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How Will 3D Printing Change Motorcycling?

Back in 2018, BMW displayed this frame and swingarm created by 3D printing, which it called “additive manufacturing”.

Almost exactly three years ago, BMW put on display a 3D printed frame and swingarm for an S 1000RR superbike (pictured at the top of this article). Since that time, BMW has actually used 3D printing to create parts at the race track to then immediately test on a race bike.

3D printing has been called a “revolution” for quite a while now. Has it really been a revolution? How will it change parts manufacture and customization? These are interesting questions, particularly for motorcycle enthusiasts.

Some thought we would be sharing CAD files with each other on Facebook by now … printing out the latest cool thing on our home 3D printer. Some of that may be occurring, but not on a large scale. Moreover, most home 3D printers can only utilize plastics, which would generally be unfit for load/stress bearing parts on a motorcycle. There are 3D printers capable of producing such parts from metals, but they are generally too expensive for home users at this point.

MD is interested in your thoughts on this topic. Do you own a 3D printer? Do you think 3D printing will revolutionize manufacturing in general? Do you foresee a time when it will be commonplace for motorcycle enthusiasts to create custom parts for their bikes at home? Let us know what you think in the comment section below.

36 Comments

  1. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with these technologies since 1995. The materials used to be poor and really only used for prototyping. Automotive, F1 and Aerospace were some of the first industries to embrace the technology. As the range of technologies and materials has grown, production components is now a common thing, for the right design and volume. (Boeing have been making production parts for their planes for years now). If a component can be machined, it’s probably the best and cheapest route. However, if you design for 3D Printing to create components that would be very difficult or impossible to make any other way, that’s where the real benefit is. Having smaller parts with lower production numbers also helps. F1 teams generally use 3d printed metals and carbon fibre reinforced plastics for their car parts. You can also order your Mini now with any name of your choice on the (3D Printed) trim.

  2. Some people got all excited when the first rapid-prototyping machines appeared in the late 80s. They envisioned a quick evolution from onesie-twosie parts production to complex assemblies being designed on-screen and fabbed en masse by simply pressing “print.” Curly sums this up well.

    For prototyping successive iterations of new products that are in development attaching the word “revolutionary” to 3D printing is no scam. The huge amounts of time saved are a very big deal compared to ordering proto tooling to see how a part/parts that you can hold in your hand actually work out. Then it’s on to Version 2, 3, 4, etc. that embody what’s learned from the earlier versions. And making a few sample parts via 3D printing is a win too.

    As for producing dozens or millions of parts that 3D printing helped you envision during their creation…….the process is much too slow to be a way to economically grow them by laying down many many layers of material, like magic. Like the adjacent elevation lines on a topo map. Not to despair, however. A revolution in prototyping changes many things in developing better, evolved designs in a few days or less. Your booboos the first time around become obvious, and you put in the fix. Think of Guggenheim with his movable type for printing.

  3. Chris says:

    GE produced a small turbojet using all 3D printed parts. It was operational. Durability and certification were not the goals. ORNL printed a car using a huge 3D printer as an experiment. A member of the FJ1200 forum is making small body parts and giving out the source files.

    As its been said, its coming. Money is to be made and that will drive the tech.

  4. MrD says:

    As a machinist who has worked in both manual, and full production CNC oriented shops, I’ll humbly offer my 2 cents. First off, I do not own one…..yet. I have studied them, picked the brains of fellow machinists that do have them, and I have seen assorted end products from them. I want one.
    As for a revolution, I do think they are going to become common, but not quickly. It is still way cheaper and faster to cut a chunk of steel down to size than to start from scratch. As they improve this could change, they have very little material waste and it (the material) comes in a bucket.
    As some have pointed out, finish is an issue. This is very true. If you want a good clean thread, or some bit smooth and shiny on that widget, there will be machining involved.
    Some of the latest plastic printers are showing nice results though. Probably what I’ll get. So I’d say you’re not gonna print that funky triple tree you were dreaming of, but say a side cover for your restoration, or that one of a kind garage bucket case project? That’s possible. The sharing of CAD files would be amazing for the restoration crowd. Actually, anyone out there got a scan of a left side cover for an 84 Magna? No? Just thought I’d throw that out there.

