3D printing is not new as it has been around for quite some time. It conjures up images of science fiction characters miraculously creating fully formed objects out of thin air, while it used every day in real world applications for the automotive, aerospace, and medical communities. Even school children are utilizing 3D printing technology as learning tools for science and other types of engineering projects. The point is that the technology is here, and it is a bigger part of our lives than many people realize.
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a manufacturing process that builds three-dimensional objects layer by layer from a digital 3D model. There are roughly five steps to the 3D printing process. Those steps are:
- Digital Design: The process starts with the creation of a 3D digital model of the object to be printed. This model can be created using computer-aided design (CAD) software or obtained from 3D scans of existing objects.
- Slicing: The digital model is then sliced into thin horizontal layers using slicing software. Each of these layers is a virtual cross-section of the final object.
- Printing: The 3D printer reads these sliced layers and starts building the object layer by layer. There are various 3D printing technologies available, each with its own method for depositing or curing material.
- Cooling and Solidification: As each layer is deposited, it cools and solidifies, adhering to the layer below it. This process is repeated until the entire object is created.
- Post-Processing: Depending on the 3D printing technology used and the desired finish, post-processing steps such as cleaning, sanding, painting, or assembling multiple printed parts may be required.
Within the 3D printing world, there are a few different ways to perform 3D printing. Some involve lasers while others involve UV light.
- Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM): This process involves melting and extruding a thermoplastic filament through a nozzle to create the object layer by layer.
- Stereolithography (SLA): SLA printers use a UV laser to solidify a liquid resin, layer by layer, by selectively curing it.
- Selective Laser Sintering (SLS): SLS uses a high-powered laser to sinter powdered materials (such as plastics or metals) together to form each layer.
- Powder Bed Fusion: This category includes methods like selective laser melting (SLM) and electron beam melting (EBM), which use lasers or electron beams to melt and fuse metal or ceramic powders.
- Binder Jetting: In binder jetting, a liquid binder is selectively deposited onto a powder bed, bonding the particles together to form the object.
Now that we have a basic understanding of what 3D printing is all about, the question becomes: “Why are we using it in bicycles?”. The answer is about efficiency and aesthetics.
As we have developed our line of bike models over the years, we have learned through experience that some things are harder to weld or design than other items. Take for example flat mount brakes. The concept of the flat mount brake is that by putting the caliper on the chainstay, the caliper resists the forces of flex that are inherent in seatstay mounted calipers when using small diameter seat stay tubes and IS mounted calipers. When a caliper is mounted on the seatstay, an extra support tube is welded in between the seat stays and the chainstays to prevent the frame from flexing. Unfortunately, this is not an ideal solution. Moving the brake caliper to the chainstay ensures there is less flex happening which results in better braking performance.
In order to mount the caliper on the chainstay, there are a few different ways to go about it. Here are two examples:
- Create two separate miter cuts in the chainstay and weld in two individual brake mounts for the caliper to mount to.
- Use a solid piece of titanium (in our case) and mount an aluminum brake mount to the metal plate so that the caliper can mount to that.
The issues here are that with method #1, you run the risk of the brake mounts being out of alignment. They can be corrected but that is a lot of extra work in addition to the cutting, mitering, and welding of the mounts themselves. With method #2, the solid plate of titanium is heavy and not aesthetically pleasing. 3D printing allows us to ensure quality control of the parts due to the accuracy of the prints and gives us the look and feel we want to achieve which we can directly design into the part.
We design our parts in house and through the use of our SLA printer where we can rapid prototype our parts for fitment and size, as well as see first-hand exactly how the parts look in the real world. The printing process takes about an hour and only costs a few dollars for a resin sample as opposed to having to machine various prototypes that may or may not work. Those machined samples can cost hundreds of dollars and take anywhere from a few hours to a few days depending on the use of the machines at that time. The ideal scenario is a cost-effective solution that saves time and money to produce a workable sample that can be refined quickly and gets us that much closer to our end goal design.
It’s not just brake mounts that we are able to design, but other parts such as our chainstay yoke that can guarantee tire clearance, chainring clearance, and minimum chainstay length when designing a bike. Oftentimes a customer will ask for the biggest possible tires, the shortest possible chainstays, and they want to run a chainring crankset combination that just won’t work together. By designing our own yokes, we can control certain factors such as tire clearance and chainring clearance, while also ensuring minimum length chainstays will always work. This design also helps from an efficiency standpoint in that we can create a predefined design for the bend of our chainstays so that it works every time, and it cuts down on the labor time to recreate something from scratch each time we build a bike.
3D printed parts also can be lighter than conventionally constructed parts due to the ability to hollow out the pieces and create complex lattice structures internally that reinforce the part while also keeping the weight down. This process is known as “shelling” the part and oftentimes involves a FEA (Finite Element Analysis) test/ analysis as part of the process to determine stress points and potential weak spots within the design itself.
The ability to design just about anything your mind can come up with is a powerful tool for an engineer. You can visualize the end goal of what you want and all you need to do is problem solve your way to that final vision.
Technically speaking, 3D printing is also a more environmentally friendly form of manufacturing in that there is less waste being produced by the printers. Yes, the carbon offset is not exactly neutral, but with less waste of materials being used, there is a greater chance to recoup some of that carbon offset later as the machines continue to run and their performance increases over time.
Beyond the reasons listed above, 3D printing also has additional benefits. Such as:
- Shorter Lead Times: The ability to produce parts directly from digital files reduces lead times for manufacturing. This is particularly beneficial in industries where quick production turnaround is essential.
- Reduced Tooling Costs: Traditional manufacturing methods often require expensive tooling and molds. 3D printing eliminates the need for such tooling, reducing upfront costs.
- Improved Material Efficiency: Titanium powder used in 3D printing can be reclaimed and reused, further reducing material costs and waste.
- Low Volume Production: 3D printing is well-suited for low to medium volume production runs, making it cost-effective for producing small batches of specialized components.
- Improved Performance: The ability to optimize part designs for specific functions can result in improved performance characteristics, such as better heat dissipation, reduced vibration, and enhanced fluid flow.
3D printing has a bright future and while it is firmly in place in our present, the opportunity for it continue to evolve and help achieve better more well-designed products will continue to help us grow as a company.