Designed by Humans, Built by Robots
Entering the brave new world of the Robot Bike Co.
“we design and manufacture lightweight, custom geometry, full suspension frames that are unique to each and every customer."
Photos: Mike Rose and Ben Winder
Put simply, Robot Bikes is a new British company that’s utilizing the latest in additive manufacturing technology (3D printing). The bike is a mix of titanium, carbon, a bit of ali, with suspension engineer Dave Weagle’s design knowledge (think Iron Horse, Ibis, Pivot, Devinci, etc.) and a bunch of bike mad blokes’ (Ben Farmer, Ed Haythornthwaite, Andy Hawkins and Ben Robarts-Arnold – that’s where the Robot name comes from) design and engineering input all coming together to produce the R160 enduro/trail bike.
Titanium lugs bonded (glued) to carbon tubes, and all one–off, made to measure, and based around a DW6 suspension system. DW6 is not the sixth incarnation of Weagle's DW Link, but is a new take on the tried and tested 4-bar linkage design, adding two more pivots making it a 6-bar (get it?).
This is a major project, with some real engineering heavy hitters involved… and we mean ‘heavy hitters’. Just how they talked an industry giant like Renishaw into getting involved is a story that needs telling around a pint in the pub! Ha. It should be said that all of the Robot team have sound and solid engineering/design backgrounds (including Formula 1 and the aerospace industry), so they know what they are talking about; Renishaw are a world leader in their field and the UK’s only maker of metal additive manufacturing (MDM) systems (interestingly this will be Renishaw’s first consumer product that they have been involved with). It is a real coup to have them on board. Robot have also managed to get HiETA (a specialist additive manufacturing development and project engineering) and simulation specialists Altair involved. This is very far removed from ‘blokes in sheds’ and a bottle of oxyacetylene!
We’ve got a bit of history with Robot Bikes. I say history, but we are not involved at all. Ed Haythornthwaite (one of the four founders of the company) worked for Dirt for many years as both Technical and Assistant Editor. We should also point out that Robot Bikes HQ is about 100 metres from the Dirt office, so we have kind of seen this project grow and develop over the last few months through a series of whispers, glimpses and rumours.
Ed has always been hands-on. A talented frame builder (Bald Bikes), he also worked a season on the World Cup circuit as a mechanic for the Atherton family, and before that he was a mechanic at John’s Bikes in Bath for many, many years. There was always the feeling that a big project like this could be on the horizon, so finally seeing it come to fruition is great to witness.
There are many elements to Robot, but one of the main concerns that they wanted to tackle was that most modern day carbon full suspension mountainbikes only come in limited sizing ranges, and that a lot of the sizes vary considerably from company to company (we often find that many bike’s sizings are way off). On a practical level what Robot do is offer a bespoke service where all your vital measurements are taken (your ‘preferred’ riding style can also be taken into account). As a customer you punch all of this info into the Robot website and your bike will appear before your eyes. Proportions and dimensions all perfectly calculated and fitted to you. Click ‘buy’ and the process of making will begin (estimated to be 4 weeks from start to finish). These measurements will be built around the standard Robot R160 design, but there is the ability to pretty much ‘design your own’ (within certain limits)… longer top tube, shorter headtube, longer seatstays, slacker head angle, etc. If you were to go down this route you just have to be careful that you don’t produce an unrideable monster! The team are more than happy to meet up with customers to talk through every detail of their bike.
In effect almost every one of the frames will be custom and personal to their owner. There will be changes in tube length, angles, etc., – every printed (MDM) element is individual, every one is different. The computer tells the machine of these changes and produces the elements. Just lengthening the top tube of a bike will affect many of the MDM parts, and these will all need adjusting accordingly.
Why additive manufacturing? You can’t make certain shapes or forms using normal CNC methods (the rocker link is CNC’d by the way). Some of the hollow formed shapes, such as the double lap shear joints that the carbon tubes slide into, are near impossible to make using traditional methods. What this does is it frees up both the designers and the engineers. Designers can get creative, engineers can ‘go mental’.
Of course the method of lugs and tubes is based on traditional practices. As a kid many of the bikes I had used steel lugs and tubes; and this method is still used today by many of the new wave of ‘artisan’ bicycle frame builders. And lugs and carbon tubes have been used in mountain bike before too, Yeti’s 1989 C–26 is the classic example. But R160 is an altogether different beast.
Looks wise, it is what it is. The R160 does not have the swooping lines of many modern day carbon bikes that we have become used to. It wears its colours very much on its sleeve. It is clearly a piece of engineering, and that will appeal to a lot of people. Someone mentioned the ‘Marmite test’ (you will either love it or hate it). And it’s not cheap. At £4,395 for the frame it is only going to be within reach for a limited few (lets put that into perspective, a Trek Session DH frame is £4459, and a Santa Cruz V10CC £3299).
