Expert Interview: Arevo Co-Founder Wiener Mondesir On Producing the World’s First 3D-Printed Carbon Fiber Bike Frame
02 July 2019
Silicon Valley-based company, Arevo, made headlines in 2018 after unveiling what it called the world’s first 3D-printed carbon fiber bike frame. The use case showcased the unique capabilities of Arevo’s proprietary composite 3D printing technology, which combines robotics and software to produce lightweight, customised composite parts.
Since then, Arevo has gone on to partner with bike manufacturer, Franco Bicycles, to deliver 3D-printed carbon fiber unibody frames for a new brand of eBikes.
This week, we’re pleased to talk with Wiener Mondesir, Arevo’s Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer, about Arevo’s proprietary technology, the benefits of composite 3D printing and what the future holds for composite manufacturing.
Could you tell us a bit about Arevo?
At Arevo, our aim is to enable the manufacturing of composite parts at scale. We do this with a confluence of robotics, materials and software.
When you look across the composite industry, composite parts manufacturing represents a very large opportunity. Carbon fiber can be stronger than some metals and it’s lightweight, so it has a broad appeal across many industries.
But for a number of reasons, the adoption of composites manufacturing has been stifled, so the opportunity isn’t being addressed. One reason for this is because of inefficient manufacturing processes.
Composite manufacturing is currently very labour, resource and capital intensive, which means that it doesn’t really scale to large volumes. The industries that have really been able to capitalise on composite manufacturing have been those that could afford the business case, like the aerospace and very high-end automotive industries.
Additionally, there are long design cycles because of inadequate software and inefficient simulation. Another often overlooked reason is the lack of understanding of composites in other industries.
Arevo is addressing all of these issues. We’re rethinking composite manufacturing by using what we call the digitalisation of composites.
We’ve chosen to solve this problem by developing software that erases the knowledge gap.
You start out with a 3D model and our software does the analysis, comes up with the optimal final orientation, the right amount of material and produces instructions to fabricate the part using our fabrication technology.
Let’s take a spider’s web as an example. When you look at a spider web, it’s a 3D structure that has the right amount of material for its purpose.
The fiber, or the silk in the case of the spider web, uses only the right amount of material and is perfectly placed where it needs to be. We draw inspiration from that when coming up with an optimised way of 3D printing composite parts.
So that’s our mission as a company: to enable composites manufacturing at scale.
What are the benefits of composite 3D printing?
Carbon fiber composites offer great strength-to-weight ratio, so you get a really strong yet lightweight material.
When you look at the trend in 3D printing, a lot of different techniques use lattice structures to lightweight metal, which is naturally dense and heavy.
But if you begin with a lightweight, strong material like carbon fiber from the outset, you’ll get to the end result much faster. So composites are a lot better suited for certain applications than even the metal lattice structure types of products, which look great but don’t necessarily serve the purpose.
The complication with carbon fiber is that it’s anisotropic, meaning that it’s strong in one direction. That’s what makes it a little bit more difficult to deal with without specialised tools.
At Arevo, we’ve developed the toolset for designers, so you don’t have to have a PhD to manufacture with carbon fiber composites. Our software takes care of that.
Your carbon fiber 3D-printed bike frame was widely publicised when it was unveiled. What was the process of creating the bike frame, from design to production?
That particular application began as a way to showcase what is possible with the technology.
A bike frame is very accessible, but it has a very complex shape and is a large structure that requires load, torsion and the ability to take weight. So it was the perfect application to demonstrate our technology.
If you take a step back and look at traditional composite bikes today, they go through a design to prototyping iteration, and then all the way to production. That process takes close to a year.
Furthermore, traditional composite bikes are manufactured using a very manual process. Frames are bonded together from 20 to 30 parts and as many as 40 people touch each frame. It’s a very labour-intensive process and you end up with a very high-cost product that doesn’t necessarily scale.
The designs are also very similar, so you can’t get a lot of customisation.
With our technology, we shortened this process from almost a year to just a few days. Arevo’s software takes a CAD design and does an isotropic generative design on the frame that a designer comes up with. It also optimises the orientation and does a predictive analysis.
The next step takes place in our manufacturing facility. We built a manufacturing facility in California that can produce customised bike frames on demand utilising our robotics and deposition technology.
When we launched the bike, we were approached by all of the large bike manufacturers because they were interested in the design freedom the technology offered.
When you look at the design of the Arevo bike frame, it actually takes a detour from conventional bike design. It doesn’t have a seat stay, for instance, and it looks very different from a traditional bike.
Arevo’s bike is a unibody bike made with very strong carbon fibers oriented in the optimal orientation in 3D space. We’re able to achieve the design in a unibody structure that makes it very solid and lightweight.
We can tune the actual ride of the bike using software tools. We can tune the stiffness in certain regions of the bike and allow for an even bouncier ride if it’s desired, on demand. With traditional bikes, you’re essentially always trying to make the same frame over and over again.
