The low-cost bike of the future might not come from Walmart, but your own living room. A group of London-based designers is pioneering a new system that uses a small 3-D printer to make strong, custom lugs. Then—using about $20 worth of bamboo—you can put together a high-end custom frame made to your own measurements.
The designers envision that it will soon be common to have a desktop 3-D printer at home. And while it's expensive to have someone else 3-D print parts now, it's cheap if you can do it yourself. The frame might cost a tenth of the price of having a custom frame built elsewhere.
"You could probably do the whole thing for $200, maybe $150," says James Marr, part of the Bamboo Bicycle Club, the team prototyping the system now. "That's to your own measurements, your own specifications, which to most cyclists is kind of the holy grail. That's what's really interesting. You could suddenly create something that works perfectly for you."
3-D printed parts are the next step in the evolution of a bamboo bike frame that the designers have been perfecting over the last few years. They like bamboo for a few reasons: It can compete with carbon fiber in terms of performance, but it's better for the environment. And unlike a metal frame, it's possible to put together bamboo without welding—so anyone can easily do it at home.
The Bamboo Bicycle Club currently teaches workshops in London to make bamboo frames, minus the 3-D printed parts in development now. "We're real believers in people investing in themselves and investing in what they buy," says Marr. "By making your own bike, you can make something that's really useful. I think people are too soon to part with their money to buy things without really understanding them."
With the addition of 3-D printed parts, the whole process of building a sleek-looking custom bike could happen in about a day.
"You could basically leave the 3-D printer printing overnight for whatever you needed it to do," he says. "Once you do the designs—or we've done the designs for you—you could hit print, it would print in the background, and you could go out, go drinking, while it's printing. You could come back home and you'd have ready-made connections. Then all you'd need to do is slot the bamboo in, leave it to dry overnight again, and in 12 hours you've got a finished frame."
In the prototype the team is making now, the 3-D printed lugs will be made from carbon fiber. But the designers plan to use composites made from natural materials such as flax when the technology is ready. Ultimately, the whole bike could be recycled or composted when someone's done with it.
"We use an eco resin," says Marr. "In theory that's the nastiest bit of the bike, but that can be completely dissolved in a solution. "Once you dissolve the solution, you can then extract all the flax fibers and that can all be recycled or it can be reused for another bike. Similarly the bamboo can all break down completely, and you can then recycle it."
That's not true of a carbon fiber bike; after the carbon is molded, it basically can't be reused. Metal frames like aluminum or steel take a lot of energy to make and to recycle, and they're heavier than carbon. "What we're trying to look at is a material that can perform as well as carbon fiber, give you the lightweight performance, and the right quality," says Marr.
While making a steel frame produces climate pollution, growing bamboo helps eliminate it by taking in CO2. And it's something that can easily be grown almost anywhere, while most steel and aluminum production now happens in China.
"What's really interesting is to say we could grow the bamboo in America, we could grow the flax in America, and we could also build the bike in America," says Marr. "What's the big preventative about manufacturing in the U.S. and Europe is that our labor cost is quite expensive. If you can bring technology into it, 3-D printing and laser, things like that, we can actually suddenly create some products that can compete globally and can actually be quite cost effective."
Right now, the few bikes still manufactured in the U.S. or U.K. tend to be for a niche market. Marr believes that making a bike will make people more likely to want to ride it; it's something he experienced himself after he started building his own bikes. And it's something he says the people in his current workshops also experience.
"Suddenly people who weren't really into their bikes are now into them," he says. "We've had people ride all across Europe and across the world. I think if you understand something and you invest in something, you're actually more likely to ride your bike and more likely to invest in it. That's ultimately the goal, that we get more people cycling on a global level."
A cheap bike, that probably doesn't fit well, is likely to make someone give up on riding. "It kind of upsets me when people buy a really cheap bike and say it doesn't work, it's rubbish, it keeps breaking, I'm getting back in my car," Marr says. "With a bit more thought you can get really good value because you're actually putting your own time in."
The designers currently work with customers to help them create designs based on their own measurements, and plan to do the same thing when the 3-D printed system is ready. The Bamboo Bicycle Club is currently crowdfunding a demonstration of their DIY bike-building system, which will be on display at Design Museum London in April.