Airbike nylon bicycle - First look

Every part built from super-thin layers of powder

Two British engineers have designed a bike, christened the Airbike, made entirely of nylon – and they claim it’s as strong as steel. Chris Turner and Andy Hawkins, development engineers at the Aerospace Innovation Centre in Bristol, use a laser based manufacturing process known as additive layer manufacturing (ALM).

This builds up each of the bike's components using successive layers of fused nylon powder that are just one-tenth of a millimetre thick. ALM has been previously used for satellite and aircraft parts but EADS UK, the company behind the technology, wanted to show how useful it could be for creating everyday products.

The bicycle was chosen because it's both immediately recognisable and widely popular. Even moving parts such as bearings and bottom bracket assembly are made from nylon and built up in layers using the same ALM process. EADS say it requires no maintenance.

Quizzed about the unusual look of the bike, a spokesman told BikeRadar that this prototype was aimed at showing what the technology could do rather than producing a high spec, high quality bike. A more practical mark 2 version is said to be on the cards, with improvements such as a double sided chain drive to stop the flex apparent in the first model. There will also be refined geometry for better handling.   

The company reckon the technology has massive potential. Dr Jean J Botti, chief technical officer at EADS, said: "ALM is truly game-changing technology that has the potential to revolutionise manufacturing for the 21st century. It can be used for a wide variety of materials, from metals to plastics (including composites), and is faster and more efficient [than traditional manufacturing methods]...

"It uses less raw material and produces parts which are lighter, more complex and stronger. In short, this is a leaner and greener technology which can be used in many sectors from aviation through to consumer goods." ALM can even be used to manufacture parts with moving segments, removing the need for assembly, and to fuse different materials together in the same part (including metals such as titanium).   

Robin Southwell, chief-executive of EADS UK, said: "The application of this technology is to prove that you can get the combination of weight and strength which is vital in aerospace and apply it to something that everyone can see and ride on." Asked when a production version of the bike is likely to hit the market, he said "within a decade".

You can watch a video about the Airbike on the BBC News website.

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