Can titanium be used as a cost-effective material to make bike frames for the average commuter? Super-strong metal has been used for decades in the creation of high-end bikes that are primarily used by consumers willing to pay more for more expensive materials and tougher tooling.
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Could 3D printing technologies replace more expensive manufacturing processes and reduce tooling costs to create a sweet spot for titanium as a lifestyle bike?
Portland-based design consultancy Industryand Ti cycles founder, Dave Levy took a big step towards discovery when he created their first 3D printed titanium frame bike, known as SOLID, for the Oregon Manifesto Bike Design Contest in 2014.
The annual competition is an independent innovation platform for building the urban utility bike. In 2014, its organizers teamed up top design firms with American bike craftsmen to collaboratively develop the next-wave urban bike. Five teams from five cycling-centric cities competed to design, create and champion their unique vision of the future of cycling for the everyday cyclist.
The designs were innovative in both materials and form. The Chicago entry, for example, only had one big rod and no top frame tube.
Although the Ti/Industry PDX team did not win the commuter bike battle – that honor went to the Seattle entry of Sizemore Bike and Tag‘s, the Denny – he may have won the war by showing the bike design and production community how 3D printing can be used to make bikes like SOLID, using specialty metals, in a cost effective way.
Levy and Ti have been building titanium bike frames since 1990. The higher strength and lower density of titanium allows for the construction of lighter, higher performance frames. However, they had never used 3D printing as a means of delivering an end product. This is where the industry came in. Using CAD tools such as Inventor and processes such as direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) with powdered titanium, industry designers have been able to limit the use of welds and eliminate stress points in the frame to create a bike that, they say, is the best answer to many central problems of urban cycling.
“Normally the (Oregon Manifest competition) is an open call for bike builders to design the ultimate urban utility bike,” Robb Hunter said, “but this year was a bit different, in that it was based about partnerships between these five design companies and five bike builders. You have experts, basically the engineering team, as a bike builder and the design team. Around that goal, to build the ultimate urban bike, we found titanium to be the best of all worlds for corrosion resistance, for weight.
Normal 3D printing processes
Hunter said the industry was able to utilize its normal DMLS 3D printers and printing processes by simply using titanium powers for sintering instead of other powders. They already had machines that burned enough to melt and sinter the powders. He also said that much of the difficulty of working with titanium was limited by the presence of Levy and his decades of experience.
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As a proof of concept, SOLID show that 3D printing can reduce the cost of designing and manufacturing bicycle frames with minimal change compared to normal DMLS equipment.
“We were lucky to work with Dave who taught us how to work with metal,” Hunter said. “We were thrilled to work with the perfect material and the expert who knows the most.”
Follow Jeff Yoders on Twitter at @jyoders19.