When it comes to price there are plenty of analogies to use here: you can get a pair of jeans from Asda for seven quid, or you can stump up £250 for a set of Gucci’s… people do. You have to think of Robot as more like a bespoke suit. Go to Marks and Sparks and you can find an off–the–peg suit for £50, or go to Saville Row and have one made to measure for a couple of grand. It is all about choices (and it does come with a lifetime guarantee).
This is just the launch, we have yet to test one of the bikes, so we can’t really say how it rides or performs. We are very keen to see where Robot will go… it is exciting times. Watch this space…
For those of you who want to read the full Press Release, here it is:
Engineered Bespoke. – The R160
A collaboration of cutting edge technology and companies, anthropometry, and years of experience has led to the unveiling of the new Robot Bike Co. R160 mountain bike frame – designed and manufactured in the UK with partner companies Altair, HiETA Technologies and Renishaw using metal additive manufacturing (3D printing).
A great design freedom has been achieved through the development of a unique construction using titanium lugs, proprietary carbon fibre components and tubing and a double lap joint bonding concept. Through the experience of the partner companies each frame can be tailored to a customer’s individual measurements or specifications, with the added benefit that the frame can be constantly improved as new technologies emerge, as the production process is not constrained by a mould.
The new frame concept was developed by the Robot Bike Co. which was founded by Ben Farmer, Ed Haythornthwaite, Andy Hawkins and Ben Robarts-Arnold in 2013. Robot Bike have a clear mission… to make the best mountain bike frames possible.
Each of the partners are leaders in its own technology fields and the frame design and engineering are therefore grounded in years of experience in demanding sectors such as aerospace, automotive and F1. The suspension design has been developed and tailored for Robot Bike Co. by Dave Weagle, one of the world’s foremost suspension designers, who has a proven track record developing original and class leading suspension designs for mountain bikes.
HiETA is a specialist additive manufacturing development and project engineering company based in the Bristol and Bath Science Park. With 25 specialist engineers it covers product design, manufacturing readiness and project management services from conceptual design and process development through to early stage manufacturing support, providing its clients and users with the process and facilitating the delivery of innovative products from concept through to end product and commercialisation.
Mike Adams CEO of HiETA said “One of the great aspirations of additive manufacturing has always been “mass customisation". Leading this project has allowed us to see integration of all the elements – a great new frame design, the use of state of the art software tools for optimisation and automation, the flexibility of the manufacturing process itself and effective collaboration between our partners is a great advert for the technologies and the South West of England showcasing that the aspiration is becoming a reality."
Simulation specialists, Altair, was made responsible for the optimisation of the bike’s additively manufactured connecters. Using solidThinking Inspire, Altair was able to maximize the benefit of additive manufacturing by identifying where material in the connectors could be removed to save weight and reduce part count without compromising performance. These engineering techniques are commonly used throughout the automotive and aerospace industries to maximize product performance but are equally valuable to bike manufacturers.
“This has been a very interesting and exciting project to be involved with," said Paul Kirkham, Team Leader at Altair’s Bristol office. “Additive manufacturing is the perfect partner for design optimisation techniques as it allows us to produce components and systems that are far closer to the ideal balance of weight and performance. Robot Bike Co. now have a design that will offer its customer a bike that is truly innovative and unique."
Renishaw is a world leader in dimensional metrology, spectroscopy and healthcare, applying its expertise to improve operational efficiencies in a vast range of industries and applications, from aerospace and renewable energy to dentistry and brain surgery. It is also the UK’s only manufacturer of metal additive manufacturing systems.
Marc Saunders, Director – Global Solutions Centres for Renishaw, says, “We have been delighted to lend our expertise in additive manufacturing, machining and metrology to deliver a high quality bike frame from an initial design concept. This typifies the approach that we are taking with our Solutions Centres, where we are working closely with our customers to create designs that maximise the production and lifetime benefits that can be gained from using an additive manufacturing process."
It doesn’t matter how good a frame is if it doesn’t fit the rider, and this is where Robot Bike Co. sees the weakness in the current market offerings. Says RBC’s Ed Haythornthwaite, “If you are trying to produce the very best frame it makes no sense to then only offer it in a small number of sizes when the people you are selling it to come in all shapes and sizes. Think of Robot Bike Co. as the Savile Row of the bike world."
The retail price will be around £4,395 with a lead time of 4 weeks, and the frames will be available to order from June 2016.
