Could 3D printing be the future of custom carbon bike building?

R&D and innovation are vital in any industry, with businesses of all sizes benefiting from technological advancements. And 3D printing is certainly adding a new dimension to the bike manufacturing sector – in this particular case, revolutionising how made-to-measure carbon frames can be fabricated.

Henry Furniss co-founded WyndyMilla in 2009 with Nasima Siddiqui, but sold it in December last year to take on new challenges in the world of cycling and fitness – and it’s safe to say he’s been busy experimenting since. Pictures of 3D-printed lugs were teased on his Instagram feed earlier this year while he and some close friends began R&D for custom carbon frame builds.

“We are experimenting with 3D printing to push technical boundaries for frame fabrication,” Furniss later tells BikeBiz. “This would enable a huge leap forward in bringing a viable business model for custom carbon frame manufacture to the UK. The next step will be to see if we could deliver that with world-beating quality and a great customer experience for a global market. Right now, we are very focused on the technology – everything else follows on from that.”

Home improvements
Furniss says everything he has ever done in cycling has been inspired by a simple and enduring passion for riding bikes, striving to improve that experience and everything that goes with it. But his best analogy to highlight the inspiration behind this part of the journey is likening frame R&D to home improvements.

“If you’re renting your house, your creative imagination is being channelled into adding value to somebody else’s property, and your long-term security is at the mercy of the owner,” he says.

“However, if you own the house, you own the ideas and any home improvements that you make. The value and credibility is yours; you have both control and long-term security. Knocking down walls to secure a more comfortable and efficient future becomes both a viable and valuable option. Right now, the team is working out the best way to build a totally new kind of house from the ground up.”

Furniss has been involved in designing and building made-to-measure custom bikes for ten years. “The frames were designed in the UK and built in Italy,” he continues. “The value of that experience is immeasurable and Italian production remains a good model for a small, direct-to-customer, UK-based lifestyle business.

“However, as my network and ambitions grew beyond UK shores, it became clear that our model could not service an international market in a viable manner. This realisation inspired us to turn creative imagination towards a lean, agile and commercially-focused way to fabricate frames in the UK.”

But how long has this idea been gestating? “You could say I had the idea in 2009,” Furniss says. “My faith and definiteness of purpose in cycling has ultimately remained the same since then – to make fantastic bikes that look good enough to eat and ride like a dream.”

However, the idea to experiment with UK fabrication was a fusion of a conversation on a very wet Mexico City hillside in 2019, (at 3000m, Furniss says), and a seemingly ‘idle chat’ at a pub with an engineering friend of Furniss’ early in 2020. A few other factors conspired together with the WyndyMilla sale and COVID-19, all of which put them in a position to start turning that creative imagination into material innovation.

Custom collective
Furniss says that until recently, the team hadn’t spoken about these ideas to anyone beyond their ‘Brain Trust’ of fellow travellers. But the support for these plans has been “overwhelming”, he says, and has helped to build confidence and a clearer picture of what a business model could look like. “This was, and is, something really fun that we are collaborating on – pressure-free. As a relationships person in business, I have always been a staunch believer in the value of collaboration. Times have changed, many of the very best industry experts are independent: painters, bike fitters, engineers, designers and specialist brands.

“A marked step up in interest in our ideas due to the credibility of ‘in-house’ fabrication and ownership of technology has already laid the foundations for potential joint marketing ventures, community initiatives and shared sales channels with many of the aforementioned.

“If we were to pull the trigger on something new, we’d essentially form a ‘custom collective’ with the best the industry has to offer. A cooperative of expert individuals and brands all united by having passion, harmony, definiteness of purpose and faith at their core – crucial in the current environment to be lean and agile enough to compete for a viable slice of the market. Better together!”

Leading the charge
For now, Furniss says he is enjoying this rare opportunity to pursue integrating new 3D printing technology into frame building without any immediate pressure to take it to market.

“We are looking at all the different options as to how we might utilise the fruits of our labour, should it all go to plan,” he says. “There are many factors at play as to how that might look. Maybe we’ll prove the technology is not ready yet, or simply too expensive. But parking that notion for now, it could either be a case of utilising the technology in collaboration with existing brands, or perhaps if the environment was just right, we’d consider pulling the trigger on the creation of something new.”

Furniss believes the future of bike design is integration: “The bicycle is still made up of hundreds of component parts, so it stands to reason that bikes will continue down the path of becoming cleaner and more simple – integrated.”

The importance of 3D printing, he continues, particularly with carbon fabrication, is that it reopens the door for challenger and disruptor brands to have a chance to join the ‘big guys’ in leading the R&D race in a material way.

“Take TT bikes as an example – at WyndyMilla, we used to make them and sell a good number, but when annual changes to integrated hydration systems and proprietary cockpits became the accepted norm, we were priced out of TT R&D and it became the sole remit of the big guys.”

As 3D printing advances, Furniss says that type of R&D can be within reach of challenger brands again – the ‘gargantuan’ cost of proprietary monocoque fabrication will no longer be the only option to lead the charge. In short, the versatility of 3D printing could allow the ‘small guys’ to compete at every level in what is an incredibly fast-moving and fickle industry.

“Think N+1, who knows, maybe in a few years you’ll be able to press print on your new bike frame on a whim in your living room,” Furniss concludes. “Until then, we’ll keep experimenting for the love of it!”

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