Uneasy Riders

News reached The Engineer this week of a project that could spell a more comfortable ride for saddle-sore motorcyclists.

A group of researchers, which includes a team from LoughboroughUniversity, is investigating a new technique for rapidly producing custom-made motorcycle seats. Working as part of the pan-European Custom-Fit project, the team is planning on using Rapid Manufacturing techniques to produce individually tailored seats directly from a computer model. According to Loughborough, this is a reasonably pressing issue. Indeed, in a recent survey carried out by the university, over half of the 3,200 respondents said that they felt the need for more comfortable seats and would even be prepared to pay a bit extra.

Quite interesting stuff. But beyond easing the aching posteriors of roadrats, what’s this got to do with the price of fish?

Well, it’s just one of a number of emerging applications of technology that some believe could represent the advance guard of nothing less than a manufacturing revolution.

Rapid Manufacturing (RM) processes are effectively an evolution of the rapid prototyping techniques that product designers have used for many years to quickly “print off” prototype components before gearing up for manufacture. Over the years these processes have become more and more sophisticated to the point where, in a number of cases, the high quality of the components produced renders a conventional manufacturing process redundant.

RM is currently seen as particularly attractive for niche applications where customisation and short production runs are desired. Free from the design constraints associated with tooling or moulding, there is no cost penalty for part complexity and this opens up the potential for very sophisticated component designs. The bike seat is just one example. Manufacturers of various medical implants and hearing aids have been quick to grasp the benefits of the approach, as has the military realm, where sending out for a new part in the heat of battle is simply not an option.

But beyond these niche applications, RM’s most fervent proponents believe that the technology could ultimately become a mainstream production route – with RM machines sited everywhere from your home-office to the local garage reshaping the world of manufacturing as we know it. If this vision becomes a reality it could even ultimately help to reverse the trend of production moving to low labour cost economies.

Jon Excell