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Me and my bike: Orbitrec

16 Oct 2018

Photography: Danny Bird

They all laughed at Christopher Columbus, when he said the world was round; they all laughed when Edison recorded sound,’ penned Ira Gershwin.

And not so long ago, the idea that bicycles would be printed out of metal powder like robotic anthills rising from dust was the stuff of sci-fi.

Yet here we are. 3D printing has become common practice in bicycle construction.

The basic process involves uploading a CAD drawing of a shape to a 3D printer, which divides the shape into thousands of particle-thick ‘slices’.

These are then traced out by a laser over a bed of powdered material, melting and fusing the powder, layer by layer, to build up a three-dimensional shape. 

This process can take many hours, even days, but one ingenious aspect is that incredibly complex structures and multiple different parts can be printed in the same session.

A head tube and a bottom bracket lug at the same time, for example. Or a whole bike.

‘This bike uses 3D-printed titanium lugs, which have a hollow internal lattice structure like human bone, bonded to carbon-fibre tubes,’ says Satoshi Yanagisawa, product designer with Japanese tech company Cerevo.

‘Our first project, four years ago, involved making an entirely 3D-printed metal frame. Its price was stupid, about £28,000. For one frame! This one is a lot cheaper, about £7,000.’

That’s still eye-watering money, even given the custom nature of the Xon Orbitrec.

But then, this is much more than a bicycle with disc brakes that weighs 7.5kg. It’s a step towards a new cycling dawn.

Beyond the obvious

‘We have purposefully left the 3D-printed elements of the bike rough,’ says Yanagisawa of the dull metal joints that exhibit tiny undulations on their surface.

‘We took an earlier version of the bike to CES [the Consumer Electronics Show] and cleaned up and painted the lugs, but then people doubted us when we said it was 3D-printed!’

Hang on just one minute. Why, precisely, was Yanagisawa proudly displaying a bicycle at a technology show in Las Vegas?

‘Because the Xon Orbitrec is an intelligent bike,’ he says. ‘Inside there are sensors: a nine-axis sensor, G-force, temperature, humidity, brightness and GPS.

‘The bike also pairs with Bluetooth and ANT+ devices, such as power meters and heart straps.

‘The idea is to gather as much data as possible to analyse what the rider-bike system is experiencing in real time, a bit like a Formula 1 car. As yet no one out there is measuring the riding situation.’

Yanagisawa explains that while there is a host of large companies making devices that harvest metrics as you ride, these devices primarily focus on the output of the rider and location.

The sensor unit inside the Orbitrec – a 50g unit called the Ride One – concerns these elements too, but weaves them into a far more complex picture about how the rider and environment are interacting.

‘For example, we have onboard GPS and a sensor that measures braking force and frame deflection,’ he explains.

‘Then, just like Strava does with its heat maps, with Ride Ones fitted to multiple bikes all uploading data to the same place, a town planner could see a real-world picture of road usage.

‘Lots of riders undergoing sudden braking forces in an area could mean there’s a dangerous junction that needs to be addressed. Lots of riders experiencing significant frame deflection on a stretch of road means it’s time to resurface.’

It’s an intriguing scenario, and the connotations are far broader than safety and civil engineering. The information provided could potentially be race-winning.

‘Consider a directeur sportif,’ says Yanagisawa. ‘He has a rider up ahead and data is being streamed live to his car.

‘He can see the condition of the road surface and the weather, and relay the information to his riders further back, like real-time reconnaissance.

‘Or cornering. We can measure pitch and roll so we can see how far a rider leans through a corner, the weight distribution and the forces exerted on the bike, along with speed and the power.

‘We can theorise how fast a rider can go round a corner based on lean angle, then compare this with the data gathered to see if they are hitting those numbers or whether they could push harder.

‘There is no reason why one day there could not be a live indicator on the cockpit that tells a rider, “Lean, lean, lean, stop!”’

Let’s talk bikes that talk

‘We believe we can make a totally different kind of frame that can communicate to the rider, or to a manufacturer that wants to see how its bike performs in real-world situations: for example, where to make it stiffer, where to add more flex,’ Yanagisawa concludes.

As with any new piece of tech there’s more potential in the Orbitrec’s DNA than there is cold, hard realisation, but the hardware is already there, he believes, and with the right software development, real-time bike telemetry will be possible.

And let’s face it, even if you’re not a pro, a DS or a bike designer, who doesn’t want more data?

They said power meters would never catch on…