How 3D Printing Is Going To Change Motorcycling

10/05/2012 @ 2:12 pm, by Jensen Beeler31 COMMENTS

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.

  • Susanna Schick

    You would’ve died to see CRP’s setup! I got a tour of their whole facility for in 2010. Amazing stuff, and makes my brother’s homemade 3-D printer look like the toy it is. ;-) I’ve often wondered if they’d be amenable to making custom eyewear…

  • I too am excited about custom manufacturing becoming democratized. However I don’t think 3D printed plastic rearsets are going to be particularly useful. For plastic parts 3D printing will be a boon. For hard parts you’re still gonna need a machine shop for the most part. The nice thing will be that you could potentially print molds for custom carbon fiber parts of your own design.

  • “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.”

    Brammo is one. In the past the Empulse RR used 3D printed fairings. The development of the Empulse R was supplemented and accelerated by utilizing 3D printers. Better to print and test parts, than to tool and have to re-tool when a part doesnt work out.

    Id say that within 5 years 3D printers will start to become commonplace. This revolution will also present new issues… think piratebay not for music, movies, and programs, but for actual physical items. Why buy when you can easily print things like legos, cell phone cases, small toys, and other plastic do-dads?

  • David


    But the coolest thing to print will be……food.

    This guy already prints lifelike edibles for cakes.

    Imagine a nutritional “Special Mushy Sauce” used by a printer to print steak,potatoes, prime rib and veggies. And this “sauce” has the matching flavor mixed in before printing.

    I think the Star Wars replicator is closer then we think.

    Next up…….the Holodeck !

  • shallwedance?

    it is easier on the wallet than the $5 nut or bolt that should cost $.01 at my local dealership.

  • alex

    I almost laughed when you wrote that some college kid would make your rear sets – like in between taking tokes – substituting high quality billet for the cheapest he could find and basically being in no way accountable when they fail and you die I don’t see the upside.

    What I do like is the idea of rapid prototyping of new ideas that are then presented to someone who can also do FEA etc.

  • shallwedance?

    interositter has arrived

  • I have see this process in action (Video) and when it does come in to full production I think it’ll be awesome…

  • FeelGoodIncNI

    Exciting for the masses and what we could do but I can’t help but feel we will lose a certain amount of the organic design genius of people such as Shinya Kimura. Sure, he and others like him could diversify to CAD etc but would their creations be the same works of art they are now or the same as any kid come up with whilst doodling on his tablet? I mean I could draw you something that looks Kimura-esque, I sure as hell couldn’t beat it out of metal for you though.

  • Justin

    I’m confident the world may eventually be such a place where traditional manufacturing goes away, but we’re a LOOONNNG way, maybe 50+ years from having 3D printing of STRUCTURAL materials be commercially available. It’s one thing to build a plastic part for mockup, it’s another thing to create a part to carry load. Rapid prototypes are a great resource to try fitments before committing to a CNC run, but they don’t replace good old sold billet metal for strength. As a practicing design engineer, I can tell you that creating the pretty geometry is probably only 5-10% of the process of generating a usable component. There’s alot more that goes on to properly engineering a part than sketching something up in CAD. With that said, I don’t disagree that someday parts will be downloaded not shipped.

  • RedNick

    I read a report some time ago that talked about the real future of this technology and how it is going to be used for reproducing human organs and body parts. Now THAT might be useful for some racers!

  • Bruce

    I have used plastic rapid prototyping parts for fit checking early in a design process for more than 18 years now. Usually the prototype was of an injection molded plastic part where waiting for even prototype tooling would be to costly in time and money. If you ever put a bill into a slot machine there is a good chance it went through a molded part that I designed. Before those designs were cut into steel molds, rapid prototype parts were made to check fit. But rapid prototype machines are slow and only use a narrow selections of week plastics. there would need to be a quantum leap in polymer technology before any 3-D printer could make a tough useful motorcycle part.

    But I have seen similar technology that can make finished steel parts out of a CAD file and a pile of dust. The dust is a fine powder of alloy steel and the process is called direct metal laser sintering. It is in no way cheep, but it can make parts with very complex internal passage ways out of steel that will have an Rc hardness of 50 or 60 right out of the machine. I know it is being used to make injection molding core pins with complicated internal cooling lines. In theory one of these machines could “print” a 95% finished engine block or completely finished rear set components. But it would be slow. In the time it would take for one of these machines to print an engine block a modern CNC machining cell could make 5 or 10. The laws of thermodynamics and metallurgy will limit how fast these machines can print metal. 20 years in the future it might be possible to go into a store and have a part made for pick up the next day.

    check it out,

  • 76

    Maybe you can use the music industry as an example of what happens when the exclusivity of a process and distribution becomes accessible.

    The thing here though its much harder to pretend your an engineer than it is to pretend your a musician. There is still a lot of expertise & talent involved in todays motorsports world on the R&D side. Even if you have access to professional grade equipment like 3D printers, you still need those skills, the designers, modelers and engineers. Just like in the music industry, the musicians didnt go away, actually there are more of them, did it get better? Well thats a little relative to who is answering. The one thing that did disappear was the middle men, the head honcho executives, the lawyers. Not entirely, the ones that made it through the birth of the digital revolution had to evolve and access new markets to sell their product to justify their overhead and existence.

