Custom mountain bikes using pioneering 3D printing

A strong, light titanium frame built in Wales by Robot Bike Co

“Riders come in thousands of shapes and sizes, and yet manufacturers typically build their frames in just three sizes – or less,” says Ed Haythornthwaite, CEO of Robot Bike Co, whose carbon and titanium mountain-bike frames are as tailored as a Savile Row suit. “To us, it makes no sense to go to the effort of creating the ‘ultimate’ bike, only to compromise on something as crucial as the fit.”

The company was founded in 2013 by four bike nuts who have variously worked as a mechanic at the Downhill World Cup, a cycling magazine technical editor and custom frame builder, and engineers at Airbus and Renault’s Formula One team. They create high-spec custom builds based on body size (from three key measurements: height, inside leg and arm span) and the kind of “ride” clients are looking for – hardcore downhill or a bike that can climb too – varying the pitch and angle of the various joints accordingly. Their combined vision has been driven by technology, specifically the arrival of affordable Additive Manufacturing (that’s 3D printing to most people) in metal, and in collaboration with 3D-printing specialist Renishaw, Robot Bike Co has developed a system to print all the “lugs” (the angled joints on a bicycle frame) in titanium.

Most people think of 3D printing in plastic, which is fine for modelling and prototypes, but cost-effective metal printing is also possible. Powdered titanium is laid repeatedly in layers 60 microns thick; a high-power laser then passes over each layer, welding the metal particles according to the developing pattern, before the next layer is added and welded onto that. Gradually, the metal object emerges in three dimensions – a process that can take some 50 hours.

The first ride from Robot Bike Co is the custom-fitted titanium-frame R160 (£4,395, frame only, first picture). “It’s thoroughly engineered,” says Haythornthwaite. “No material or process was selected without a reason, and in both cases we are using the very best available.” The specifications for the carbon-fibre tubing came from Ben Farmer, one-time composites development team leader at Airbus, and it uses aerospace-grade Mitsubishi Rayon carbon fibre, modelled by C-Tech in New Zealand (when it is not creating masts for America’s Cup yachts). The suspension system is new too; its extra set of pivots means that it can be tuned separately for pedalling and braking, as well as suspension kinematics.

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The shape of the R160 is, oddly, quite traditional, eschewing the sweeping curves of most modern offerings in favour of straight tubes that are simple and strong (curves, they say, simply reduce the strength). And not only is titanium strong and light (the strongest metal available for its density), it is so beautiful it can be left raw and will never rust or corrode.  

The build process takes about four weeks and Robot Bike Co runs an “open factory” policy at its Wye Valley, Wales, site, so you can go along and see your R160 in varying stages of construction – or the company will happily send you images. Names can be easily etched into frames; it can build complete bicycles on discussion; and for one German customer it even ran off a second copy of the 3D print – the small agglomeration of titanium lugs on a build plate (second picture) – as a sculpture for his mantelpiece.

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The R160 is classed as an enduro bike, but Robot Bike Co will be developing a range of models to cover extreme downhill and cross-country. In the meantime, it says, the R160 might possibly be “the only bike you need” – with a lifetime guarantee.

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