  5. Robert Coleman says:

    My 2 cents. 3d printed MC parts plastic Yes probably more aftermarket. 3d printed structural parts years out. Home printed parts year and years out and that is assuming we eventually get laws passed for right to repair. If not home mechanic is going to get pushed out of doing anything related to repair in next 10 to 20 years. I kayak fish and quite a few niche items added to my kayak are aftermarket printed plastic (transducer mount, seat risers, rails for accessories, etc…)

  6. Mick says:

    The bicycle industry has been playing around with printed titanium parts for a while. The resulting bikes are far from cheap and the finish on the printed parts is less than stellar IMO.

    I love my titanium bikes, two fats and a 29er. So I do watch this space with interest. For me however, I’ll just watch for a while. I live in very rugged terrain and ride almost exclusively in the woods, you can almost say that about my motorcycling as well. I’ll wait and see if these parts can survive the sort of abuse that I ladle out. Street bikes don’t see rock impacts or deal with thousands of full sends.

    Here’s a video example. The costs are nearing what one would spend on a high end hand built like a Black Sheep. For my money. I’d rather have a Black Sheep for now.

    https://youtu.be/jd0vt5v37B0

  7. mechanicus says:

    I am a retired M.E.; 40 yrs in aerospace industry, specializing in mechanisms and mechanical systems. I had access to the cutting edge in SLA/stereolithography, etc. and utilized it several times, I won’t say often. It has a niche in prototype development, and VERY rarely in the tool-less production of patterns for investment and lost wax casting of some parts. Remember, once cast you still have to machine to final form and tolerance. In my experience, with the advent of Creo/SW/etc, I could model the part in 3D, analyze for stress/thermal/resonance, shoot the files over to CNC and have the real thing back while the the SLA prototype shop was still dinking around with setting up everything – its a VERY slow process and prone to errors, seismic, etc. Generally, the SLA parts’ surface quality sucks – pixilated/layered/deck-of-cards, etc.

    “Revolutionize”? No, I don’t see it revolutionizing anything. “Do you foresee a time when it will be commonplace for motorcycle enthusiasts to create custom parts for their bikes at home?” No. Decorative non-structural parts maybe. Creating a high-tensile steel or aluminum alloy part with precision surfaces and tolerances right out of the vat ready for use? Nada.

    • Reginald Van Blunt says:

      Qualified reality check. Thank you M.

    • todd says:

      I am far from retired but I have designed 3D printed rocket parts that have made it to space. Not just fiddly little stuff like brackets but chambers, nozzles and turbo pumps. There are designs and features like complex internal passages that would be impossible to machine. 3D printing (DMLS) makes this stuff possible, quick, and relatively cost efficient.

    • Good info @mechanicus & @todd.

      follow up question: do you see manufacturers (with deeper pockets and better opportunity on ROI) pursuing this further beyond prototyping?

      As with most things with this high potential, investment will likely continue to improve the new(ish) technology. So, it will be interesting to see if the finish results are addressed and the setup time is reduced??? Almost like a hybrid of the 2 ways to produce a part but without the excessive waste of machining.

      • todd says:

        There really isn’t any setup time and cosmetics are not a concern in aerospace. There isn’t really any excessive waste in subtractive manufacturing (machining) either. Chips are recycled and tooling technology is so advanced that they last a long time, only small inserts needing replacement. The biggest challenge with 3D printing is the amount of time it takes. For some large, complex builds that take multiple DAYS to complete, you need to be assured that there are no power or controller glitches or seismic events that will introduce defects into a part. One part per one large machine for many days on end gets really expensive and time consuming, limiting production to small quantities. Speed up the process and you’re on to something.

      • mechanicus says:

        I don’t see a shift toward it in aerospace and defense in the immediate future. Maybe it will come with time.

