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New from Airbus: A bike to transform Aerospace

Dave Harvey | 17:13 UK time, Monday, 7 March 2011

Andy Hawkins on the EADS Innovation Bike

Engineers are often not the world's best communicators. In my experience, many of them are happy to beaver away in their workshops, solving problems for the rest of us before we've even realised they were there.

Every day, at Filton's famous Aircraft Factory, engineers do astonishing things.
A few make headlines. The Box Kite, the Concord, the Brabazon, the A380 Superjumbo.

But I spend a lot of time looking at innovations that are, to the outside, baffling.

Which was why my ears pricked up when I heard about the Airbus Bike.

I've just finished making a documentary about it, but this morning they had it on BBC Breakfast News.

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Two young engineers at the Innovation Works were so excited about a new machine they have, they decided to make a bike. Yes, two wheels, pedals, that kind of bike.

"You can show people satellite brackets, but they don't get it," explained one of them, Chris Turner. "My mum asks me about work, and I can show her brackets and stuff, but a bike - now that she understands."

It's a bit of a revelation this. Engineers who care that we understand.

Chris and his colleague Andy Hawkins have been working weekends on their pushbike. They want people to get as excited about ALM as they are, and they think the bike will do it.

ALM? Ah, the technology. Additive Layer Manufacturing.

It's basically quite simple. You take a 3D object, like a bike saddle, and slice it on computer into thousands of 2D layers. A pile of these layers will make a complete object. The clever bit is how they make their layers.

Nylon Powder, used to make the bike


They start with this powder - nylon, in this case. Heated to 177 degrees C, it is about to melt. A laser traces the outline of the 2D shape, fusing the nylon solid.
Another layer, 0.1mm thick, and another laser.

Gradually, the object takes shape. Because it is encased in powder, you can create solid objects in space, in other words, moving parts. The bike would come out of the machine with ball-bearings already in place, a crank shaft that would turn, wheels that would spin, without any additional parts.



Sound simple? Well, I've been watching them for six weeks, and it was anything but.

The first attempt at creating the wheel hub went horribly wrong.

The measurements were out, by a few millimetres, and the bearings simply fell out.

But Chris and Andy understand communication so well, they knew they had to let us carry on filming. If things went wrong, their project would become a struggle we care about.

Typical engineers, they blustered about prototypes, and 'back to the drawing board', lessons learnt. Then, I asked Chris how it felt.

"It feels rubbish!" he laughed. "It feels like I really don't want that to happen again, I want to get back and make it work properly."

Chris Turner and Andy Hawkins, of EADS Innovation Works

See, now you care about this technology, and whether they'll manage to make the bike work. To find out, just watch the film we made. It's on Inside Out West, which you can find here.

Meanwhile, a few thoughts about what ALM could do.

 The real breakthrough is that ALM smashes the barrier between designer and manufacturing shop floor. You no longer have to design parts around what you can actually make, using lathes, casting, machining etc. Instead, the designer just draws on a 3D computer programme, and the ALM machine effectively prints it out.

 In aerospace this means they can make wing parts with hollow truss structures built in, saving weight and material. They can create complex labyrinths of pipes for F1 engines that would be impossible the old way. Most of all, it means the designer is king again. And that, more than anything, is good news for the UK.

 Increasingly, UK manufacturing has been going hi-tech, high value. Anything that you can make in a box is usually shipped in from the Far East. Companies like Dysons now design here, and manufacture 'over there'. But if design and manufacturing move closer together, British firms can hang on to a reason to be here.

 So the factory that gave us Concorde and the Box Kite may yet transform British manufacturing, with a little nylon bicycle.


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