Engineers from the Bristol wing of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) have announced the development of the first bicycle using Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM) technology. The manufacturing process involves "growing" the components from a fine nylon powder, similar in concept to 3D printing. Said to be as strong as steel, the end product is claimed to contain only a fraction of the source material used by traditional machining, and the process results in much less waste. It also has the potential to take manufacture to precisely where the component or product is needed, instead of being confined to factories often located a great distance away.
The Airbike has an integrated truss structure to keep weight down while maintaining strength and rigidity, although the ALM process is said to result in components that are 65 percent lighter than those produced by traditional machining anyway, and it uses about one tenth the material. The structure of the two-wheeler was perfected using computer design software and then constructed using a powerful laser-sintering process which builds up thin layers of a fine powder of metal (such as titanium, stainless steel or aluminum), carbon-reinforced plastics or – in this case – nylon, until the solid form is created.
Complete sections are "grown" from the chosen structural material, with the wheels, bearings and axle incorporated within the process and built at the same time. EADS says that the nylon components produced by the ALM process are strong enough to replace steel or aluminum. Unsurprisingly perhaps for the company, the eight-bladed wheels are based on the scimitar propeller design of the Airbus A400M, and the bike's name follows a similar line to that of Airbus, the first EADS company to use the technology.
EADS sees the technology potentially allowing components to be quickly and cheaply manufactured precisely where they are needed – such as in offices, shops, houses or even remote military or humanitarian aid locations – instead of in factories half a world away. The company believes it has the potential to revolutionize manufacturing.
"The possibilities with ALM are huge – it's a game-changing technology," said Andy Hawkins, the lead engineer for ALM at EADS. "The beauty is that complex designs do not cost any extra to produce. The laser can draw any shape you like and many unique design features have been incorporated into the Airbike such as the auxetic structure to provide saddle cushioning or the integrated bearings encased within the hubs."
Auxetic shapes appear to go against the grain of physics – contracting and compressing when squeezed instead of getting thicker, or becoming thicker instead of thinning out when stretched.
The Airbike requires no conventional maintenance or assembly, and also benefits from a Kevlar belt drive system, integrated bearings encased in hubs and crank, and embossed text in various locations, all of which were produced as the bike was formed.
The ALM technology used in the development of the Airbike is at the proof-of-concept stage at the moment, but EADS says that it has reached a level of development where it can be used in high-stress, safety-critical aviation.