German 3D printer specialists BigRep have used their newest flexible Pro Flex polymer filaments to create The Airless Tire, a 3D printed honeycomb tire that snaps onto a regular bicycle rim offering a comfortable ride, limitless tread possibilities, and no more flats. And it isn’t just limited to bicycle tires, the same tire has been put to task in a prototype e-motorcycle, and more heavy applications…

BigRep 3D printing with Pro Flex TPU filament

BigRep The Airless Tire prototype 3D printed NowLab bike tire
courtesy BigRep

While the idea of a single city bike that can no longer get a flat tire is a cool idea, this material itself is probably the most interesting news out of the story. In the last few years 3D printing has evolved out of rapid prototyping, opening up real manufacturing potential.

Now some of the biggest innovation is in new materials to work with, and companies like BigRep that sell the 3D printers themselves and the filaments are showing ways to actually use the new materials for real product manufacturing.

The Airless Tire, NowLab’s prototype bike tire

The Airless Tire was created by Marco Mattia Cristofori, a designer in the Berlin-based 3D printer company’s NowLab, developing new applications for additive manufacturing.

BigRep The Airless Tire prototype 3D printed NowLab bike tire

The tire material itself is Pro Flex, a durable thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) based filament that retains the flexibility of TPU.

BigRep The Airless Tire prototype 3D printed NowLab bike tire

Printing elastomers in a 3D printer has been a difficult obstacle for additive manufacturing, so it’s quite unique to be able create objects now that retain durability, flexibility & damping. That of course is why you can build up an airless tire, layer-by-layer, unlike the more conventional solutions already in the market that require complicated molding & post-processing techniques.

BigRep The Airless Tire prototype 3D printed NowLab bike tire

The end result is an airless tire that flexes like a rubber tire thanks to a layered honeycomb design, which can get whatever tread design you need simply printed onto its casing. And it requires no additional processing after being printed.

BigRep The Airless Tire prototype 3D printed NowLab bike tire
screen grab courtesy Der Spiegel

Just pick it up off the 3D printer bed after the 16 hours it took to create, and stretch it into place over the standard bicycle rim.

Of course, these are all only prototypes for now (albeit, functional ones.) BigRep sells the 3D printers & filament to manufacturers to create products as they see fit.

BigRep The Airless Tire prototype 3D printed NowLab bike tire

A more developed Airless Tire product would have to address in more detail the interface with the rim (although, having used tubular clinchers from Tufo in the past, I can imagine how that could possibly be solved). But further development also opens up the possibility for a more natural curved tire profile, and additional tread pattern options. And with additive 3D printing, more complex internal design could offer varying levels of comfort & support as you lean the tire over towards its sidewall…

Nera, NowLab’s prototype e-mobility electric motorcycle

It certainly doesn’t stop at bike tires. Cristofori also recently completed a functional prototype of a fully 3D printed Nera e-motorcycle for getting around the city.

BigRep Nera e-mobility prototype 3D printed NowLab electric motorcycle
courtesy Marco Mattia Cristofori

The resulting Nera is an adjustable fit e-moto printed over a three-week period on BigRep’s printers mixing four different material.

BigRep Nera e-mobility prototype 3D printed NowLab electric motorcycle

Of course it gets similar airless tire tech, but here uses an arch-based design in the front tire for more comfort, and the hexagonal structure in the rear for additional strength & support.

BigRep.com

15 COMMENTS

  1. I think this has real potential, especially for riders for whom weight is not an important issue, i.e. riders of city bikes, who seem to be the target of this product. There do seem to be some issues, though, especially for riders interested in performance:
    -The current absence of normal (i.e., round) tire profiles
    -Weight
    -The effect of temperature- these tires are made of elastomers. Back in the day, suspension forks used elastomers, and when the temperature outside changed, the elastomers’ hardness changed with it. The change could be drastic if the temperature changed enough. Will these tires have the same issue?
    -Grip- do these elastomers grip as well as rubber tires when wet?
    -Wear- How quickly do these tires wear compared to traditional rubber tires? And what are the effects of wear compared to inflatable rubber tires? Probably these tires start to lose their springiness, kind of like a worn out gym shoe.
    -Price

    • Tim, you make great points. Plus there’s this — I can imagine road debris and rocks infiltrating the honeycomb on the tire and, once the tire deflects on the pavement, cutting the elastomer up over time.

      Imagine riding a mountain bike or gravel bike with these tires, or riding in mud, the honeycomb would be worthless inside of a few miles because it would be filled with debris. You might need a full casing to prevent that, and the rotating weight of this style of tire and casing could be brutal.

      My guess is lots more work will be required to solve these problems. However, applaud the work people are doing on this. This is exactly way truly exciting innovations arrive (even if the end result is not as expected).

      • Agreed- the question of debris and mud is a very important one! And a cover would add more weight. It seems that the mass adoption of airless tires is, like energy from nuclear fusion, always a few years away. But it’s worth seeing where this heads, it could lead to something. I certainly hope so!

  2. We stopped riding on iron rims back in the 1800s and had pneumatic tires in the late 1800s it is now 2019 why are we trying to go backwards?! Yes sure they are using 3D printers an fancier advanced rubbers and polymers but are going to the same end.

    Just run wider tires at lower pressures and let’s get some tubeless standards going and get rim and tire manufacturers together at the same table and figure out the best way to do this!t

  3. This appears to be made with a thermoplastic melt process like fused deposition. Compared to the vulcanized process that traditional tires use this tire will wear extremely quickly and have very high rolling resistance. Long wearing low rolling resistance tires with good grip in cold, wet, or warm conditions are very hard to produce. Printed thermoplastics are not the material to use in this application. If you look at something like the Michelin Tweel you will see they use a composite construction technique where a vulcanized rubber band contacts the ground and a thermoplastic set of spokes provide the compliance to simulate a tube of air. The Tweel allows for a long wearing wheel with good grip. I don’t see this being a viable technology without going to a real vulcanized rubber outer tread.

    • The difference is in how it’s manufactured.

      FTA:
      unlike the more conventional solutions already in the market that require complicated molding & post-processing techniques.

      It’s conceivable that you could develop an internal support shape that is much harder to build out as a mold, but really large 3d printing faces a real speed issue for scaling up production.

  4. Made in the early ’80’s for BMX. Only diff that I see here is a different material. Not sure how 3D printing helps. I am sure a similar tire can be made in less than 16hrs once tooled up. And yes, rocks getting into the tire honeycomb happened, rendering the tires kinda useless. Set them out of balance and with ‘solid’ spots.

  5. Tyres have reached the pinnacle with the advent of tubeless with long lasting sealants this is just design porn for 3D printing nerds.

  6. Unless they expect to produce very low volumes of products or plan a large number of variations, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to print this particular part. The concept may be valid, but this “tire” could be molded out of better material for less money more consistently. Sure you might have $40k into a tool, but printing something that large is not going to be that cheap, plus you will have WAY more process variability, something you don’t want in a safety related item like a tire.

  7. And when the tread wears out, you just throw the whole darned thing in the trash? Seems like the manufacture and use of this would be incredibly wasteful, even if worked, which I kind of doubt.

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