A 3D-printed frame, on the other hand, opens up a new business model for an industry that is used to the very long process of introducing a new bike to market. Today there are about a million composite frames made a year. And now you can actually introduce very customised frames on demand with our technology.
Our goal is to continue to create new applications that take advantage of this capability.
Is the customised approach to production a scalable business model?
There’s great value in customisation when it comes to bikes. Every person is unique. You become more fatigued when you’re not riding a bike that is designed or set up or adjusted for your frame. So a bike is actually a good vehicle to demonstrate the value of customisation.
There is a whole trend around micro-mobility and the ability to walk around with a very convenient vehicle. The bike represents that. In many different countries, it’s a dominant form of transportation.
When you need customisation for form and function, you can’t do this in a mass market way. But with our technology, a consumer can design the frame and our software can guarantee that the frame they’ve designed is structurally sound.
Then they can send that to our 3D printing cells to make that bike on demand. So the process from concept to production is very much simplified.
What other applications do you envision with your technology?
Today we’re focused on the bike and mobility applications. These are applications that can take advantage of the value proposition we offer, which is very lightweight, high strength-to-weight ratio and customised products.
When you look across industries, it’s really important to improve performance in the sporting sector, as well as in the automotive, energy and aerospace industries.
We have a bunch of different applications we’re working on where lightweight, high performance and high customisation are required. And those are the key areas where our technology can be used.
How does robotics fit into your technology?
When you look across 3D printing, most of 3D printing is layer-based, and the layers are deposited in the X and Y planes. When you look at the properties of parts made with that process, they tend to suffer in the Z direction.
We use a fully articulated six-axis robot to deposit our carbon fiber in the X, Y and Z directions. We’ve eliminated the Z strength issue that plagues other layer-based technologies because we’re able to lay down in the Z direction. That’s one of the unique capabilities of our deposition technology. Robotics plays a big part in that.
The second aspect is the scale of parts that can be printed. Today, most systems are relegated to a certain build envelope, meaning you can only make parts of a certain size. If you go beyond a certain size, the part will need to be cut up in sub-assemblies to make a larger structure.
Our robots provide infinite build envelope capability because we can put our robots on the gantry to make aerospace parts. At the same time, the same robot can make a bike. The reach of our robots is a four-metre high volume. Essentially, it’s very scalable in terms of giving us that large print envelope.
How would you describe the current state of the composite 3D printing market? How advanced is the technology?
The composite industry has been doing additive for quite some time. It’s just that the complexity of the geometries have been very limited to what you could fit on a mould, like parts with a very small curvature. Additionally, the layers are usually laid down manually, resulting in a part that is fairly limited in complexity.
So composite 3D printing has been around for a while. But now things like automated robotics or mechatronics systems, which automate the placement of the fiber, enable more complex geometries.
There are a lot of companies taking a different approach to automating composite manufacturing, from different types of resin systems to targeting different use cases.
And that’s very helpful.
Overall, I think the composite 3D printing sector is in a healthy state, with Arevo leading the charge.
What are some of the challenges the industry is facing, either 3D printing in general or composite 3D printing specifically?
I think the biggest challenges stem from the lack of available software tools to explore what’s possible with additive. You have a mindset of looking at traditional manufacturing techniques, and we were educated with traditional manufacturing techniques.
People often start with parts that were made using traditional way and want to force fit additive to that part, but that doesn’t always match.
But when you really exploit what you can do with additive, whether its metal or composite or polymer based, in terms of the uniqueness and complexity, you really need tools to guide you through that process and inform designers and engineers.
How do you see the industry evolving over the next five years?
It’s very encouraging. Since Arevo’s inception, we’ve always been focused on production parts.
When you look across the industry today, it’s really encouraging to see that everyone is talking about production parts. That’s the common theme.
Going forward, I expect to see the industry start to talk about quality and scalability as well. As you start making products, producing at scale and with greater repeatability will be the key focus for the industry.
Ensuring the quality of parts and processes is a big talking point for additive manufacturing at the moment. What is Arevo’s approach to this?
One of the key breakthroughs that Arevo was able to achieve is our laser-based deposition process.
Furthermore, we employ machine learning algorithms that are able to do in situ inspection. We have a sensor suite and we’re able to do an in situ inspection on a part as it’s being manufactured.
This allows us to get a very homogeneous printed material with less than 1% voids. You could do a cross-section of a part and when you bring it up under a microscope, you can observe very homogeneous printed material.
This translates to very high-quality parts when you go to very demanding applications like aerospace. This in situ quality control, combined with our closed-loop monitoring, is what allows us to have repeatable and predictable quality.
What does the next 12 months hold for Arevo?
In the next 12 months, we’ll be focused on manufacturing execution. Since we launched the bike, we actually have more demand than we’re able to meet. Our goal for the next year is to continue to launch new applications, but mainly to scale our capacity to meet the current demand.
To learn more about Arevo, visit: https://arevo.com/