Welding jig, NAHBS 2012/photo J Ferris
Bicycle builders generally use quite a bit of sophisticated tools to make their bicycles. Most of those tools have been around for quite a long time.
The builders use jigs for the frames. They can bend and shape the materials, if they are a metal of some kind, perhaps titanium, steel, or aluminum. The jigs are complex and very cool. I saw several at the National Handmade Bike Show a couple of years ago, when it came to Sacramento, California.
For other materials, the jig provides a template for other, non-metal materials. Bamboo and carbon frames have to start somewhere, and a good model to work from is necessary.
A lot of and welding, some of it pretty specialized, comes into play, along with brazing, to get metal pieces to hold together. This is welding and brazing that has to look very good when it’s finished. You can’t cover up a bad weld or braze.
All of this is known and old technology. It works. It’s worked for what seems like forever. That may be about to change.
3D printers have hit the news in the last few years. The technology has been around since the 1980’s. The first working 3D printer was made by Chuck Hull in 1984. He worked for an outfit called 3D Systems, Inc.
In 2010, these machines became commercially available. Their value is obvious, as the 3D printer and services market in 2012 was estimated be $2.2 billion worldwide.
It’s a pretty interesting process. The short version is that the printer lays down layers, which build up to produce the 3D product.
The technology has come to bicycles. Bicycles made with a 3D printer. Fascinating.
Renishaw, a UK metal-based additive maker teamed with the British design firm Empire Cycles and brought out their 3D printed mountain bike frame this week. It’s the MX-6 all mountain bike.
The frame was printed in sections, using titanium alloy that was then sleeved and bonded together, which, the company says, “…offers several advantages in design freedom, construction and performance.”
Starting with a basic design, they remove material from areas of low stress. This ends up with a new design that is both lightweight and strong.
Bicycle manufacturers typically will go through a few designs before settling on one that will be built for riders. It can be a somewhat long and expensive process.
With the 3D process, these design changes are much faster and more flexible, allowing a finished design to come to market more quickly.
They used a Renishaw AM250 laser melting system to “print” the frame. Using titanium alloy, the frame is strong, durable and lightweight. According to Renishaw, “…additively manufacturing the frame using titanium makes the parts denser–and thus stronger–than if they were cast.”
It’s what cyclists all around the globe look for. A strong, lightweight bike that will stand up to whatever riding they do. With a 3D printer, using a titainium alloy that is laser melted, the frame pieces can simply be whatever they need to be, and that is, always in cycling, strong, durable, and lightweight.
How extensive this technology will be in bicycle manufacturing is anyone’s guess. It could be a tool for very custom bikes. It could just as easily be a tool for less custom bikes too.
There will always be a place in the custom bicycle world for frames that are first designed on a scrap of paper, transferred to a CAD program, and then laid up on a jig and expertly brazed and welded together, or put together with layered carbon or expertly cut bamboo.
Everything changes over time, including how bike frames are made. Amazing.