Step aside Carbon: the printed bike is here

Bristol-based company unveils space-age Nylon bike

by Dave Atkinson   March 7, 2011  

Nylon bike, Bristol Aerospace Innovation Centre

You've seen bikes made by welding tubes together, and carbon bikes blown up by bladders in a mould, and even bikes cast out of Magnesium if your memory stretches back to the glory days of Kirk. But we bet you've never seen a bike that's been printed before. Enter the boffins from the Bristol Aerospace Innovation Centre with their Nylon bike.

Printed? well, kind of. The process that has been used to create the bike is one that the company has been using to make parts for satellites and aircraft, and is capable of producing very complicated structures by effectively printing and fusing together cross sections a tenth of a millimetre deep to build up finished three dimensional parts. By building up the structure layer by layer even captive parts such as bearings can be produced. Everything bar the tyres and the belt drive is made using the process, and the engineers have reduced the bike to about a dozen constituent parts that are then assembled to create the finished machine, which looks a little bit like a GoCycle from the future.

The bike project came about after the company became frustrated that they weren't able to adequately explain the process to anyone other than other specialist engineers. "You can show people brackets time and time again", said one of the chief engineers when interviewed for the BBC ( "I show my mum what I do in work and she doesn't really understand. But everyone knows what a bike is". Certainly it seems to have done the trick...

The bike is being touted across the web today as a 'nylon bike as strong as steel', but there doesn't seem to be much to back up that rather grandiose claim – other than presumably some raw material data – and to be honest the sound the bike makes at the end of the BBC vid when the presenter hops on board is anything but confidence inspiring. But it's certainly an interesting application of a different technology, and although a whole bike is probably a push we can certainly see mileage in using a similar process to produce certain parts of a bike; it looks like it would make a mean aero wheel, for starters.

Is this the future of bike production? Discuss!

16 user comments

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I'm sure that the claim of "as strong as steel" is for the base material rather than the bike being shown. Scary noise but did sound like something dragging in the spokes.

While it's all very well making aerospace/satellite parts this way (they all demand massive prices) I can't see it being effective for everyday objects.

I'm just trying to be realistic rather than negative but if each pass of the laser scanner only builds a 0.1mm layer some simple maths will illustrate how long it would take to build even moderately sized components such as a stem or seat post. Some major development in the laser scanner/fuser will be required preferably so that each layer can be "built" with a single flash rather than a time consuming scan. We all know how slow scanners/photocopiers are. But that would trade manufacturing time and cost against a huge increase in the capital cost of the laser equipment.

bikeandy61's picture

posted by bikeandy61 [449 posts]
7th March 2011 - 16:13


I can see it being used for quick prototypes but like you I think the nylon as strong as steel claim is unproven. Currently I am finding out the hard way that although you would think I know how a bike works there are many parts that are still a mystery to me after a failure to replace the pedal caused the old one to fall off this morning. What I wouldn't give to print up a replacement one right now. The BBC reporter looked like he was going to fall off the bike at the end but luckily for him off camera.

yarrump's picture

posted by yarrump [15 posts]
7th March 2011 - 16:18

1 Like

all very interesting, but there's no way it would get UCI approval... Tongue

posted by henryrobertshaw1 [38 posts]
7th March 2011 - 18:24

1 Like

is one of the wheels on back to front?


antonio's picture

posted by antonio [1084 posts]
7th March 2011 - 18:32


Saw this on the news this morning... darned impressive, but VERY creaky. ANd it was funny when the reporter feel off before he even started!

It's really clever stuff, and let's hope it continues...

Morgan's picture

posted by Morgan [60 posts]
7th March 2011 - 18:38


Just because something is manufactured using the latest technology does not make it better than that which already exists. Steel tubes and lugs are proven to be perfectly adequate for the job.

A classic case to illustrate that progress quite often means leaving things alone. If it isn't broken, do not fix it. Thinking

michophull's picture

posted by michophull [119 posts]
7th March 2011 - 19:17


Important question... how much does it weigh. If its less than carbon, its sure to catch on with the Sportive market.


posted by Michael5 [121 posts]
7th March 2011 - 20:04


I study engineering and our materials lecturer showed us a bicycle made of plastic which was very similar to this.

