In 2003, the German band Kraftwerk released Tour de France Soundtracks to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the prestigious bicycle tour. I have to admit that I like that video – black and white images refined with minimal and subtle colorful effects implying the French flag. In less than four minutes, even if you’re not a passionate cyclist, you can still feel the competition, speed, panorama, nature, and most importantly, the bikes.
Since the start of professional cycling, bike development has undergone continuous improvement. Not only is there constant progress in weight reduction and aerodynamics, there is also enhancement of the aesthetics as well as improvements in materials and production processes. Bicycle development is a perfect example of how exploring that fascinating space between organic shapes, technology transfer, and new manufacturing processes can truly change the game.
Take the AERO project, where architects Atanas Zhelev, Mariya Korolova, and Martino Hutz combined forces, diverse experiences, and passion to create a design project that became something bigger. AERO created a prototype bicycle by reconciling futuristic shapes with composite wood, exploring non-linear materials and their laws in the process. The team started by learning HyperWorks, Altair’s advanced simulation software suite, and eventually crafted a product that has never been seen before.
Like the Tour de France Soundtrack, the resulting design is refined, minimalist, and subtle. Notice how the lamellas that replace the conventional springs are also the frame. From the first time I saw it, the design struck me with its wind flow streamlines, velocity, and aerodynamics. And it’s technologically innovative as well. The revolutionary composite wood technology engineered for AERO is very similar to the manufacturing process of carbon fiber composite structures.
The quality and innovativeness of bicycle design is escalating rapidly, and designers are also exploring current alternatives in design and manufacturing. Last year, Renishaw and Empire Cycles presented the first 3D-printed bike, giving us a look at what is possible by using additive manufacturing (AM) for bike manufacturing. Even though not everything we imagine can be successfully printed yet, AM is expanding across many industries and testing various sizes, not just the small components.
AM inevitably embeds some constraints in the design process, and adding more constraints to design tools could end up limiting advancements in machine manufacturing as well as design freedom. Yet the lack of constraints could result in creating components that are impossible to print. Therefore, a period of growth is definitely needed to mature this new relationship.
Recently, GE proved that this growth is possible by presenting a fully printed mini jet engine that is capable of reaching 33,000 rpm. The designers are working to prove once again that functionality, aesthetics, and new manufacturing process can be combined to improve both products and the design process as well. Similarly, this structural node designed by ARUP is a unique combination of design skills, latest optimization technologies, and 3D printing to solve a constrained problem.
As world-famous American designer Charles Eames once said,
“Here is one of the few effective keys to the Design problem: the ability of the Designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible; his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints. Constraints of price, of size, of strength, of balance, of surface, of time, and so forth. Each problem has its own peculiar list.”
I believe that we are privileged spectators of a great show, where designers, technologies, and manufacturing process are simultaneously influencing each other on a whole new level.