What 3D printing means for motorcycles

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Published on 13 June 2019 by Mike Waters

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Filed under categories: Features, The world of motorcycling

3D printing is a relatively new technology, but now entire motorcycles are being printed. Motorcycle Rider editor Jeremy Pick investigates

Advances in the tech behind 3D printing are driving the process into the world of motorcycle production.

3D printing – also known as ‘additive manufacturing’ – starts with a design drawing or CAD file and builds up the object in three dimensions, layer by layer. The technology was developed in the 1980s by the aerospace industry, and manufacturers in other industries were quick to recognise the advantages of rapid prototyping, faster production of one-off or limited edition parts, and the ability to produce bespoke elements for out-of-production or custom applications. Motorcycle companies were late adopters, but are now catching up and, in many cases, overtaking their automotive counterparts.

Major marques started using 3D printing to create prototype parts out of plastics so designers could visualise the reality of their CAD models or to produce sample engine cases in transparent plastic to monitor oil flows and lubrication in real time. More recent technological advances mean that metal parts can be constructed using metallic powder that is immediately sintered with a laser beam. The part can then be built up layer by layer, eliminating the need for costly multiple castings.

Like printing money
Projects that would previously have taken weeks can now be completed in-house in a matter of hours at a fraction of the cost of conventional engineering methods. BMW repair shop Joost Motoren, for example, has begun producing one-off parts such as lamp cases for BMW motorcycles. Production costs have been reduced by 90% compared to computer numerical control (CNC) assembly as a result.

At the same time, retail prices of 3D printers are dropping – home printers suitable for producing bespoke plastic items are available for a few hundred pounds. While 3D metal printers are more expensive, their prices continue to tumble too.

The ambitions of the manufacturers involved are driving progress to the next level. The first attempt at producing a complete working motorcycle using a 3D printer was by US firm TE Connectivity and this was launched at the 2015 Rapid 3D printing exhibition. Resembling a Harley-Davidson Softail, the bike took approximately 1,000 hours to design and print. Although the frame, tank and wheels were printed from plastic, the bike required a separate electric motor as well as tyres, brakes, fasteners and electrical components to fulfil the design.

In 2016, Airbus deployed its large-scale industrial printers to produce an electric motorcycle chassis using sintered aluminium powder. Dubbed Light Rider and developed by their subsidiary APWorks, the bike consists of an elaborate trellis frame made from thousands of layers of aluminium powder that means the frame is 30% lighter than a conventionally manufactured aluminium frame – a crucial advantage for an electric bike, where weight is critical to performance and range. APWorks accepted customer deposits for a limited run of 50 bikes, despite the expected retail price of €50,000.

The fine print
Now, things are growing exponentially. A fully functional electric motorbike named Nera has been manufactured by NOWlab, a subsidiary of German industrial 3D printer company BigRep. Designed by Marco Mattia Cristofori and Maximilian Sedlak, every component of the Nera except for the electric motor and battery is 3D-printed with plastic filaments – including the frame, fork, rims, seat and tyres. Innovations include airless tyres, forkless steering and embedded electronics. In total, the bike features 15 different 3D-printed parts and weighs just 60kg excluding the electric components.

While there are no immediate plans for a commercial launch of Nera (the prototype is only intended as an example of the potential for 3D printing and is not for sale), the company has produced an impressive video of the completed futuristic motorcycle in action.

NOWlab Managing Director Daniel Büning says: “Nera illustrates the massive benefits that 3D printing offers for the production of end-use parts. The Nera combines several innovations developed by NOWlab, such as the airless tyre, functional integration and embedded sensor technology. This bike and our other prototypes push the limits of engineering creativity and will reshape automotive technology as we know it.”

It seems inevitable that large-scale 3D printing will become part of mainstream motorcycle production. Manufacturers are working on increasing the current speed of the additive manufacturing process to allow for mass production – a goal that currently remains just out of reach.

A further challenge is the risk of intellectual property theft. Additive manufacturing products can only be patented, not copyrighted. So, until there are clear guidelines regarding intellectual property and 3D printing, manufacturers remain wary of adopting the technology in mass production.

The market in 3D
Progress is always accelerating. Polaris Industries used 3D printing while prototyping their Indian motorcycles to get ahead of arch-rivals Harley-Davidson and this took just three months rather than the 15 months required with traditional technology. According to Polaris CEO Scott Wine: “This development is more than 3D printing technology; it’s about the competitive advantage enabled by 3D printing.”

Similarly, Ducati cut a significant period from the development process for the engine of the Desmosedici RR race bike. Designed and assembled in only eight months, this is particularly impressive when compared to the 28 months it took to design and build its predecessor.

Perhaps the biggest statement of intent comes from BMW, which has an additive manufacturing centre in Munich producing 140,000 3D-printed parts annually, ranging from complete prototypes to discontinued parts, as well as highly complex chassis components like the S1000RR motorcycle frame. BMW Motorrad recently produced a conceptual design for a 3D printer that can be mounted onto a GS motorcycle and is capable of printing essential replacement parts for riders heading into remote areas.

Fanciful? Perhaps so, but there is no doubt that 3D printing is here to stay, with more and more motorcycle parts – and entire motorcycles – being produced using the innovation.

This feature originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of the BMF’s magazine, Motorcycle Rider

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