Is 3D printing the future of custom bike building?

Bastion Bikes lead the way with 3D printed titanium lugs - but is the technology the way forward for the industry?

Three-dimensional printing sprang into the public consciousness about six years ago, when photos of crudely-formed plastic shapes began emerging all over the internet. ‘This is the future of [insert type of object] manufacturing’, proclaimed the headlines.

At first these proclamations were mostly met with a raised eyebrow. And justifiably so. But as additive layering manufacturing, to give it its proper name, has developed, the equipment required to ‘3D print’ objects has increased in accuracy and precision, and dropped dramatically in price. Now, we’re starting to see the technology reach commercial viability in a whole range of fields, so could this also be the future of custom bike production?

3D printing, in very simple terms, involves designing an object with a computer programme and digitally splitting that design into extremely thin layers. The design is then interpreted by a 3D printing machine and built up, one wafer-thin layer at a time. The process is done with easily-melted materials like plastics, or titanium.

Inevitably the technology has been applied to bicycle production, just as it was to toilet roll-holders, cars and even firearms. Charge Bikes, based out of Frome in Somerset, were approached by the engineering team at Airbus, who wanted to find a way of demonstrating the commercial viability of 3D printing by manufacturing something that could be used in everyday life. Something far removed from the arcane mysteries of aviation. Something like a bicycle.

As 3D printing technology has come down in price, it has become a more viable commercial entity (pic: Bastion)

Nick Larsen of Charge says a mutual love of cycling helped inspire the collaboration.

“We were approached about four or five years ago by the Airbus engineers in Bristol, who wanted to try this process on something commercial,” he says.

“They had been exploring 3D printing in their work for Airbus and wanted to show a new, more accessible application of the process.

“Three of the team at the time were into mountain biking and had been experimenting with printing titanium components for their own bikes. They wanted to partner with us to roll it out in a more commercial application.”

Charge and the team at Airbus worked on the production and testing of dropouts for a cyclocross bike, helping to produce a frame with disc brakes that was on a par for lightness with a calliper equivalent – something Charge hadn’t managed to make work up until that point with other manufacturing processes. It was boundary-breaking stuff.

“The advantage of the process was that you could manufacture stuff that you could never manufacture in any other way. Not by casting or machining.” says Larsen.

However, the process would never have been cost-effective without the involvement of Airbus (which owned all the machines), so after a short run in which they produced 50 numbered components, Charge shelved the process.

It wasn’t that the tech didn’t work, it was that it was still too early to be viable commercially.

“We couldn’t work it out so that the production process would be cost effective, but even at that time the cost of the [3D printing] machines was coming down every year,” Larsen adds. “The prices were rapidly coming down.”

Bastion use titanium, paired with carbon tubes, to build their custom bikes (pic: Bastion)

Fast forward to the present day and, true to form, one company from Australia thinks 3D printing could be the future of custom bike manufacturing.

Dean McGeary,technical director of Bastion Cycles, explains: “The creation of Bastion was equal parts pursuing our passion and seeing a gap in the market.

“We set out to build the best bike possible for the customer by leveraging our engineering experience and the latest manufacturing methods. That meant combining the stiffness and low weight of a mass-produced carbon frame with the ride quality and customisation of a titanium frame, and of course stunning looks. No easy target, but a challenge we have thoroughly enjoyed.”

McGeary agrees with Larsen that the versatility of 3D printing as a technique makes it extremely appealing to manufacturers.

“3D printing was the key that unlocked the potential,” he states. “It gives us the design freedom to create not only beautiful shapes, but structures that are lighter and stiffer than previously possible.”

Bastion, titanium, carbon, 3D printing, road bike, pic - Bastion
Bastion, 3D printing, titanium, seatpost-seatstay junction, pic - Bastion
Bastion, 3D printing, seatpost, pic - Bastion

Despite the high-tech engineering behind their bikes, from a customer point of view Bastion’s process is fairly simple. Using their incredibly detailed online ‘customisation’ tool, you can input every element of your ideal custom bike – tweaking the seat tube angle and fork rake, the stiffness of the carbon tubes and the width of the handlebars. You can also input data from your own bike fit session, so the end product will be perfectly sized to you.

There are certain limits within the customisation tool, so people can’t create distorted, unfeasible bikes. The user-created geometry also gets a score for two metrics created by Bastion, which they refer to as the Response factor and the Handling factor.

“These factors show you how race- or cruising-orientated your bike is,” McGeary explains. “As you design your bike, these two numbers are calculated and showed on a simple graph with a recommended zone. The recommended zone represents what we consider to be a well-handling bike – as long as your geometry is ‘in the box’, then you will have a well-handling bike.

“As a final check, all of our bikes get an engineer’s report, where we check your design and discuss with you any tweaks we think will improve your bike.”

Clients can fully customise their bikes (within reasonable parameters), and Bastion will use their 3D printing tech and carbon tubes to make it a reality (pic: Bastion)

Once the geometry is finalised, Bastion uses a 3D printer to generate titanium lugs that will sit at the key joins on the frame. A carbon fibre tubeset is then cut to the correct length and the frame assembled. Voila, one completely custom bike.

With a claimed lead time of only four weeks, Bastion is able to deliver you a custom bike far quicker than any traditional frame builder. McGeary says it’s this, plus ‘the best crash replacement policy in the world’ that gives them an edge over traditional custom builders.

“With our bonded titanium and carbon fibre design we can blend the benefits of both materials in one frame and easily replace damaged sections of a frame in the event of a crash,” he explains.

“That means you only pay to replace the affected parts, not the whole frame. This usually means replacements or repairs cost 25% of what they would on a carbon frame.”

3D printing was the key that unlocked the potential. It gives us the design freedom to create not only beautiful shapes, but structures that are lighter and stiffer than previously possible

So could this sort of technology soon replace the custom frame builders, and their common material of choice, steel? Bespoke frame builder, Rob Quirk, of Quirk Cycles, is impressed with the business model Bastion has come up with, but isn’t sure if this type of custom will every truly replace the handbuilt bicycle.

“I think the immediacy of the system coupled with full customisation combines the best of what the big producers and small makers can offer,” he admits.

“Of course, there are restrictions. The model cannot offer what a bespoke builder can, which is a truly unique product that is literally one of a kind, or the vast range that the big producers have. Instead they’ve designed what they think is the best road machine and then offered customers a way to tune it and receive it in a really quick time.”

Bastion’s business model has impressed rivals, but frame builders believe steel is still here to stay (pic: Bastion)

Steel, for Quirk at least, is here to stay.

“Steel’s popularity never seems to diminish,” he adds. “The ride feel always seems to be one of the major reasons that people bring up when discussing it.

“Steel, when worked and built well, gives the rider great feedback, positive feedback. Carbon is a great material and it’s good that small producers are working with it more and more as I think these companies are the ones that will really work hard to produce great riding frames, but in terms of truly great riding [and] fully custom, unique products, steel’s versatility cannot be rivalled – yet.”

Even then, however, Bastion have an answer and are developing a truly unique bike in tandem with British custom frame builder, Demon Frameworks.

Tom Warmerdam, the founder of Demon, is helping to create a one-off Bastion bike for a customer by tailoring the fine details of the frame and the finishing of the lugs, which will then be manufactured by Bastion.

Could this be the final piece in the puzzle for a quickly-obtained, but still unique road bike? We look forward to seeing the finished bike soon.


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