The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the demand for e-bikes as quieter roads and more free time - coupled with commuters looking for a climate friendly, healthy and virus free alternative to public transport - are driving more of us to turn to cycling. Peter Richards, Director of Marketing & Communications at Protolabs Europe, takes a closer look at innovation in this growing arena and explores how bike makers can use digital manufacturing to speed up product development and customise bikes to gain greater market share.
Even before the pandemic the Confederation of the European Bicycle Industry (CONEBI) were predicting that the European e-bike market would triple between 2019 and 2024.
Both conventional bike and e-bike sales are rising rapidly. Italy, the largest producer of bikes in Europe, sold 1.52million traditional bikes and 195,000 e-bikes in 2019; up 7% and 13% from the previous year. And this is mirrored in most countries. In the UK, the export of bikes and accessories grew by 15% before lockdown whilst in Germany, 1.4 million e-bikes were sold in 2019 – a staggering 40% rise from 2018.
The Covid-19 outbreak, with quieter roads and more free time, means that more people are getting on their bikes and this trend is likely to continue as part of the urban commute and desire to avoid public transport.
Governments are also backing this trend with the UK introducing a £250m emergency active travel fund, which focuses on getting people onto bicycles, whereas Italy is providing an alternative mobility voucher for those who buy e-bikes and electric scooters and who live in cities with more than 50,000 inhabitants. The latter covers 60% of the price up to a maximum of €500.
Clearly the e-bike market is growing rapidly and with increasing demand comes innovation as manufacturers seek to differentiate themselves to take full advantage of this trend.
Change is on the way
When we talk about innovation for e-bikes, attention often focuses on the battery and how to make it lighter and more efficient. The latest research focuses on graphene lithium nanotechnology, which offers a far better energy density making them lighter and able to offer a greater range from each charge. The first prototype bikes with these batteries are already being tested, so it will be exciting to see how this develops.
One of the main concerns for e-bike commuters in urban environments is safety and, again, scientists are working hard to improve this using human-machine integration.
A good example is ongoing research at University of Southampton where an e-bike prototype reads a cyclist’s mind via their brain activity to prevent potential accidents.
The rider wears an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap to determine when there are changes to their peripheral awareness. If this peripheral awareness narrows, which typically happens when you respond to danger or a threat such as an obstruction or a car pulling out, the EEG cap will feed this information into a small computer that will immediately stop the electric motor to slow down the rider.
Innovation for today
While these developments may grab attention and promise huge opportunities for the future of e-bikes, manufacturers are also seeking incremental changes that can help them differentiate their products now.
Here the growing role of digital manufacturing, in particular 3D printing, is making a huge difference to both the production of initial prototypes for aesthetic and functional validation and the production of components that are lighter, stronger and functionally better. These include anything from tyres and grips that absorb vibration to flat nylon pedals that are lighter and stronger.
This form of additive manufacturing unleashes the creativity of designers and engineers as previously impossible shapes and geometries from other processes are now made possible. The technology has made huge strides over the last few years and is now a mainstream production method for both plastic and metal components – indeed the number of different materials that can be 3D printed is expanding all the time with the current figure around 17.
In the wider role of digital manufacturing, 3D printing can be used with quick-turn CNC machining and rapid injection moulding to help support the complete product development lifecycle. As a comprehensive set of services, as well as prototyping, they can be used to swiftly bring a product to market for testing – or for low volume ‘bridging’ to high volumes further down the line.
However, perhaps the greatest strength of digital manufacturing for cycle manufacturers is for the customisation of parts to meet the exact needs of their clients. This is not new to the bicycle industry and indeed mass customisation is becoming increasingly common across the entire manufacturing sector.
As any keen cyclist will tell you, having a bike built to meet your measurements and differing requirements is a key feature in how comfortable and effective it is for you as an individual in the long-term. If an e-bike is to become a sustainable commuting option for an individual, then such considerations are vital.
Investing in digital manufacturing, such as 3D printing, quick-turn CNC machining or rapid injection moulding may seem like an obvious answer, but many manufacturers are choosing to outsource these elements of production to third party specialists.
Most specialists are set up to make this process both simple and fast. Automatic quoting and analysis with rapid prototyping and low volume production in a wide variety of materials is a business model that relies on being able to respond quickly, accurately and reliably.
It begins with an engineer uploading their CAD design into the quoting and analysis software. The software automatically checks the design for manufacturability and can provide a quote within a couple of hours. If the quote is okay, the parts can move to production right away with the parts ready for shipping in as little as one day.
The e-bike market will continue to grow rapidly and there is a lot of research going into making them an even more convenient and safer form of transport in our cities. In the meantime, manufacturers should explore how outsourced technologies in digital manufacturing can help them advance, differentiate and customise their products.