How 3D Printing Is Going To Change Motorcycling

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For the past few weeks or so, I have been conversing back-and-forth with my cousin-in-law about 3D printing. Apparently, some sort of hobbyist 3D printing shop has opened in his home town of Pasadena, and my geekier-than-me relative has been chomping at the bit to see what the consumer-level 3D printers can build.

Since my special brand of geekiness has already assured that the bloodline stops at my branch of the family tree, you can imagine the uber-nerd fest we both have been having, trading links on Facebook about the different things that rapid-prototype machines and 3D printers can achieve.

For those who are not familiar with the technology, the name really does give away about 90% of the special sauce. Using a plastic in lieu of ink, 3D printer can actually build three-dimensional objects in a process not that dissimilar to your home ink jet printer (Jay Leno has been using 3D printing to replace impossible-to-find parts for his classic car collection).

The more robust and industrial units use lasers to shape and heat the plastic ink, and are able to achieve a high-degree of object resolution. We can think of more than a few electric motorcycle startups that are currently using this rapid-prototyping process to develop their street and race bikes. It’s very fascinating, but also very expensive stuff.

This is where the consumer side of the equation comes in, as the post-industrial form of 3D printing has not only rapidly increased in its ability to flawlessly create a high-resolution object, but the cost of both the 3D printer and its “ink” have dramatically dropped. Hobbyist models are now in the $400-$2,000 range, and could soon be as ubiquitous as the printer sitting next to the computer you are using to read this article.

As the price-point drops and resolution increases further, the consumer end of this technology could rival the industrial side of 3D printing, and that is where things get real interesting for the motorcycle industry, and manufacturing in general.

For many, wrenching on one’s motorcycle is an integral part to the ownership experience. A motorcycle is what the name implies: an engine with two wheels, and thus lends itself to being more accessible to both novice mechanics and expert builders alike. I myself gained my mechanical prowess (I can hear my riding buddies laughing at this) by working not on a car, but on a motorcycle, and in the expert hands of tuners and accomplished customizers, true artistry can take place.

Wherever you fall in between the two extremes of that spectrum, the ability to “print” replacement parts or new parts holds tremendous value. For someone like me, who loses small plastic tabs, screws, and other bits like it is his god-given mandate on this earth, the ability to create that lost part in a matter of minutes is a huge boon, not to mention it is easier on the wallet than the $5 nut or bolt that should cost $.01 at my local dealership.

For more creative individuals, the ability to design and build modified, or completely original parts, becomes an added value to the ownership of a 3D printer. Have a new clutch cover design you want to try? Or maybe a new exhaust bracket? As 3D printers fall even further in their pricing, and increase in their capabilities, the ability to create larger and more complex shapes becomes possible. Bike customizers can start building unique body pieces in hours, when it could have taken closer to weeks via traditional methods.

Imagine what a 3D printer at a track day could achieve for the rider who crashes in the morning, and needs your usual rearsets, engine cover, and some bodywork to get back on the track for the afternoon.

In the past, such a rider would have been at the mercy of whatever parts a trackside vendor carried, and if that didn’t work out, then there was the slim chance that another rider in the paddock could have a replacement part in the box of spares they brought to the event. But with the ability to rapidly and accurately build hard parts on-demand, the whole paradigm about inventory changes, and this concept goes beyond the personal needs of motorcyclists, and extends into how businesses in the industry operate.

The amount of inventory that a motorcycle dealership would have to carry can be greatly reduced, and an absolutely true just-in-time supply chain organization could exist. Dealerships would no longer hold a part in inventory in the hopes someone would one day need to purchase it (or worse, the dealership would only inventory the parts they knew people required on a regular basis, leaving unique parts to be special ordered as the situation arises), instead the dealership “print” the part in a few minutes as the customer waited.

This of course assume people would even go to dealerships still for their motorcycle parts.

For the manufacturing industry, 3D printing machines at the consumer level constitutes a sea change in how consumer goods are built and distributed, and the ramifications of this technology obviously extend well-beyond the confines of motorcycling’s small corner of the world. This change we are talking about is just a process change though — we are substituting one way of doing something with another, better, way of doing it.

