THE 3D PRINTING REVOLUTION
How BMW are pioneering 3D printing in bikes
In recent years 3D printing has been in the headlines for creating everything from prosthetic limbs to guns so it’s no surprise bike firms have now got in on the act. The technique began to be adopted by the R&D departments of bike firms as long as 15 years ago, first for making prototype parts in plastic. And as the technology has improved, the parts have got bigger and more complex, culminating with BMW 3D printing an entire S1000RR frame earlier this year. So how does it work?
In simple terms, 3D printing involves using a laser to melt powdered metal or plastic to from a solid. By doing this in very fine layers it is possible to produce an object of almost any shape or specification.
BMW’S Thorsten Burkert, Project Manager for BMW’S additive manufacturing department, told MCN: “The material which comes from metallic 3D printing is comparable with casting. We can use it for very fast iterations of prototype parts. With controlled solidification the mechanics of the parts can be as strong as they would be with a cast item but of course you can work much quicker as you don’t need to create any tooling. We can work with aluminium, some steels, titanium and even gold.”
Rapid prototyping is the main advantage of 3D printing as parts that would normally be cast from metal or moulded from plastic can now be made from scratch in just hours. The other advantage is that there are virtually no constraints when it comes to shape. For example when BMW designed the prototype S1000RR frame, they weren’t restricted to flat frame spars.
“We designed the frame for the S1000RR using Finite Element Analysis and it has a similar rigidity as a standard cast beam frame,” says Thorsten. “Making this frame from scratch would take about five days but that is still faster than a prototype frame and it’s much easier to change the design.”
Even so, it’s unlikely we’ll see mass-produced, 3D printed frames any time soon as, although the technique can produce one-off parts fast, when it comes to mass production it’s still painfully slow.
However, there are other areas where 3D printing be an advantage for bikers. for example restoration. BMW already uses the technique to create parts that are no longer readily available. This can either be done by converting old blueprints into CAD designs or, if not they’re available, by using a 3D laser scanner. And as the technology gets cheaper it could be a boon for classics owners.
Another area is in personalised parts and accessories. BMW already produce a range of 3D-printed trim panels for the Mini car and it wouldn’t take a huge leap forward for the next-generation GS to have personalised footrest plates or tank plastics.
‘It has similar strength to a cast beam frame’ BMW’S THORSTEN BURKETT