Welcome 3D Printed Motorcycles

A new era in motorcycle manufacturing is dawning, and it might bring a much expected evolution in this industry: 3D printing, a relatively new technology that is already being put to good use by some pioneering manufacturers.
3D printing – or additive manufacturing – is most likely the next big step the motorcycle industry will take, and it is going to be much more significant than electric vehicles becoming highly popular. And this will happen because 3D printing affects the very foundations of vehicle manufacturing, regardless of what type of energy they are going to use.

Indian Motorcycle is already using 3D printing for 2014 Indian Chief prototyping purposes, and Polaris were quite happy to reveal that the time needed to switch from the paper sketch to a physical shape engineers and mechanics can actually touch and examine was dramatically shortened by the use of such technology. Italy’s CRP Group, the guys behind the Energica Ego electric superbike, took things even further, as some of the parts they will actually use to build the bike are 3D printed.

More recently, Empire Cycles showed the world’s debut all-titanium bicycle frame manufactured using 3D printing and, even though it was an early-stage prototype, this success has drawn a lot of attention from the guys in the industry. The road is open, and I believe it will only be several years until motorcycle manufacturers start using this technology on a wider scale.

Some of the more suspicious fellows I’ve been talking to about 3D printing clearly said that the results of using additive manufacturing were simply not up to the specs the industry needs. That was a rather polite way to say “these parts are much too weak, dude,” but my firm belief is that their reticence is a bit paranoid and unfounded. And that’s a polite way to say “open up your mind to new technologies, dudes!”

People have started making guns using 3D printing, and the Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) is turning out more and more spectacular results each month. If some of the parts can withstand the extreme forces occurring in firearms when they are used, I tend to believe we’re not exactly too far from having a technology good enough to manufacture bike parts.

Sintering and 3D printing are most likely to be the key elements in discovering new composite materials with excellent applications in the motorcycle industry. Funny thing, the guys I mentioned before were only thinking about engines and suspensions, completely oblivious to the numerous other parts that go into a motorcycle.

Even so, if one fellow can 3D print a bicycle frame made out of titanium according to his own CAD projects and imagination, it’s really hard to understand why multi-billion companies, such as Honda, Yamaha, Harley-Davidson, and pretty much any other bike manufacturer would not be able to do it.

Some say that costs are prohibitive, and there’s so much truth in this. EVERY new technology is expensive, no matter where we’d look. This is the price of progress, and since all manufacturers brag about how cool and genius their R&D departments are, maybe it’s time to put all their engineers and researchers to a much more serious test.

Now, the tricky part is that they most likely won’t, at least not very soon. The reason is as simple as the principle that governs this area of human civilization is old: it all starts with individuals or smaller groups! 3D printing technologies are still in their infancy if we compare them with century-old bike making and, believe it or not, some of these companies have a huge inertia. Plus the stockholders who want to see money rolling into their bank accounts at a certain rate.

Luckily, it’s all down to the few, small, and often almost insignificant visionaries who first think about how to make the world a better place instead of how to make more money no matter what, a thing that corporations are most prone to, given the very nature of their existence.

However, once this kicks off, manufacturing prices will drop, because this is the law of the market, and this will make 3D printed parts cheaper and more widely available. More so, I believe that 3D printed parts will even turn out to be a more lucrative option for everybody: they will be easier to make and require less time, much wider product lines will be much easier to support, allowing customers to choose from a richer offer, while not forcing manufacturers or dealers to deal with huge stocks.

And the potential benefits could still be enhanced, as new materials used for crafting such parts and components could be recycled and further lower the manufacturing costs for new spares. Can you picture being involved in a crash and trading in your bent fork legs for, say, 10% off the price of new ones?

In the end, maybe using 3D printing for manufacturing bikes as they are today is not necessarily cheaper, but this technology WILL help those who are constantly looking for new directions in motorcycle design. Don’t be fooled by the – very seductive – thought that bikes are perfect the way they are now. This is the kind of self-sufficiency that the evolution of civilization has proved wrong on countless occasions, and motorbikes make no exception to the rule.

Of course, you can be in love with your current bike, and this is as natural as it gets. Generations before you most likely said the same thing about a hypothetical 1920 Indian, and even nowadays one can find a lot of riders who say they would not change their old Harley from the ‘60s for anything in the whole wide world.

It’s alright, they’re okay. And their bikes are also fine. But I am ready to bet my money they’ll be extremely happy to hear that some lab is once more manufacturing the part they could no longer find for years, to make their bike work again…

New motorcycle designs such as the morphing vehicles, variable-architecture motorcycles, new suspension paradigms, and new power units (internal combustion or electric motors) are being created as you’re reading this editorial, with more and more of them involving 3D printing. The world of motorcycles IS changing!
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