Nylon can match the specific strength of steel ie the strength per unit weight however it is nowhere near as stiff. This means that a bicycle made from any plastic, be it nylon or polypropylene, will be extremely floppy, it will sag when you get on and will have dreadful response when steering.

Some of us tried to ride the plastic bicycle and it was an awful experience, not only that but it wasn't much lighter than an aluminium bike. In terms of good materials to build a bike, carbon fibre beats the pants out of everything else both in terms of stiffness and strength.

posted by milburn [1 posts]
7th March 2011 - 23:28


Great concept.. but what the heck's happening to the drive train? A kink in the drive belt? No wonder folk on here aren't inspired to ride it.

posted by woollee23 [94 posts]
8th March 2011 - 11:35


Yes it using the latest techniques, but I think some comments are missing the potential of digital printing. It is a reality now, that you can purchase a 3d printing for a couple of grand or make one your self. This could totally change the way we purchase many items, download a CAD file, complete customization, make your own cottage components. It is early days but look at how the computer or digital communication has evolved, or even bikes look what we are riding now in comparison to 10yrs ago. Granted a whole bike is ambitious, but imagine being able to make smaller components exactly the way you want them. It would be very interesting to see if there would be a way to lay down sheets of fibre then bond them.

posted by surreyxc [49 posts]
8th March 2011 - 12:18


Euch, what a horror. I remember a plastic bicycle made in the 80s by a Scandinavian firm I think. It didn't sell well as it was heavy and a bit floppy and soon went out of production. I did see one in a museum a while ago. Technology has moved on though and the use of a layering process (a concept used in Japanese sword manufacturing for centuries, as well as in marine plywood) is interesting. Perhaps the design of this bicycle leaves something to be desired but better use of the materials might result in something more ridable. Looking at the forks and the bars, I would expect it to be very lively (and possibly unstable) with regard to steering, compounded by the small wheels. It does look as if the forks have been put on backwards by mistake. The nylon layering technique might address the issue of stiffness, to a degree at least, but I'd be curious to see what lifetime would be expected from any plastic-plastic wearing surfaces. It would need to be designed with replaceable bearing components, otherwise its working life would be short. I'd also suggest a redesign of the spoked wheels as stress concentrations around the spoke/rim interface would be likely to result in early failures.


posted by OldRidgeback [2492 posts]
8th March 2011 - 12:40


A 3D printing company recently printed a car as 'proof of concept' too.

This is a superb technology, maybe not for the end consumer at the moment, but something that will doubtlessly change the way that prototyping is done. We're already at the point where you can email your CAD drawings and receive a product back with startling turn around times.

These printers aren't stuck printing one material either, there are a range of them out there, and someone has recently even been using mashed potato for fun.

mr-andrew's picture

posted by mr-andrew [303 posts]
8th March 2011 - 14:27


3D printing using paper sheets has been used to construct full-sized component mock-ups in engineering since the early 1990s at least. This is another step ahead but I wouldn't call it revolutionary, evolutionary more like.

Thinking more about the bearing surfaces, if a PTFE lining is used with mechanical structural loads being carried by the nylon this might offer a solution. It occurred to me that using the low coefficient of friction of PTFE combined with the greater structural rgidity of nylon, you could design a bearing that works in a similar way to the white metal plain bearing used in the big end of a combustion engine.

I realised that using straight rather than a curved section for the frame and for the seat post would help reduce any spring in the design. Yes, I used to be a design engineer.

And I still think some doofus has put the forks on the wrong way round.


posted by OldRidgeback [2492 posts]
8th March 2011 - 16:58


That noise at the end of the video sounded like the teeth on the drive belt skipping over the teeth on the wheel that they're supposed to mesh with. If they claim to be able to produce bearing using this technique could they not have come up with a rudimentary freewheel / clutch mechanism Wink

posted by Velo_Alex [70 posts]
8th March 2011 - 18:30


Printed eh ! . . how big are the Ink cartridges ? Nerd

Bontrager Buster

Opismath's picture

posted by Opismath [12 posts]
9th March 2011 - 14:26


Looks like Mr Sinclair has been at it again - thought he had retired. Perfect for the city chap. If it rains it will drip dry and Mrs can wash and iron it at the weekend so he can turn up smart and clean on Monday morning. Needs a bit of work though.


posted by alg [150 posts]
10th March 2011 - 10:35