And here is the 'Fact Sheet':
Robot Bike Co.
Founded in 2013 by Ben Farmer, Ed Haythornthwaite, Andy Hawkins and Ben Robarts-Arnold, and in close partnership with of one of world's foremost suspension designers Dave Weagle, Robot Bike Co. is all about creating great mountain bikes, engineered and bespoke.
We design and manufacture lightweight, custom geometry, full suspension frames that are unique to each and every customer.
We use cutting edge manufacturing technologies because we know how and when to best apply them. Our design & engineering is grounded in years of experience in the cutting edge world of aerospace, F1 and automotive, and our DW6 suspension design has been developed and tailored in partnership with Dave Weagle to provide the ultimate suspension.
We've developed a unique construction technique which allows a design freedom for each customer to specify the exact bike they want, one that fits just right, and we have worked at the cutting edge of simulation, test and analysis to validate our frame performance.
And we're doing all this right here in the UK.
Used to be quick. PhD, and Chartered Engineer with a taste for carbon and titanium. Ben has spent years as an aerospace engineer, materials scientist and inventor and is now putting all that to good use engineering our frames.
Dedicated to improving leisure through science. A lover of dirt, acceleration, wheels, people, dogs and music.
Inspiration for our company name, bike loving mechanical engineer with a sensible chip making sure all the tricky bits and pieces come together as they should.
Industrial designer, spent a career in F1 and aerospace developing additive manufacturing technologies. Now its time to apply those skills to something I love.
Frame builder, World Cup Downhill mechanic, Technical Editor at Dirt Magazine, Racer…Ed lives and breathes bikes and has done pretty much since the day he was born.
Product designer/CAD wizard/bike nut/problem solver, and with an impressive background in the aerospace industry Rob is a more than welcome first addition to the team.
The R160 is Robot Bike Co’s first frame, and whilst it may be our only one at present, this could well be the only bike a customer needs. With aggressive geometry and 160mm of travel the R160 thrives in steep and technical terrain, yet at the same time it is equally at home on climbs and all day epics. The unique DW6 suspension system plays a key part in this versatility. The progressive leverage ratio provides the suppleness you need for grip at the start of the travel, support in the middle, and a bottomless feeling at the end for when you’re really pushing things, perfect no matter what situation you find yourself in. Of course alongside grip and composure you also want a frame that pedals well, and once again the DW6 design won’t leave you wanting, the R160 is as efficient as they come.
We believe that 27.5" wheels are the perfect partner for a bike of this nature as they offer great speed whilst crucially still being able to handle the sort of thrashing that they are likely to encounter on the R160. You’ll also find a 12x142mm rear axle for maximum compatibility purposes, and a proper threaded bottom bracket (no creaking here!). Talking of threads, apart from the bottom bracket ones you won’t find a single thread anywhere else on the titanium parts of the frame. We’ve seen too many frames written off by damaged threads, so all of ours are easily replaceable should that ever be required.
All of the unique engineering that has gone into the R160, and the effort to create it, would be worthless if the frame didn’t fit a customer perfectly, and that’s why we believe a custom fit is so important. Once we have the customers measurements we will provide them with our recommend geometry. That recommendation will be based upon what we believe provides the ultimate blend of speed, fun, stability and agility. If they have different priorities/requirements then for a small extra charge we are more than happy to discuss these with them and work out what is best for them in order to create something truly bespoke, but we believe that the vast majority of riders will love our suggested geometry as much as we do.
CUSTOM FIT & GEOMETRY*
Due to our unique construction method all our frames are configured to a customers specification. Our baseline frame design has been developed in partnership with the engineering design company HiETA using advanced CAD and simulation tools with a parametric CAD engine which allows us to quickly input the fit and ride requirements and output a design in an automated process.
*Pending patent application number GB 1605178.1
DW 6 SUSPENSION
A new suspension platform designed and developed by Dave Weagle for Robot Bike Co. The design allows for ultimate independent control of the critical aspects of the suspension kinematics. When combined with additive manufacturing this means we are able to produce the best possible suspension characteristics without compromise.
OVERALL FRAME ARCHITECTURE
We take the best characteristics from aerospace titanium and carbon fibre materials to provide you with a strong, resilient and lightweight frame. In short, composites work well when shapes and loads are simple – a wing spar for example. Metals work well in areas of high shape complexity and when loads come from different directions – aircraft landing gear for example. To take advantage of these fundamentals we put high strength to weight ratio titanium in the areas of maximum stress and connect these together with high stiffness to weight ratio carbon composite tubes. Then we move the joint away the area of peak stress and employ a state of the art double lap shear joint design.