  8. jim says:

    when parts stores are never out of the obscure part you want because they don’t have any parts at all in the austrailian outback but they do have 3d printers and they just print that broken water pump, suspension piece, etc and you’re on your way.

    and for the aspiring engineers they’ll rent time on various machines and create the future without GM or toyota.

    curly and sam are both right

  9. Tom says:

    I purchased a 3D printer he this year and have used it to produce mockup plastic parts and patterns for sand casting a new water pump for a car l am restoring. Never designed patterns before, but has proved successful and could not have done it without the printer which has also allowed me to learn new skills. A great purchase and not expensive.
    3D printing of metal parts directly at home for stressed parts is s long way off

  10. Mark R says:

    It will come. It is just a matter of time until printing metals or their equivalents is cheap enough for the home.
    The traditional suppliers, hardware stores will lose a ton of business in the future except for supplying ‘printing supplies’ as printing parts, nuts, bolts etc will be the norm.

  11. TP says:

    Good question. On the one hand, it seems most people don’t fix things anymore or even want to. I think that’s a shame. It’s good to know how to use tools, to make something nice all by yourself even if it’s only painting a room, to acquire a skill, to get good at something, and take pride in yourself. It allows you to be creative. On the other, it’s very likely this equipment will become like any other digital device today–inexpensive, commonplace, ubiquitous.I once saw somebody make a battery door for a portable cassette player with 3D printing. Pretty neat.

  12. Reginald Van Blunt says:

    Zerox in Pomona CA experimented with a similar technology in the 1970s, but went no where with it. In the aerospace engineering labs of the 1980s it was called Stereoscopic Modeling, and was very useful for just that. Now – hoo chee momma !
    I do not think 3D will ever replace forged or machined metals, but many aircraft are currently assembled with structural adhesives, so – who knows what is to be. Used to believe this should be called the Aluminum age in my lifetime, but carbon fibre and nano stuff may be a good runner up. Oh, thank goodness wood is still good.

  13. Eric says:

    I own 3 3d printers and use them regularly with plastic filament and flexible filament.
    I fix and improve stuff for friends and family on a regular basis.
    For most simple stuff I’ve cute out all the steps to acquiring them (shopping, ordering, paying and waiting for delivery) as I just download an existing public design or just open my CAD program and design it myself.
    There is so much potential even with plastic 3D printing that I can no longer live without it.

  14. Marcus says:

    In the future they have them, called “replicators”. They make anything from a cup of coffee to warp drive parts.

  15. Knox says:

    3D printing plastics is more accessible than ever. People can easily make parts and mods already. As of right now most are cosmetic or smaller, not part of the structural integrity of the bikes. As the technology progresses I’m sure there will come a time when people can make bigger and stronger parts from metal and plastic. Will that be soon? Not very likely. I’m sure someday it will be possible though. Just in the same way 3D printing was once inaccessible to most and has become cheaper than a rent payment. Hell, look at a computer from the 1970’s and compare it to your smartphone. Just check how much space a 2gb hard drive would’ve taken up in 1970. What would’ve taken up a small garage now fits on a tiny piece if silicon and plastic not much bigger than a fingernail.

  16. guu says:

    How many people want to or can make thing themselves? How many own even a benchdrill, a tool that is very inexpensive and hugely useful? Lathe? Welder? Why would people that have no interest in “old” manufacturing ways spend time playing with 3D printing? Making thing will never be as easy as buying them and as cost of goods goes down the gap will be even larger.

    Industry? That is an other thing altogether. It will change things. Some designs can only be made by 3D printing and as designers learn to use its capabilities we will see alot of interesting stuff (and already have). But does the consumer notice or care? She/he generally didn’t notice when CNC came about. Or welding.

  17. Rusty says:

    I do not currently own a 3D printer, but use the technology frequently, mostly for work. I think 3D printing, aka Additive Manufacturing, is changing manufacturing. I use high resolution 3D models to prove out designs, functionality, assessing manufacturabilty, customer feedback on concepts, etc (everyone can’t read engineering drawings) and to support assembly. 3D printed assembly tooling comes in handy.
    For some lower volume, lightly stressed parts, 3D printed components save the day.
    Regarding motorcycle application, I once designed a pair of driving light brackets for my bike. 3D printing allowed me to build in an internal passageway, that was curved, into which the wiring could be hidden and out of harm’s way. I haven’t found a drill yet that can drill a curved hole.
    These light brackets have been on my FJR for over 4 years.

