Autodesk Inc. is a leading supplier of design optimization software used by engineers in a variety of industries, including bicycle manufacturing. One of its customers is SRAM LLC, a bike component manufacturer based in Chicago. SRAM produces many types of parts, such as brakes, gears, pedals, shock absorbers and wheels.
Using software from Autodesk, SRAM engineers recently developed a revolutionary new design for bicycle crankarms (the part that connects bike pedals to the frame). Cloud computing helped them verify the design and prototype in record time, while also exploring multiple materials and manufacturing methods for moving to production.
ASSEMBLY recently asked Sean Manzanares, senior manager of business strategy and market development at Autodesk, to share some insights on the bicycle industry.
ASSEMBLY: How does the bicycle business compare to other industries when it comes to competitiveness and product complexity?
Manzanares: The bicycle industry is a highly competitive, global market—similar to the automotive industry, though a fraction of its size—in which innovation by manufacturers is a crucial differentiator. Creating and getting to market quickly with the latest ideas in design and manufacturing that make parts lighter, more rigid, more performant, rugged or sustainable, and less expensive, is the make-or-break factor in the success of a product.
Although parts and product complexity is often simpler with bikes than in other industries, bicycles are unique in that most elements of a bike are right out in the open for all the world to see, meaning design aesthetics and precision performance are equally critical.
These factors make the bicycle industry a fantastic proving ground for new design and manufacturing technologies. Cycling engineers are forever pushing the limits, looking to go faster, safely, by creating responsive new components and geometries. In the hands of these engineers, modern technologies like AI-powered design tools and additive manufacturing are given a unique stage for showing off their capabilities.
ASSEMBLY: How does bike manufacturing today compare to a decade or two ago?
Manzanares: The two most significant, interrelated factors impacting bicycle manufacturing are globalization and supply chain. COVID has accelerated both.
Digital tools that enable robust collaboration provide a design team that spans from Europe to California to Taiwan the ability to work together, productively, to design, optimize, simulate manufacturing and prototype a new part in weeks rather than months. Technology similarly enables this kind of team to quickly pivot from one material or manufacturing method to another when, for instance, a material suddenly becomes unavailable or prohibitively expensive, or a new, more sustainable material comes to market.
While the “holy trinity” of making bikes lighter, stronger and less expensive remains, and technologies such as generative design are helping make major strides toward this goal, there’s even more on the near horizon that’s exciting. New methods, such as 3D scanning and printing metal parts—even entire frames—mean custom frames may soon be within reach of regular cyclists.
Modern design and manufacturing tools are making integration of electronics and motors into drivetrains significantly easier than it was in the past, meaning new features of bicycles will evolve, and become less expensive, very quickly. All of this makes bikes more comfortable, versatile, and appealing to an expanding global market of would-be cyclists.
ASSEMBLY: Bicycles appear to be relatively mature products, since they have been around for more than 100 years. Have there been many changes in bike component designs or technology in recent years?
Manzanares: Bicycles have changed significantly since they started gaining popularity more than 100 years ago, and we don’t expect that to slow anytime soon. Bicycles may appear to be mature products in that their fundamentals of wheels, frame, two pedals, plus a multitude of components fit together, is much the same as it has always been. In that framework, however, remarkable innovation, evolution and positive change that’s increasing cycling’s popularity for both recreation and utility is accelerating.
In the last 40 years, we’ve seen bike frames and forks evolve from being primarily made of steel to now also being made of aluminum, titanium and carbon fiber. Braking performance has improved, while build complexity and required maintenance decreased, as we evolved from cantilevers to V-brakes to discs.
Affordable, high-performance suspension systems have replaced the novelty suspension of yesteryear. And drivetrains of today that offer a wider range of gears are often simpler than those of the past, but now also include electric assist.
Sales of e-bikes, which hardly existed in the market 25 years ago, amounted to 3.7 million in 2019. That number is expected to more than quadruple by 2030 to 17 million.
These innovations are the result of market demand for ever more versatile, practical and dependable products, plus engineers using the increasingly modern tools and materials at their disposal to address those demands. There’s nothing about that process that shows signs of slowing.
ASSEMBLY: How has state-of-the-art design software enabled engineers to optimize bike part designs?
Manzanares: At Autodesk, we consider state-of-the-art design software to be a toolset that enables each individual on a design team, partnered with the elastic computing power of the cloud, to easily and efficiently collaborate, generate a complete solution quickly, then move on to the next problem.
To achieve this, we’ve built an AI-powered toolset in Autodesk Fusion 360 that makes collaboration seamless and foolproof, even when a team spans the entire globe. Furthermore, it includes artificial intelligence from the cloud—what we call generative design—as a collaboration partner.
This all adds up to teams being able to solve challenges exponentially more quickly than in the past. For instance, they can address problems such as “how do we make that part lighter, yet more performant than its predecessor, and consolidate some of its elements so it’s easier to build, thus cheaper?”
As the near-infinite power of cloud computing becomes less and less expensive, new materials and methods of manufacturing gain traction. We’re working to make it easy for engineers to offload mundane tasks to the computer, freeing people up to attack more problems that demand creativity. The goal is to solve problems more quickly and complete projects more successfully than in the past.
ASSEMBLY: Is there still an opportunity to refine parts, reduce complexity or come up with new bicycle components? What new types of designs are engineers looking for today?
Manzanares: We believe there still is opportunity to refine parts, reduce complexity and develop new, more efficient, versatile and dependable bike components. Nothing is off the table when it comes to what can be improved. The challenge, as is so often the case in engineering, is simply having the time and resources to do so.
SRAM recently applied the AI-based generative design capabilities of Autodesk Fusion 360 to redesign crankarms, then 3D-printed the design in titanium. This project resulted in a lighter, more rigid component than its predecessor, but one that’s also completely unparalleled aesthetically.
French bicycle manufacturer Decathlon is looking at using the same technologies to create a complete frameset 3D-printed in aluminum. This project opens the door to reducing the costs of light and sleek high-performance bicycles by both substituting recyclable aluminum for difficult-to-recycle carbon fiber, and locating the manufacturing of the product closer to the customer, thus reducing shipping.
In the past (and even today), projects like this—from inception through design to prototyping, then from testing to production—took years. Our cloud-enabled software puts engineers on the road to completing these kinds of projects in weeks or months, so they can do dozens in a year, rather than one.
ASSEMBLY: What role are new lightweight materials playing in the bicycle industry in terms of optimizing part designs?
Manzanares: Modern, lightweight materials such as aluminum, carbon fiber and titanium are certainly valuable and compelling when it comes to optimizing designs. However, materials are sometimes more expensive (especially titanium) or less green (carbon fiber) than what we’re aiming for. So, taken alone, modern materials aren’t a silver bullet.
Best results are achieved when lightweight materials are one leg of the optimization stool, with modern design technologies and manufacturing techniques being the other two. Design software that’s aware of the properties of a material, simulates how it will perform under load, and forecasts how the part would be manufactured from a given material, while also highlighting the cost and sustainability of the options being considered, provides an engineer a head start toward success with the project.
For example, if titanium is the right material for a part, having software help guide an engineer toward a design and manufacturing method that reduces waste during manufacturing helps keep that product’s cost low.