The advent of the printing press has been one of the most historically significant developments in human history. But the future is in printing solid objects, and this week the first working bicycle has been developed.
Aired earlier this week on BBC’s Breakfast show was a fully working bicycle made using a new manufacturing process known as Additive Layer Manufacturer ( ALM) by Bristol-based EADS UK (the European aerospace and defence group).
This process makes it possible to ‘grow’ a product from a fine powder of metal (such as titanium, stainless steel or aluminium), nylon or carbon-reinforced plastics.
It’s a process not dissimilar to 3D printing, which many people believe will become household items within a couple of decades. Such printers work by depositing material layer by layer and even the most complex shape can be fabricated, and this new process developed by EADS UK uses a laser-sintering process which adds successive, thin layers of the chosen structural material until a solid, fully-formed bike emerges.
EADS UK developed the technology for use in the aerospace industry, but wanted to demonstrate its capability in an everyday object. The bicycle was the perfect example. Says Robin Southwell, chief executive of EADS UK: “The Airbike is a fantastic example of British innovation at its very best. The team at EADS in Bristol includes world class engineers who continue to push boundaries by working at the forefront of technology. I believe that ALM technology represents a paradigm shift.”
Minister for Business and Enterprise, Mark Prisk, said: “I am proud to see the UK – through EADS and others – leading the world in the development of innovative products. Additive Layer Manufacturing, or ‘3-D printing’, is a truly exciting, green, new technology, which not only enables the creation of products beyond the capability of traditional manufacturing processes, but also offers the potential to help the manufacturing sector slash its waste and carbon emissions. This is exactly the sort of advanced technology that we want to see companies investing in, here in the UK.”
Besides the obvious benefit of ease of production, reduced waste – process itself uses about one-tenth of the material required in traditional manufacturing – and the potential lower cost, EADS believes that the nylon construction used in the ‘Airbike’ is strong enough to replace steel or aluminium. But yet can be up to 65% lighter. This makes it ideal for wheels, bearings and other high stress parts of a bicycle.
Andy Hawkins, lead engineer for ALM at EADS, described it as ‘a game changing technology’. “The beauty is that complex designs do not cost any extra to produce,” he said. “The laser can draw any shape you like and many unique design features have been incorporated into the Airbike such as the auxetic structure to provide saddle cushioning or the integrated bearings encased within the hubs.”
On a global scale, ALM offers potential for products to be produced quickly and cheaply on ‘printers’ located in offices, shops and houses. There are currently limitations in terms of the maximum component size achievable and the costs involved, the technology is developing fast.
One day we might all be able to design our own bicycle or handlebars or other components. Not wanting to get ahead of ourselves, we’ve already began sketching our fantasy frame and components ahead of such devices becoming affordable for home ownership.
If you missed the news item you can watch it here.