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How 3D printers made a motorcycle, skis and snowboard

Lucas Mearian | May 22, 2015
Large production parts can be commonplace now with 3D printing.

3D printed motorcycle
The 3D printed motorcycle created by TE Connectivity to prove to its engineers that polymers can withstand great amounts of stress. The bike is styled after a Harley Davison softwail and can do a whopping 15mph with two riders. Credit: IDG

When it comes to 3D printing, the general public is likely unaware how far the technology has come from the days when making figurines and trinkets was about all many believed the machines could do.

Because of advancements in hard and soft thermoplastic polymers, metal sintering techniques and printing software and hardware platforms, 3D printing machines are capable of producing a wide variety of objects that can withstand a great deal of force.

That was TE Connectivity's goal when it used 3D printing to build a working motorcycle. The company, which makes electronic connectivity and sensor equipment for the automotive, aerospace and defense industries, wanted to prove to its 7,500 engineers that 3D printing was up to the task of creating working production parts.

The motorcycle, whose design harkens back to a classic Harley Davidson Softail, took 1,000 hours to build and had so many parts that TE Connectivity principal engineer Charles Fry lost count of how many there actually were.

The motorcycle weighs 250 lbs. and can easily accommodate two riders. The bike has been tested with weights of up to 400 lbs., and while its tiny 750-watt, 1hp electric motor strains under that kind of load, it can easily transport a person of average weight up to 15mph for more than two minutes, Fry said.

The cost to build: $25,000.

While that may seem expensive, it's only because it's the first working motorcycle to be almost completely made with 3D printing.

The motorcycle's frame is primarily made through fused deposition modeling (FDM), where an extruder head controlled by a robotic mechanism lays down layer after layer of melted polymer. The polymers consisted of common ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) filament and Ultem 9085 resin, which is heat resistant.

Additionally, metal parts on the bike, such as the headlight assembly, were made of bronze using direct laser sintering (DMLS) 3D printing. DMLS systems lay down a fine layer (typically 20-micron thick) of powdered metal across a build area. A laser then sketches out a pattern in the powder, melting or fusing many individual powder layers together. The DMLS process creates a highly dense material with a finished surface.

The metal components of the bike are coated with polished nickel.

Perhaps most remarkable about the belt-drive bike was the printed rear-wheel hub; it was created using FDM as one part, sprocket gear, bearings and all.

"You can't build it by any other method," Fry said. "It uses a herring bone gear, and there's no way to get the herring bone gear into the assembly once the bearings are built."


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