Is 3D Printing the Future for Mountain Bikes?

If you’ve been following the news out of SXSW this year you know the big story is the rise of 3D printers and scanners, bringing small-scale manufacturing to the desktop for the first time. Which got us thinking: what will this mean for mountain bikes of the future? Here are some ideas.

Get any part you need at any time

Home mechanics know this situation all too well: You just installed a new fork and you’re all ready to button everything up but realize you need a couple more spacers. Or you replace your derailleur cables and can’t find the stupid ferrules. If you had a 3D printer at home, you could just download a design file and get the exact parts you need and you could even customize them. Instead of using a stack with 3, 5, and 10mm spacers, you could print out a single spacer that’s exactly the size you need.

Even if 3D printers don’t filter down to every home mechanic, they’ll still be a boon to the local bike shop. Instead of having to stock hundreds of tiny parts or wait for special orders to come in, shops will simply have a 3D printer and access to design files directly from all the bike manufacturers. Need a derailleur hanger for your Yeti SB95? No problem, the shop will just print one out and you’ll be back in business!

With 3D printers, restoring vintage mountain bikes will be even easier. Nobody makes the part you need anymore? Find someone who has the part you need, scan it, and print out a copy. Or, design a replacement part yourself before printing.

Innovative design

One of the coolest things about 3D printing and the associated software is that it does a lot of the design and strength calculations for you in an effort to minimize material waste. For example, a tube (think handlebar or bike frame member) can be printed with internal struts at strategic locations to provide the necessary rigidity without making the part unnecessarily thick or heavy. This opens up all sorts of design and material possibilities frame and parts designers have never dreamed of. It also opens the world of bike frame and parts design to more of us regular Joes.

Admittedly, the first 3D-printed bikes don’t really resemble today’s mountain bikes but it’s only a matter of time. This 3D-printed bike featured on Engadget is nothing if not ambitious–nearly every part has been 3D-printed including the wheels and the (sort of) bottom bracket. Note the structural lattice pattern on the saddle and the frame.

While we may be a long way off from fully 3D-printed mountain bikes, folks are already experimenting with printing socket-style frame lugs. This Instructables tutorial explains the process of using 3D-printed lugs to join metal, carbon fiber, or even bamboo tube stock into a fully functional bike.

Today 3D printing is already being used by bike companies like Trek as a rapid prototyping tool. In the old days it might take weeks or months to get a design sample back from the factory, only to find major flaws in a design. Now, designers can send design files directly to a 3D printer to get a feel for how they will behave in real life.

Custom parts for your mountain bike

Sure, you can order a custom-built mountain bike with the exact frame geometry to fit your body but most of us will continue to buy small, medium, and large bikes off the shelf. Yes, it’s possible to swap out stems and seat posts but even those come in just a few select sizes. Imagine printing out a stem that’s exactly the size you need–say 97mm–created from a tweaked Easton design file the company provided to your shop.

And don’t think all 3D-printed objects come out white like the images shown above. There are already color 3D printers on the market and the sky is the limit in terms of color and design choices for 3D-printed parts. One day it will be possible to truly customize your ride exactly the way you want it.

Challenges

Of course all this technology also poses a risk to the bike industry. 3D scanners will make it possible for anyone to scan a part and print a near perfect replica in the privacy of their own home. Or worse, folks will start scanning parts and uploading the files to the internet for anyone to print at home.

And with the ability to make their own parts, consumers may visit the local bike shop even less than they do now (though in the near term a 3D printer in the LBS could be a nice boost). Even the internet and mail order companies could suffer as manufacturers simply deliver electronic design file directly to consumers to fabricate themselves.

Today’s 3D printers, especially those targeting the consumer market, can only print plastic or resin which limits much of what they can address in the bike market (for example, you wouldn’t want to make a chain or cassette out of plastic). However, even if 3D printers capable of printing metal or carbon fiber materials don’t filter down to the home, they will be available to individuals through shared maker spaces and manufacturing facilities.

Your turn: How will 3D printing affect the future of mountain bikes?

14 thoughts on “Is 3D Printing the Future for Mountain Bikes?

  1. This is fascinating! I think the small, specific parts that you mentioned could be the biggest benefit. Just today, I’ve been wanting to upgrade the front rotor on my bike from 160 to 185, but my lbs can’t find the correct spacer for the caliper anywhere: everyone is currently out of stock. If you could just download the design file and hit the print button, just think of the time and money that could saved!

  2. Very cool. I think we are a little ways off from making mtb’s from home too, but I love how technology is headed in this direction. Jay Leno has been using 3D printing for years to restore his old cars. Pretty sweet.

  3. I’ve been reading a lot about future applications for 3d printing in Popular Science, but the application for bike repairs/modding has got me pretty pump.

  4. I have been watching 3D printing for about 8 months now. I first got interested in it because of this article. Although it isn’t about mountain biking specifically, it is about 3D printers that use metal alloys to create specific parts for prosthetic limbs. If they are strong enough for climbing, they should work for other sports too. I’ve never inserted a link before, so hopefully this will work.

    http://www.manufacturing.net/articles/2012/08/if-the-climbing-shoe-doesn%E2%80%99t-fit-design-a-new-foot?et_cid=2820725&et_rid=45639371&linkid=http%3a%2f%2fwww.manufacturing.net%2farticles%2f2012%2f08%2fif-the-climbing-shoe-doesn%25E2%2580%2599t-fit-design-a-new-foot

  5. I have followed 3D printing a bit here and there. Mostly the groups that are trying to print fully functioning hand guns and AR15 lower recievers. My concern will be what metals the printers will be able to print in. It would be awesome to get one that can print up all of the titanium bolts and small bits. And it is going to take some testing to see what kind of strengh these parts will have also.

  6. I have outsourced parts made by using SLS (selective laser sintering) which uses a laser to basically weld metal beads together. This a method of stereo lithography (3D printing) using metal. The parts I had made were for my employer and are very durable. The part in question is a housing for a foot switch used in radio communications by Blackhawk door gunners. So instead of providing a prototype, we used this method to make the final parts which would have been prohibitively expensive using a mold to make cast parts. This is a great method for short run parts.

  7. Just saw this and had to comment:
    Only heard of 3D printers a few months back but as soon as I did, I Immediately saw a need applicable to bike parts.
    Case in point: I broke the Ultegra shifter lever on my cross bike. In order to replace it I would have had to buy the whole unit for around $360. I was able to repair it but that is a perfect example of where a 3D printer would have worked. I can imagine that Shimano might have some copyright issues if one were to start manufacturing their parts.
    Is it too soon to see a “Kinkos” with a 3D printer on site?
    Lots of possibilities .

  8. Hey Jeff – this article is almost a year old now, and there are now full functioning printed bikes that look a whole lot different than the one in this post!! Technology marches on.

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