Charles R. Goulding and Preeti Sulibhavi review how 3D printing has affected the e-bike industry.
Austin, Texas is both the capital of Texas and the national capital for e-bike enthusiasts.
During the pandemic, the demand for e-bikes has exploded. This large increase in e-bike sales is a global phenomenon. Austin is the natural capital of this product category because it has a large young population, a major focus on the environment, crowded highways and is a tech center. The surrounding world-famous Hill Country is more easily traversed with power-driven bikes.
In 2019, the Austin Parks and Recreation Department outlined a pilot program allowing electric scooters and electric bikes on paved parkland trails that were also identified as contributing to the transportation network. The trails in the pilot study included the Johnson Creek Trail, Shoal Creek Trail, Northern Walnut Creek Trail, Southern Walnut Creek Trail, the Ann and Roy Butler Trail, as well as the Boardwalk. It is important to note during the 2019 legislative session, HB2188 defined that electric bikes were to be allowed on trails that had any additional material added to create the trail surface. A speed limit of 10 mph was set for all trails. The pilot study concluded in January 2020.
E-bike OEM manufacturing and replacement parts present a 3D printing opportunity because there are a large number of component iterations, including spillover from similar components in the bicycle industry and the gasoline-powered bike/scooter categories.
Global e-bike manufacturers have been taking advantage of 3D printing and additive manufacturing in creating bike components such as seats, handlebars, frames, helmets, and more. For instance, Arevo, a Silicon Valley-based company is using its 3D printing expertise to produce a 3D printed unibody electric bike.
Two models were released in July 2020 under Arevo’s newly created Superstrata brand. The Superstrata Terra is a lightweight analog that can be custom-built for a variety of riding styles, and the Superstrata Ion is a Class 1 e-bike with a rear-hub 250W motor, a 252Wh battery, and an estimated 60 miles of range.
The frame is unibody thermoplastic carbon fiber, meaning it’s manufactured as one single continuous piece rather than welded together from a dozen or so pieces like most bike frames. Superstrata says the use of thermoplastic materials makes it extremely impact-resistant yet remarkably lightweight. The frame weight of the Terra is 2.8 lbs (depending on the size), while the Ion clocks in at 24.2 lbs.
Less Pedal, More Metal
In addition to electric bicycles and scooters, 3D printing can be leveraged by companies producing electric-powered motorcycles. Many companies in this space are already doing so.
The Nera E-bike is almost entirely 3D printed through additive manufacturing. The only parts that are not 3D printed are the electrical components that power the electric motorcycle. Even the airless tires are 3D printed. This is an example of how 3D printing can be utilized to almost entirely produce e-bikes.
The iconic bike manufacturer, Harley-Davidson has not lost notice of this trend either. In fabricating parts for its LiveWire electric bike prototypes in 2014, Harley-Davidson utilized 3D printing to create parts. This allowed for design and manufacturing process testing as well. Utilizing Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAM) software, the Harley-Davidson team took this concept to prototype in less than four months.
LiveWire was the just the first in the company’s electric propulsion technology. In October 2020, Harley-Davidson extended its successful electric bicycle division into a new entity called Serial 1 Cycle. We can expect that similar 3D printing prototyping techniques will be utilizes in the development of their electric bicycles.
Federal tax incentives, such as the Research and Development Tax Credit, are available for e-bicycle companies that pursue 3D printing activities.
The Research & Development Tax Credit
Whether it’s used for creating and testing prototypes or for final production, 3D printing is a great indicator that R&D Credit eligible activities are taking place. Companies implementing this technology at any point should consider taking advantage of R&D Tax Credits.
Enacted in 1981, the now permanent Federal Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit allows a credit that typically ranges from 4%-7% of eligible spending for new and improved products and processes. Qualified research must meet the following four criteria:
- Must be technological in nature
- Must be a component of the taxpayer’s business
- Must represent R&D in the experimental sense and generally includes all such costs related to the development or improvement of a product or process
- Must eliminate uncertainty through a process of experimentation that considers one or more alternatives
Eligible costs include US employee wages, cost of supplies consumed in the R&D process, cost of pre-production testing, US contract research expenses, and certain costs associated with developing a patent.
On December 18, 2015, President Obama signed the PATH Act, making the R&D Tax Credit permanent. Beginning in 2016, the R&D credit has been used to offset Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) for companies with revenue below $50MM and, startup businesses can obtain up to $250,000 per year in payroll tax cash rebates.
Taking the Foot off the Brakes
Prior to the pandemic, e-bike sales were on a 10-year ramp-up that has now been supercharged. The Austin e-bike cluster should thrive due to a large trained dealer workforce developing deeper product expertise and repair capabilities. The 3D printing industry has the opportunity to make Austin, Texas the Nation’s 3D printing capital e-bike technology center.