3-D Printing: Is It The Future Of Custom Bikes?
If you hadn't noticed, the future has arrived: we've got autonomous cars, lab-grown meat, and drones that'll help you buy homes.
Oh, and 3-D printed bikes.
Perhaps a bike made from a 3-D printed process sounds far-fetched, but it's happening, and it's providing picky cyclists with easy access to fully custom bikes designed to your liking.
Bike frames are made one of two ways: They're either welded metal or they're molded plastic (carbon fiber). But 3-D printing might make it possible to design a totally different kind of bike frame -- one that's made to order.
The bespoke bike industry has had a bit of a renaissance in recent years. Hardworking artisans have been making rolling art-to-order for the rich and the oddly proportioned in increasing numbers -- as evidenced by the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, and other similar events on other continents.
But it's 3-D printing that'll truly make custom bikes more accessible to the masses. Right now it's still quite expensive; 3-D printers that can manufacturer anything even close to the size of a bike frame are few and far between. Creative bike makers have found some ways around that. Empire Cycles in Lancashire, U.K., had Renishaw, a manufacturing company print frame parts for a full-suspension mountain bike out of titanium. Flying Machine, an Australian company out of Perth, is producing a bike out of 3-D printed titanium lugs.
photo by Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious Richard Sachs frame at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show.
Some of the advantages of 3-D printing include "no tooling needed, it's fast to manufacture, and you have huge design freedom." said Chris Williams of Empire Cycles. You have, "huge design freedom, and the design can be changed very easily and re-printed."
Matthew Andrew of Flying Machine told me that for him 3D printing -- or additive manufacturing, as it's actually called -- offers several benefits.
The first: the ability to completely customize the frame. "There'll be no sizing -- no small, medium, or large, just your size. We'll base the bike on your particular measurements," Andrew said. "But it's a multi-pronged argument -- we were drawn to it from a design point-of-view. It's seamless and clean aesthetically."
Williams said that, unfortunately, it's very expensive right now, and the size of the parts that you can manufacture is "quite small." As a result, Empire Cycles asked Renishaw to make a series of components that would then be welded together. Instead of welding at the joints -- traditionally the highest stress points of a bicycle frame -- the pieces are welded in the middle of the tubes.
Flying Machine out of Perth, Australia, is taking a slightly different tack: they're 3-D printing titanium lugs (the joints of the bike frame) and welding tubes onto them. Lugs aren't new, but what is new is the ability create custom lugs, which enables Flying Machine to make an infinite range of custom fits and geometries printed up to order -- no tooling or metalworking required.
While Empire Cycles hasn't been able to make their 3D printed mountain bike a viable product, Flying Machine has. They have the advantage of a what amounts to a government subsidy on titanium through the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation. This allows Flying Machine to get the cost of a complete custom titanium bike down to $3,500. That rivals the starting price for custom titanium frames from many manufacturers.
Andrew assured me that printing a complete frame wasn't far off. He likened the growth of 3-D printer capacity to microprocessor speed: it's growing exponentially. Right now, even at the $3,500 price-point, the Flying Machine is competing for the dollars of enthusiasts looking for something high end, but not by much, he said. Also, $3,500 is squarely in the middle of many major bike-makers' lineups these days.
I learned that 3-D bike printing hasn't taken off locally, just yet. But after an exhaustive search for local 3-D bike printers, I did find Fathom, an Oakland-based 3-D printer, which had some pictures of 3-D printed bike helmets on its website. That's a start.
So I guess if you're one of those who only shops local, 3-D printed bikes might not be in your present, but it's certainly in your near future.
Leif Haven is a writer and cyclist living in the Bay Area. He can be spotted dragging himself up a hill -- literally and metaphorically.