    Regarding metal additive manufacturing: the medical industry has been making implantable metal forms for repairing our bodies for a long time. A friend is designing a 3D printed titanium bone anchor for spine damage repair. Prototypes look very promising.
    Still a ways to go for high volume manufacturing, but for lower volume custom parts, I think 3D printing has proven its value. As materials and printing technology improve we will see wider usage in many markets, including motorcycles.

    • Glenn says:

      Your post highlights what may be one of the biggest challenges – our own creative limitations. Most of us think within the parameters that we are accustomed to. Good for you to imagine a part with a curved internal passageway. Additive manufacturing will be even more amazing as our creativity grows to match the capability of the medium.

      • good comment. I imagine that is at the heart of BMW’s reasoning for the very cool chassis above.
        This question came to mind about the above chassis experiment:

        What would the design and printed outcome look like without any prior reference to the original cast parts? ie. it looks like the above frame and arm are printed & optimized based off the original cast frame and arm.

        Would a different arm and frame work even better when printed? Engine mounting points dictate everything, so I imagine the end results would be similar. But, what if the program had no prior reference to the existing engine mounts and had freedom to place the mounting points to optimize chassis performance? That would then change the design & machining of the engine’s structural points.

  18. Kentaro says:

    I work at an company that produces Metal Additive Manufacturing machines.
    These machines are already in the production lines of airplane engines(Ge9X),gas turbines for electricity production(Siemens), or in the Mars rover Perseverance. The problem of printing motorcycle parts will only be the cost and benefit. The materials and technology is already there and in some cases legacy parts are already being printed. There are companies metal printing bycyle parts. It’s only a question of time for motocycles.

  19. Hot Dog says:

    Oh great, I’m still missing my flip phone. What’s next? Carbon fiber testicals?

  20. Anon says:

    Look at that frame again. The revolution in 3D manufacturing is that you can make optimized shapes that simply can’t be made using conventional methods. BMW is already using 3D printed parts in series production of the i8. Maybe mass production isn’t quite there yet, but people used to say the same thing about Carbon Fiber parts that are now in the M cars.

  21. Bart says:

    Search stuff like:

    3D printed connecting rods

    3D printed turbine blades

    It’s here for the right applications. Has been for some time.

    Hobby printing crash parts would be great! Scan a part from the good side, flip the CAD model, print new plastic body parts, intrument housings, footpeg brackets, etc.

  22. Magnus says:

    I have a 3D plastic printer and spent the last 30 years in the metal fabrication industry. 3D printed metal parts are available now but not for the home hobbyist. The process will never be able to produce large parts at home. 3D router tables for CNC cutting aluminum parts is possible for the dedicated home hobbyist.
    3D plastic parts can be utilized to create carbon fibre forms or as casting forms. 3D scanning can be used to recreate parts or forms to recreate parts.
    IMHO there isn’t a lot the 3D printing revolution can do for the hobbyist when it comes to making motorcycles better.
    Expect some interesting items from larger custom makers that can afford to get parts printed.

  23. Mick says:

    Maybe when costs come down and the processes speed up we will be able to access light weight replacement parts at reasonable cost.

    Once a trick frame like sort of like the one above comes in at the weight and cost of a titanium frame we might see some movement. A Ti frame for a Ducati is about $7500 for a 13 pound frame and $14.500 for an 11 pound version, the stocker is 29.5 pounds.

    Development and experience also needs to mature a bit. The frame above looks cool. But does it save any weight and is it long term reliable? Do you want to ride an open bike and not know if the frame is going to turn back into powder not?

  24. Sam Toothaker says:

    What we see now are baby steps. This is nowhere near a mature technology. Will it change manufacturing? It will change everything. I don’t think that we will have home printers for load bearing parts, but specialty metal fabricators will certainly have them. The next big step will be the printable materials themselves. Fun stuff!!

  25. Curly says:

    Prototyping, yes
    Small bespoke parts, yes
    Series production, I don’t think so.