The real revolution here is in shifting the power of manufacturing from centralized companies to decentralized consumers, where now we are empowering a new set of people with the ability to design and create. We can think of this in terms of the motorcycle industry only, but understand that the ramifications extend into every industry where manufacturing is prevalent.

Right now, if someone wants to design and built a custom motorcycle, they likely need a firm understanding of concept sketching or rendering, as well as a strong background in metal working, and possible experience with composite materials. Add into the mix the necessary eye for aesthetics and artistry, and the number of people capable of building an attractive motorcycle custom becomes quite focused.

But what if one didn’t need those fabrication skill sets? What if the only pre-requisite to designing and building a custom motorcycle was one’s ability to visualize their concept in a 3D modeling software suite like AutoCAD or SolidWorks?

As 3D printing advances further, it will remove the physical barriers to creative building in the motorcycle space, leaving only vision and inspiration as the requisite traits to creating something unique on two wheels. What we have here is the widening of the lens on whom can create and innovate on a physical level in the motorcycle industry.

The custom bike builder of the future might not be former metal-working journeyman with grit under their fingernails, but instead a young computer nerd with an eye for design, and Mountain Dew cans staked high next to his personal computer. That’s an interesting thought, to say the least.

The implications for the aftermarket sector are paramount as well, as before only the companies who could produce the holy trinity of volume, distribution, and marketing could sell hard parts in the motorcycle industry with success. However, now with the ability to print parts on demand, and at the consumer level, the first two of those three items are made irrelevant. Marketing and audience exposure will of course always be an issue, but the playing field will have been leveled in this regard as well.

Obscure builders, who maybe operate in a small niche, will now have the same access as a major aftermarket motorcycle OEM would, and their product will compete on a playing field that puts more emphasis on the part’s ability to work for the given application. 3D printers will become a platform, that other products will use and build upon.

Let’s say I am in the market for new rearsets for my Ducati Streetfighter 1098 (I actually am, as the case would be), so as such, I have a set number of choices in my search.

I can choose either from the few major companies that seem to have rearsets for just about every motorcycle imaginable, or I can instead go with one of the boutique brands that cater only to Ducati motorcycles. If I am really lucky there might be a third option: a forum member on one of the major Ducati boards that has access to a machine shop, and sells his own design of foot controls — but these sort of individuals are few and far between, let me tell you.

In a world where consumer-level 3D printers are rampant and accepted though, this vendor landscape will change. For starters, I wouldn’t be purchasing a physical set of rearsets for my Ducati, I would simply be purchasing a CAM file, which I would  then download, and use to print my newly purchased rearsets. This idea alone should make your head spin.

In my process to decide on which rearsets to purchase, it is unlikely that I will be shopping through a catalog, local dealer, or even an online store…at least not one as we know it (think less RevZilla, and more Apple iPhone App Store) — it is even possible I could finally decide on some sort of open-source design, where several builders and tinkers have created a CAM file and shared it for free on the internet. Vortex, Gilles, Ducati Performance, & Bob’s Duc Shop are all now on an equal footing.

From the perspective of the businesses, the cost of selling one pair of rearsets is the same as selling one thousand, or one million, since the consumer is footing the bill on the actual manufacturing and assembly (read: prices should DRAMATICALLY drop). It also means that there will be more Bob’s in the marketplace, giving consumers more choices and business more competition. This is called a free market economy.

In all likelihood, the pair of rearsets I end up purchasing doesn’t come from a company, they come from some college ME freshman, who is earning a little tuition money designing motorcycle parts between classes. And if he or she is good enough, they could give the aftermarket OEMs a serious run for their money.

All of this is just the tip of the iceberg though, and as printer costs drop from thousands to hundreds of dollars, while increasing in capabilities (e.g. DPI, speed, compatible materials, etc), the reality of everything discussed here, and beyond, becomes more certain. It will be interesting to see how motorcycling, one of the most conservative industries I have ever experienced, copes with this shift in technology, manufacturing, and business. Something to chew on for the weekend.