to batches of 500, as a crowdfunding  campaign is still running on indiegogo to raise financing.

„Es gibt noch keine Druckmaschinen, die so groß sind, um Rahmen ganzheitlich drucken zu können“.