TITANIUM ADDITIVE MANUFACTURED LUGS
By adopting this cutting edge manufacturing technology currently being implemented in the aerospace industry by the likes of Airbus and GE and widely used in Formula 1, we have the design flexibility to create custom geometry frames, and the ability to create novel joint interfaces. Titanium (aerospace grade Ti6Al4V) gives the optimum strength/weight solution for these loaded areas of the frame, and works fantastically well bonded to carbon fibre laminates. In partnership with the engineering company Renishaw, our lugs are batch processed by Selective Laser Melting, with Ti powder particules in the 10-45um range fused together by a high power fibre laser, heat treated for optimal mechanical performance and then CNC machined for bearing, headset and bottom bracket fit. Our ‘double lap pi joint’ design is made possible by this manufacturing process, along with the ability to make every lug set bespoke to order. This manufacturing technologies should not be confused with other technologies commonly referred to as ‘3D-printing’. We are using the same Laser Powder Bed Fusion Additive Manufacturing technologies as described is the draft SAE standard AMS 7003 in development by Airbus, Boeing, GE and Rolls-Royce amongst other to control the manufacture of safety-critical aerospace parts.
FEA & TOPOLOGY OPTIMISATION
Topology optimisation is a mathematical approach that optimises material layout within a given space, for a given set of loads and boundary conditions, to provide the lightest weight design possible. Topology optimisation is a perfect fit with Additive Manufacturing as for the first time design concepts generated can actually be manufactured. Furthermore the maximum loads in the material can be controlled to avoid stress-raisers and employ a principle called ‘infinite life design’. The results of this are quite subtle in most areas of the frame as the ‘boundary conditions’ are quite high. For example the headtube lug needs to accommodate round carbon tubing , fit a round headset and not fill with mud - what is less apparent is the fine control over the wall thickness to achieve a light weight. The most apparent result of topology optimization is the chain stay yoke where the design is much less constrained. The market leaders in topology optimization software and its use is Altair. This approach, in partnership with Altair, has been used by Robot Bike Company to ensure that our frames are light weight whilst avoiding metal fatigue meaning that we can offer a lifetime warranty to the original owner and you a frame that will be great to ride and enduring.
CARBON FIBRE TUBING
Carbon fibre reinforced polymers work by far and away better when fibres are kept in close alignment to the loading direction. A deviation of just 0.25 degrees (~4 mm in 1m) reduces compression strength by 1/3. We use aerospace-grade Mitsubishi-Rayon TRH50/NB301 and MR60H/NB301 pre-preg materials and uniform shapes to guarantee fibre alignment, both in-plane orientation and out-of-plane wavyness, for maximum strength and stiffness. The lay-up schedule for each tube and fibre is proprietary and specific to each tube to ensure that each tube is optimal. We avoid sharp corners, such as those found in square section tubes, as these lead to "corner unfolding" when the composite is loaded through-the-thickness rather than in the plane of the fibres. Our approach means that we utilise 100% unidirectional fibres and not woven fabrics as we believe that performance is more important than what is perceived to be the 'carbon look'. The result is our tubes are as strong and as stiff as they can possibly be giving you a lighter more resilient frame.
DOUBLE LAP SHEAR JOINTS*
Double lap shear joints, sometimes called pi-joints due to their similarity in shape with the greek letter π, are used on Robot Bike Company frames. Pioneered for use in aircraft construction by Lockheed Martin, double lap shear joints are the best joints to avoid ‘out-of-plane’ loads and therefore ensure maximum joint reliability. The use of Additive Manufacturing means that higher aspect ratios and thinner walls with much greater control over wall thickness tapering can be achieved than if machined or cast. Pi-joints also allow for the use of the ‘insertion-squeeze-flow’ method of bonding ensure even surface coverage of the aerospace-grade two-part epoxy Henkel adhesive used. Aerospace surface preparation practices combined with our design and Additive Manufacturing process means that Robot Bike Company’s joints are more efficient than any others known to be use in aerospace or Formula 1 applications. For you this means the lightest weight and most reliable frame possible.
*Pending patent application number GB 1605177.3
Robot Bike Company has employed aerospace ‘test pyramid’ methodologies to the structural validation testing of the frame. Starting at the ‘coupon level’ small test pieces have been testing by aerospace test-house Exova to provide material data to feed into the Altair software. Next at ‘element level’ the double lap shear joints between lugs and tubes has been tested. Then at ‘component assembly level’ the full frame is tested to ensure compliance to relevant standards. Loads described by international standards are, in fact, much kinder than those we design against so finally the frames are built up into bikes are ridden hard by an World-Cup level test rider.