The Future arrived last week. The postman delivered it to my house just as I was going out for a ride. It is, as far as I know, the first bit of 3D printing that has crossed our threshold but, given the way things are going, it’s unlikely to be the last. I delayed my departure a few moments to fix the new part to my bike and set off into Tomorrow’s World.
3D printing has been around in basic forms since the 1980’s but has only really start to gain significant traction in the public consciousness in the last 5 years. As hardware prices fall and material options soar, applications for what has also been termed ‘additive manufacturing’ are now looking immense. A shift of seismic proportions, at least on a par with the home computing revolution, is coming as we will change the way we both perceive and consume manufactured objects. A 3D printer in every home is not such a far-fetched idea and would have profound effects on the way we conduct our lives.
Multi-coloured, multi-material 3D prints will be the next generation.
When I was younger there was a stop-motion kids TV programme called ‘Bertha’. Bertha was a huge green machine with a friendly face that could ‘manufacture’ anything that her programmers wanted. They just typed in a few instructions and Bertha would spit it out. It always seemed a little bit too easy to me but 3D printing is equally magical in some ways. It works by machines interpreting a 3D computer model into many hundreds of vertical ‘slices’. The slices are then built up one by one by a laser fusing plastic or metal powder into a single finished object. Whilst traditional ‘reductive’ manufacturing generally takes a block of material and then machines away at it to leave the required form, additive manufacturing allows for far more complex shapes and internal structures to be created as is built up from the inside. The computer models can be amended much more easily than physical moulds and when this flexibility is linked with model files that can be easily and quickly shared by email or via the web the eventual possibilities soon begin to look endless.
For now, the required machinery is still a significant investment and the output technology remains in the hands of relatively few. At one end of the scale NASA are looking at putting a 3D printer into space to save on the need for transporting spare parts to and from Earth. At the other end of the scale small businesses are spotting gaps in the markets that can be uniquely served by the speed and flexibility of 3D printing. And cyclists are benefitting already.
Martyn Harris got into 3D printing over a decade ago. Working for one of the country’s leading additive manufacturers, 3T RPD, he initially saw the potential for creating a bespoke hardware bracket for his bike. The former World Track Masters Champion soon saw that wider interest in similar products would sustain batch productions and set about turning his sideline wheel supply business, Raceware Direct, into a 3D printed bike parts business, mainly selling aftermarket bracket mounts for Garmin GPS computers that locate the unit in a more visible area ahead of the handlebars. And this is where the flexibility of 3D printing comes into it’s own. I got in touch with Martyn about a bracket I wanted but which wasn’t listed on his website. My Garmin is quite old and my handlebars are not the modern oversize version. “No problem”, said Martyn, “We can tweak the model and run one off.”
Raceware’s Garmin mount, tailored for older 605 units and 25.4mm handlebars
Whilst there have been recent stories about experiments with 3D printed food and carbon fibre, the bulk of items coming to market right now are either plastic or metal. Raceware’s Garmin and SRM mounts are made from glass reinforced nylon which give greater strength than the plain nylon option, which Martyn made initial test products from. Raceware also have a couple of titanium pieces – including a hollow chain catcher that was used on Chris Froome’s Pinarello Dogma last season – and Martyn believes that metal holds the future to widening the application of 3D printing.
So could we see fully 3D printed frames anytime soon? According to Martyn it’s already been done, “There was a mountain bike built last year from 3D printed titanium sections but it was around £20K to make so [it was] more a marketing exercise. I am working on projects at the moment that will combine 3D printed titanium with more traditional methods such as carbon and titanium tubes. I see no reason to make a complete frame so will rather concentrate on the areas that can benefit from the process. The biggest challenge with metal parts is understanding how to design for the process.” EADS, the makers of the Airbus A380 double-decker super jumbo, also had a go at a fully 3D printed bike. It’s interesting but looks like they should stick to planes for the time being.
The process is key to production. Designing the ‘build chamber’ in which the piece will be layered up requires skill to ensure the pieces come out as intended and that chambers are maximised for efficiency. It not uncommon for many different parts to be combined in one build chamber. In this way one-offs and small batch runs can remain reasonably priced. And whilst we think of it being almost instantaneous, with the product magically appearing before our very eyes, Martyn confirms that a typical run in 3T’s P730 machine takes about 50 hours but that single run can hold hundreds of individual parts.
So what does the future look and feel like? My Garmin mount is certainly robust but the material has an innate, dry delicacy more akin to bone or biscuit than traditional plastics. It feels nicely ‘different‘. It’s also very light – just 14 grams including an Allen head bolt and bonded-in nut. The layered structure is clearly visible in some of the curves but this adds to rather than detracts from the appeal of the item. The bracket accepts the Garmin snugly and with a satisfyingly solid click. I’ve done a couple of rides out with it now, including a few offroad sections, and the unit hasn’t budged so much as a millimetre. It puts the Garmin in a much more readable position than the stem mounts that are supplied with them (and also offers a tiny aero advantage if that sort of thing matters to you..) My mount is black but Raceware offer a wide range of colouring options in addition to all the conceivable variables of left and right handed versions for different mount styles and positions. They can even do you one with your name built into the design…
The laser process used to fuse the consecutive layers together, known as sintering, is quite mesmerising to watch, and, because the build chamber is totally filled with powder to support the piece as it is made, their is also the delight of breaking out the finished forms at the end of the run. It evokes the thrill of buried treasure, of archaeological digs, or a fairground bran tub Lucky Dip, and contrasts sharply with the conveyor belt production of many modern goods. The uncovered nylon pieces are air cleaned and tumble finished before being coloured, whilst most metal pieces generally require a more thorough level of finishing.
It’s this link between current and newer forms of manufacturing that Martyn sees as the key to progress, and that it shouldn’t be seen as a threat to existing metalworkers, “I think 3D printing could help UK manufacturing more than people imagine, I am in the lucky position of understanding the real benefits and the fact is that with metals, which is the big market for the future, you still rely heavily on machine shops for finishing the parts to a high standard using CNC machines and wire EDM cutters. Many machine shops seem worried that they will lose business but if they partner up with a decent printing bureau they could quickly find themselves busier than ever.”
So the Future is here and amongst us. What is clear is that progression and innovation has long been a key element of cycling culture (restrictive UCI regulations notwithstanding..) and so it feels right that something as inherently simple as the pedal bike can embrace this new technology in the same way it has sequentially embraced pneumatic tyres, cable tensioned gearing, exotic alloy tubing and carbon-fibre lay-ups over the last century. Appropriately in this case, the adoption of 3D printing seems to be building up incrementally, one little layer at a time.