    It is interesting on many levels, the first one that comes to mind is copying. What happens when I can download a CBR1000 or the guy down the street has the entire file? Using music as an example the guy downloads it without a care. Yes an entire bike is extreme and very far away but I agree with a post above, I think pirating and plagiarism become very important topics at that point. Few people will learn how to design something, many will learn how to copy it and call it theirs.

    Early in school it is taught plagiarism taboo, at least in the US. The strange thing is that it does not seem to translate past a “proper written work” ie book. If someone copies an entire book it is reported on the nightly news, someone rips off a design, its called a Kia. I guess then the reason the written word is so protected (internet need not apply) is because the availability of the medium, everyone can hit copy, control, paste, print and say I wrote a book even before this all you need is a pen and some paper. Maybe in the future 3D printers are as common as a pen and a piece of paper is now, maybe then there is a taboo associated with ripping off other peoples designs

  • I see people are 3-D printing their own firearms now, that’s kind of scary.

    It would be nice to be able to 3-D print ABS parts for your fairing, make changes anyway you like to compliment your graphic designs, that’s a whole brave new world.

  • As Bruce mentioned it’s being done in metallurgy, soon individual designers will be able to craft their own engine parts and try them out within a matter of hours. That should really increase the speed of development and testing in ways that people could only imagine in years past.

  • john

    3D printing is old school … i consulted on the industrial design of a 3D printer back in the early ’80’s.

    what’s newer school is the materials that are available now for 3D printing.

  • jeram

    yep. Ill be buying one as soon as they can make 6000 series alluminium printable (or an equivalent substitute) and affordable (a couple thousand bucks).
    That would save me hours and hours in the shed when Im building my 500GP replicas and shoehorning engines into small and nimble chassis.

  • Westward

    There is currently a company that can mold a high strength metal to make complex shapes as though it were plastic. It is not a stretch of the imagination to realize that this process could be combined with a 3D printer.

    In the not so distant future, one would be able to 3D print all kinds of motorcycle parts. In fact there is going to be a revolution of personal design and manufacturing, not to mention the mass reduction of manufacturing labor at large corporations.

  • Westward

    @ jeram

    It is quite possible that there are many like yourself that would do the same. John Britten comes to mind. This could very well change the face of MotoGP, or create a boom for local series of tinkers that could threaten established series’s like MotoGP and WSBK…

  • meatspin

    you wouldn’t download a car?

    ^^gets me everytime. I think we all know the answer to that.

  • pooch

    Hate to be pedantic, but I will be anyway, the Replicator is in Star TREK, not Star WARS. :)

  • jeram

    The biggest issue you will find is that every tom dick and harry will want to buy one, yet tom dick and harry will not know how to properly use Auto Cad 3D or solid works let alone design a part to the same standards that a qualified engineer would.

    So we may see some find quality printed parts at local race tracks… but we will also so alot of dodgy parts… as people with have the capability to create dangerously light weight triple clamps, rear sets and clip ons without the slightest idea whether their part will be able to cope with the stresses of use and fatigue among many variables.
    because as far as the uneducated are concerned, it looks good and weighs less than a HRC part, so it must be good!

  • PatD

    Can @Westward share the name of the company that can “mold a high strength metal to make complex shapes as though it were plastic”?


  • Phil D

    @Justin and @G.Irish…

    Structural 3D printing is already in use in the cycling industry where they are printing titanium components. We’re more likely 5 yrs off rather than 50 years off… IMHO, the tech will be out of reach for the layman for perhaps another 10 – 15 yrs, but rapid prototyping, if the manufacturer were to pass along some of the savings to the end user, should essentially lower costs, as it would speed up the R & D aspect, which is where the bulk cost of an item comes from… This in essence should be the case for any moulded or machined component, not just the motor industry.

  • Phil D
  • Technologies like these will also help in the development of self-healing metals, the way they have self-healing plastics and paints already. Imagine aluminum and steel that have virtually unlimited lifespans, able to repair the damage that comes from fatigue, oxidation, damage and aging.

    In the future, perhaps riders will lay their bike down, and in a matter of days the plastic fairing will reconstitute itself, and the paint will reform over the damaged area, perhaps in a matter of weeks, the damaged metal parts will heal themselves as well. It’ll take you longer to heal than it will your bike. :)

  • Grant Madden

    The future is now!!The high grade metalic plastics are already being developed.New materials with metalic properties and plastic properties are already under development,some lighter and stronger than titaniumHere we go,into the future,hope you guys are ready for it cause if your not then the world will leave you behind.
    Computers will have programs that will control design parameters so they will be strong enough for the task required.Then you will have to be careful putting the bits together or it will all turn to crap!
    Science fiction predicted this long ago and now its here.Cool!

  • Westward

    @Grant Madden

    From one of the demonstrations I saw of the 3D printer, they didn’t have to put anything together, they imaged a wrench, and by the end of the process, the plastic version that was produce was fully functional hot off the press…

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  • Paul McM

    For structural strength and load-bearing, think SANDwich and honeycomb composite parts that combine 3D printed layers and latice structures, with layers of extruded metal and/or laid-up carbon fiber. You still might have some hand-laminating and vacuum bagging, but the internal shaping could all be done by machine. You could end up with wheels, handlebars etc. that are lighter but stronger than metal castings or forgings.

  • Singletrack

    “I see people are 3-D printing their own firearms now, that’s kind of scary.”

    But could you make your own ammunition??