A bicycle manufacturer intending to make good on a one-piece carbon fiber bike frame prototype has to be prepared to spend tens of thousand dollars to bring it to market. There are many different costs to consider, from creating a mold to the human labor that goes into producing every frame. It is by no means a cheap exercise. That’s why carbon fiber bikes cost so much.
So, is there anything the industry can do to make it cheaper to bring a brand-new design to market? At least one bike maker thinks so. California startup Arevo just secured $12.5 million in funding to develop a process for 3D printing bike frames at a cost of hundreds of dollars per frame rather than the thousands required by current technology.
Rock West Composites, a Utah company that deals in carbon fiber tubing and other composite materials, explains that the high cost of most composite products is directly related to high manufacturing costs. They acknowledge that finding cheaper ways of automating manufacturing would go a long way toward moderating retail prices. That is exactly what Arevo has in mind.
3D Printing Is the Answer
Composite manufacturers are working on all sorts of innovative technologies designed to automate what they do. For Arevo though, 3D printing is the answer. Turning to 3D printing seems completely reasonable after seeing some of the incredible things people have done with 3D printers.
In recent years, 3D printing has been utilized to create medical prosthetics, 3D portraits of real people, platform jacks, parametric hinges, hand tools, and so much more. The military is even counting on 3D printing to produce the next-generation of weaponry and body armor. If 3D printing can do all of that, why not put it to use in composite manufacturing and tooling?
Fabricating a carbon fiber bike frame via 3D printing doesn’t seem so far-fetched at this point. Apparently, a number of investors agree. Securing millions of dollars in funding is evidence that Arevo’s idea has legs. And what they learn will be a foundation of learning for other companies looking to bring 3D printing into the composites arena.
Cut Labor, Waste, and Cost
Let’s assume Arevo achieves its goal of 3D printing a complete carbon fiber bike frame. What does that mean? It means an automated process that eliminates nearly all the manual labor that now goes into carbon fiber fabricating. Rather than building a bike frame using a manual layout process based on a mold that may cost tens of thousands of dollars to produce, a single technician can program a 3D printer once, then push a button and walk away.
That printer can continue churning out bike frames at a consistent rate with very little human intervention required. In essence, you have cut the cost of fabrication by cutting out the human labor. But that’s not all. You are also cutting waste. That’s big in the composites industry.
Creating composite molds involves some measure of waste. It is unavoidable. Likewise, manual layups produce waste by necessity. And no amount of recycling completely eliminates the cost of waste. 3D printing, on the other hand, eliminates almost all the waste involved in composite manufacturing and fabricating. It’s yet another way 3D printing cuts the cost of composites.
Arevo has $12.5 million to develop their 3D printing model. There is no reason to believe they will not succeed. Likewise, it looks like 3D printing is going to assume a more prominent place in composites manufacturing and fabricating in the years to come. The result will be cheaper products for everyone.