A Perth company has begun making bicycles with metallic 3D-printed parts produced by the CSIRO.
Australians will soon be riding around on the first bicycles made with metallic 3D-printed parts, but experts say we're a long way from printing entire bikes.
Perth bikemaker Flying Machine has revealed a prototype that features eight titanium "lugs" printed by the CSIRO, using its $1.3 million 3D printer.
The CSIRO says the lugs - small metallic components that join the tubular frame of the bike - are the first 3D-printed parts to feature on a bicycle in Australia.
Flying machine plans to begin incorporating the parts across its range of bikes, with prices starting at about $2800.
Co-founder Matthew Andrew says the 3D printing technology will allow the company to customise bikes to the measurements of customers.
"It's like a fully tailored fit system," he says.
In traditional manufacturing, parts are standardised and produced en masse.
Three-dimensional printing, by contrast, allows a manufacturer to make precise alterations quickly and easily, simply by updating a computer file.
Andrew says his company previously ordered steel lugs from overseas. They took about 10 weeks to arrive.
"With 3D printing, that's down to about 10 days," he says.
The titanium is also a superior material, he adds, being as strong as steel at 40 per cent the weight.
The CSIRO's high-tech printer is the only one in Australia that could do the job at the right price point, he says. Other printers cost about eight times as much to do the same job.
It works like this: the printer takes computer files of the designs and splits them into layers.
A high-powered electron beam is fired at a bed of titanium powder, melting it into a small layer of solid metal.
The powder bed then lowers and a new layer is spread out and fused to the previous one. This is repeated over and over until a 3D part is complete.
Chad Henry, the head of titanium 3D printing at the CSIRO, says 3D metal printing remains nascent but is growing "exponentially".
While 3D printers that print in plastic can now be bought for less than $1000 and used at home, metallic printing is far more complex.
"To fuse metal you need a much higher temperature, you need a controlled environment, you can't do it in the open air," Henry explains.
But he says he expects the growth of metallic printing to closely follow the rise of plastic printing over the past three years.
"Right now you need a PhD to operate the machines," Henry says. "In the future, you'll need a Tafe qualification."
So will we one day see entire 3D-printed metal bikes?
Henry says it's possible, but the build chambers of 3D printers must first be enlarged.
The CSIRO's printer builds in a chamber a little bigger than a toaster, meaning it is only set up to print small components.
Three-dimensional printing manufacturers are working on making their chambers bigger, he says.
As they do that, entire bicycle frames might be able to be printed, instead of printing small components then connecting them together with off-the-shelf tubing.
Rodney Gedda, an industry analyst at Telsyte, says 3D printing only makes sense for certain parts, such as small components that require quick customisation.
"It might not make sense to print the whole manufactured product," he says.
"Traditional manufacturing is established, well-known and cheap."
Gedda says 3D printing is at the "augmentation" stage, much like robots in car manufacturing: they augment the production process rather than replace it.
"It's a bit pie-in-the-sky to think that you're just going to press and button and you're going to get a bike that's completely printed," he says.