From Wiggins to you: The journey to try and bring 3D printed components to the masses
Could 3D printed components become a regular feature on top-end bikes? Rouleur talks to the man driven to make it happen
It wasn’t long ago that the cycling world clutched its collective pearls at the arrival of 3D printing. Until recently, that technology was reserved for prototyping, not for building actual parts.
Then Bradley Wiggins set his sights on the Hour Record in late 2014, and Dimitris Katsanis sat up to take notice of the possibilities. 3D printing components was not only viable, reasoned Katsanis, but it was also a remarkable advancement in cycling technology — at least in the right hands. And he was right.
Now Katsanis is out to prove again that 3D printing is more than just a curiosity. With Mythos Components, Katsanis is taking 3D printed components to the masses that you’ll be able to add to your own bike — no WorldTour license or Hour Record ambitions necessary.
The Wiggins cockpit
Katsanis has worked with professional athletes for a long time. He was a key member of the “Secret Squirrel Club,” a group of engineers and designers led by Chris Boardman, tasked with revamping the Great Britain team's bicycles. Katsanis worked with the Secret Squirrels to analyse each and every component on Team GB’s track bikes as far back as 2008, directly leading to the team’s renewed success in the years that followed. His aerodynamics and composites expertise helped spark a new phase in bike development.
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And while he has a long track record of accomplishments, his name once again rose to prominence when he helped develop Wiggins’s Hour Record bike.
“At the time I was working for the UCI as the technology and innovation consultant,” says Katsanis of Bradley Wiggins’s Hour Record announcement. “But it was early 2013 when I realised that metal 3D printing was the evolving technology in engineering. I had to put my vision on the backburner for a while during my time with the UCI as I didn’t have a headline project to apply the 3D printing idea. During that period, whenever I mentioned the 3D printing idea, the usual response was something along the lines of ‘why do we want it? Carbon fibre is lighter; nobody else is doing it, and so on.”
So in order to build the Wiggins bike, Katsanis had to take a massive risk and leave his job. He did just that, like Wiggins’s own attempt, Katsanis was in a race against the clock. “Time had nearly run out with about a month to go, and we didn’t have a handlebar to put on the bike. So, I suggested 3D printing again. I grudgingly got the okay and the project to realise the handlebar went on in the normal manic way.”
Katsanis and his team developed three versions of the handlebar. Wiggins chose the second version, which Katsanis had developed after seeing how Wiggins had gripped the first version.
“The V1 of the bar was designed with normal had grips, very much what you normally see on a TT bar: two round cylinders pointing more or less upwards,” says Katsanis. “When Bradley first went on the bike, the first thing he did was to put his hands on top of these cylinders instead of grabbing them. That made me think that it will be a better idea to provide a grip for his preferred position.”Bradley Wiggins during his successful Hour Record attempt in 2015 (Creative Commons/Andrew Last)
To find that position, Katsanis 3D printed a stick with a ball of plasticine at the end. He gave it to Wiggins and instructed him to squeeze his hands around it. From there, Katsanis was able to scan the resulting grip position and 3D print the bars specifically for Wiggins’s grip placement.
From Wiggins to you
All of that sounds incredibly complex. That’s nothing new for the pros. But to bring 3D printing to the masses, the technology needed to evolve. Katsanis says that evolution has happened, and it’s time to take the leap.
“3D printing today is about where carbon fibre was about 20 to 25 years ago,” Katsanis says. “At that time, carbon was already known but not widely used. But the technology steadily improved, but even more importantly, the know-how of the engineers on how to use the material was improving fast. The same is happening today with 3D printing. The machines are getting faster, but the understanding on how to use them is accelerating all the time.”
But like carbon’s early days, 3D printed parts will cost more than the current top of the line offerings. 3D printing machines still cost a premium, and that effects the final cost of the product itself. Katsanis says in order to make the parts appealing, “the 3D printed parts will have to offer some other unique advantage. That might be in some cases, lower weight; in some cases, better aerodynamics; in some cases, better functionality; maybe unique aesthetics; or a combination of a number of these factors.”
If anyone can pull it off, Katsanis certainly has the chops to do it. He brings a wealth of knowledge from other industries like defence, motorsports, and industrial machinery. On top of that, he has a passion for sports. “I originally studied sports science at Athens University, and I worked for a few years as a coach before I went on to do a composites degree in Plymouth University,” Katsanis says.
From there, Katsanis began a career with Advanced Composites Group, where he was fortunate to work with some of the original creators of composites technologies. “This gave me some real insight on how composites work, what combinations work, and why. It also cemented the feeling that when you wanted to do something, there is usually a way you can achieve that.”
Katsanis has shifted his focus primarily to 3D printing, not only in the cycling industry, but also in motorsports, aerospace, medical fields, and even America’s Cup boat parts.
Mythos Components: an heroic effort
Perhaps with the notoriety building from Wiggins’s cockpit, it should come as no surprise that the first product Mythos will offer is a 3D printed cockpit component — more specifically, a stem. But that’s about the only thing that’s predictable about Mythos.
“The concept is new for a commercial product,” says Katsanis, “and it’s broadly based on an open lattice structure. As far as I know, there is no other commercially available stem of this kind.”
The stem (costing £500) is made from a material called SCALMALLOY, which is a Scandium/Aluminum/Magnesium alloy. It was developed by an Airbus subsidiary and it’s an incredibly high-strength material. Katsanis says the new stem is meant for road and gravel use, but a mountain bike stem isn’t far behind.
What makes it different, aside from the manufacturing process? As is the case with most 3D printed products, the real advantage lies in customisability. The Mythos stem is no different. “The open X-cell pattern provides increased torsional rigidity while allowing for a bit of extra flex in the vertical direction,” says Katsanis, “which results in roughly 20% more compared to an equivalent stem. This means that the stem makes going over rough terrain a bit easier, but still behaves like a stiff stem when you need to stand on the pedals and you want to put the power down.”
Such intricate designs are possible as a result of the evolution of 3D printing machines. Not much about the general structure of a 3D printing machine has changed in the last decade or so: the machine spreads a thin layer of powder on a plate, and a high-energy beam melts the powder. These layers are incredibly thick — often between 30 and 90 microns thick. That’s thinner than a piece of paper.
The two ways the machines have evolved are in the software and the lasers. As opposed to several years ago, most machines now have more lasers, and they feature stronger electron beams. That makes for faster printing, more accurate designs, and the ability to make more iterations. Of course, that also means more expensive manufacturing costs.
So while Mythos Components may not be cheap, they will now be attainable for the masses. Katsanis’s drive to make Mythos the first mass-market 3D printed component company seems like a pursuit built upon microns, like the products themselves. The perfect union of the right technology and a history of innovation makes Katsanis’s pursuit one worth watching.