PARIS -- The Solid is an unusual bicycle: it's 3D-printed out of titanium, it's unusually streamlined, it will take you on routes designed to help you discover a city and it tells you where to turn by buzzing signals in the handlebars. It's also a harbinger of how products will be built in the future.
But the Solid, designed by a Portland, Ore.-based firm called Industry and unveiled Thursday here for the Connected Conference, is unusual in another way, too. It's not a product to be sold, but instead a project to help Industry figure out the future of design and manufacturing.
Figuring out that future is tough. In the old days, designers would come up with a product's look on paper or clay, then hand it off to engineers who'd try to make it work in the real world. Nowadays, designers and engineers work simultaneously, scanning sketches, printing prototypes in plastic and iterating from one possibility to the next as fast as possible. And 3D printers, which fuse raw materials layer by layer into metal or plastic components, will open the door to new levels of customization.
The end result may not mean you can buy the Solid in a bike shop next year. But according to Industry co-founder Oved Valadez, it will completely transform the products you do buy.
"The future is about bringing 'personal' back to service," Valadez said. Instead of buying something in size small, medium or large, you'll buy it in "size me," he said.
That approach will apply to footwear, bicycles, cars and more, he predicted. "You'll scan yourself with your handheld [phone], and it'll give you a recommendation about what is your perfect size."
Valadez's profession changed dramatically decades ago with the gradual spread of computer-aided design (CAD) and manufacturing (CAM), but the arrival of 3D printers means the technological transformation isn't over. Another big shift is the spread of computing hardware and software beyond personal computers and smartphones and into cars, toys, thermostats, streetlights, traffic signals and myriad other devices -- a trend broadly called the Internet of Things.
The computing industry's appetite for competitive, fast-paced change also has helped bring the once-separate disciplines of design, engineering and manufacturing closer together, said Marc Chareyron, co-founder of French design firm Enero.
"If you have a designer who hands the work to an engineer who hands it to the software engineer, then the iterations are so long, it takes years to build something," Chareyron said. That'll doom a project: during that wait, products will be overtaken by competitors' models or by new technology trends.
For Valadez and Industry, the Solid bike project was a way to bring new hardware, software, and collaborative approaches into the business. They'd photograph life-size sketches and import them into Autodesk's Fusion 360 and Alias software. They'd make old-style cardboard and use new-era 3D printers to create components for the bike. And when it was time for manufacturing, they combined 3D printing with traditional hand-finishing and hand-welding techniques drawing on the expertise of titanium bike frame maker Ti Cycles.
"It's the new way. It's more iterated and collaborative. It allows you to quickly bring form and function to the same level," Valadez said. "Unlike 10 years ago, utility and beauty are now one."
They built a bike with software, too. A smartphone app lets people select routes through a city that spotlights interesting attractions, shopping areas, restaurants. And inside the bike itself is an Arduino-based electronics board that handles the bike's GPS position tracking and signals to the rider when it's time to turn right or left by buzzing the appropriate handlebar grip.
Among Industry's clients are Nike, Intel, Starbucks and InCase, a maker of bags and cases for carrying delicate electronic products.
3D printing still immature
3D printing is good for making prototypes, but the technology can't handle everything yet when it comes to manufacturing, he said. There are size limits to fusing parts out of titanium powder, for example, and 3D-printed parts still require a lot of finishing.
But 3D printing opens up new options. For one thing, it permits much more complicated shapes that can do multiple jobs. Some of the Solid's components have interior walls that both increase strength in high-stress areas and serve to route brake and gear-shifting cables internally for a sleek look, for example.
Building complex parts that serve dual or triple functions is important, especially in areas like the automotive industry where durability is important. A part that serves multiple jobs means designers can avoid bolting together components that over time can rattle loose and break.
For Industry, the 3D printing was a learning experience -- for example in understanding how much the titanium needed to be finished with grinders and bead-blasting and how much that would change the dimensions of the product.
Despite the rough patches, though, Valadez is a convert. As with early technologies like molding and computer-controlled machine tools, 3D printing is maturing. "There are limitations," Valadez said, "but it is the future."