EADS, the European aerospace and defence group, has unveiled the world’s first bike that uses a revolutionary new manufacturing process which demonstrates the potential to transform manufacturing around the globe.
Known as the ‘Airbike’, it is a bike with a difference. Made of nylon but strong enough to replace steel or aluminium, it requires no conventional maintenance or assembly. It is ‘grown’ from powder, allowing complete sections to be built as one piece; the wheels, bearings and axle being incorporated within the ‘growing’ process and built at the same time. The Airbike can be built to rider specification so requires no adjustment.
While the Airbike is only a technology demonstrator at this stage, EADS has developed the technology to the extent that it can manipulate metals, nylon, and carbon-reinforced plastics at a molecular level which allows it to be applied to high-stress, safety critical aviation uses. Compared to a traditional, machined part, those produced by ALM are up to 65% lighter but still as strong. The technology is likely to be employed in due course in industrial applications such as aerospace, the motor industry and engineering. Studies show that for every 1kg reduction in weight, airlines can save around $3500 worth of fuel over the lifespan of the aircraft, with corresponding reductions in carbon-dioxide emissions.
Minister for Business and Enterprise, Mark Prisk, said: “I am proud to see the UK – through EADS and others – leading the world in the development of innovative products. Additive Layer Manufacturing, or ‘3-D printing’, is a truly exciting, green, new technology, which not only enables the creation of products beyond the capability of traditional manufacturing processes, but also offers the potential to help the manufacturing sector slash its waste and carbon emissions. This is exactly the sort of advanced technology that we want to see companies investing in, here in the UK.”
ALM also offers a glimpse of wider potential benefits. The process itself uses about one-tenth of the material required in traditional manufacturing and reduces waste. On a global scale, ALM offers potential for products to be produced quickly and cheaply on ‘printers’ located in offices, shops and houses. It would allow replacement components to be produced in remote regions, improving logistics on humanitarian relief and military operations.
Andy Hawkins is the lead engineer for ALM at EADS. “The possibilities with ALM are huge – it’s a game-changing technology. 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.”
Further ahead, by removing production lines and the need for factories, the costs of ‘manufacturing’ will be significantly reduced and, through this, ALM has the potential to reverse trends of urbanization that have historically accompanied industrialization.
Iain Gray, Chief Executive of the Technology Strategy Board, said: “It is hugely exciting to see examples of British engineers showcasing their work so effectively. The ‘Airbike’ is an example of technology innovation which stands a real chance of providing UK businesses with a manufacturing edge for the future while delivering economic growth both here and around the globe.”
Whilst there are currently limitations in terms of the maximum component size achievable and the costs involved, the technology is developing fast. There is growing recognition of the potential ramifications of ALM and the barriers to delivering this technology on a global scale are falling rapidly.