Bicycle material is ‘grown’ from high strength nylon powder

EADS, the European aerospace and defence group has announced the world's first bike to use a new manufacturing process which it claims has the potential to transform manufacturing around the globe.

The 'Airbike' is made of nylon but, according to EADS, is strong enough to replace steel or aluminium and 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. Because it can be built to rider specification, it requires no adjustment. The new manufacturing process is known as Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM) and it allows single products to be grown from a fine powder of metal (such as titanium, stainless steel or aluminium), nylon or carbon reinforced plastics from a centre located next to Airbus' site at Filton. Similar in concept to 3D printing, the bike design is perfected using computer aided design and then constructed by using a laser sintering process which adds successive, thin layers of the chosen structural material until a solid, fully formed bike emerges. Robin Southwell, chief executive of EADS UK, said: "The Airbike is a fantastic example of British innovation at its very best. The team at EADS in Bristol includes world class engineers who continue to push boundaries by working at the forefront of technology. I believe that ALM technology represents a paradigm shift." EADS says it 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 said to be up to 65% lighter but still as strong. The technology is likely to be employed in due course in industrial, aerospace, automotive and industrial applications. 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 '3d 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." Because the process uses about one tenth of the material required in traditional manufacturing, EADS believes that 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, lead engineer for ALM at EADS, described it as 'a game changing technology'. "The beauty is that complex designs do not cost any extra to produce," he said. "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." By removing production lines and the need for factories, Hawkins believes the costs of 'manufacturing' will be significantly reduced and, through this, ALM has the potential to reverse trends of urbanisation that have historically accompanied industrialisation. Iain Gray, chief executive of the Technology Strategy Board, added: "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."