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  • Writer's pictureTyler Hauth

What 3D printing means for the classic motorcycle and car restoration industry.

I’m not going out on a limb when I say this: If you can rebuild a motorcycle engine, you can assemble and use a 3D printer. Of course, like anything else mechanical or technical, learning how to use your new machine, whether you’re a hobbyist or a 104-year-old multinational company known for luxury automobiles and motorcycles, can be intimidating. The good news is, the only thing exploding faster than 3D printing is information on the topic of how to use 3D printers to their fullest extent.

There’s a lot to be gained by adding a 3D printer into your toolkit. Enthusiasts can circumvent drastically overdrawn used part markets to create high quality and precise pieces of hardware. Meanwhile, in the increasingly competitive trade war the automotive industry is embroiled in, BMW has utilized 3D printing to reduce costs in such grand projects as their i8 Roadster—one of the most expensive luxury cars available to the public—all the way to such niche applications as restoring Elvis’s BMW 507. Consider the before and after:

At their Additive Manufacturing Centre in Munich, BMW claims to be crafting “well over 100,000 precision components” each year. The parts they’re creating cover the whole array of manufacturing, from “prototypes to discontinued parts for classic cars, as well as small plastic mountings and highly-complex chassis parts made of metal.” They’re already branching out, too, allowing customers to personally design customized products such as indicator inlays and dashboard trim strips. We can only imagine the options will flourish in the coming decade.

The largest companies in the world are benefiting tremendously from commercial 3D printers, but they’re not the only ones. With a terrific array of quality 3D printers under the $1000 mark, such as the Prusa i3 MK3S or the much cheaper Artillery Sidewinder X1 V4, anyone from the owner of a small engine repair business to a home mechanic is capable of getting their oily hands on this bleeding edge technology.

And it’s allowing them to resurrect extinct metal monsters.

Imagine you’re carving canyons on your latest project bike, filling the world with the rich note of an engine that, only a few months before, hadn’t warbled since your Grandpa was in grade school. The wind sweeps through the trees that lean over the side of the two lane you’re thundering down; the spruce and pine and oak dance together to a song only they can hear.

The troubles that come with restoring an old motorcycle are behind you. The three weeks you waited for the 60-year-old carburetor's rubber gasket to be shipped from the old fellow on eBay is a thing of the past. The wealth of long abandoned OEM parts, some of which you simply had to do without, seem to not matter now that the wind is in your face.

And then you see it. Gleaming in the back of a barn just a stones throw from the edge of the road, a shaft of steel and oxidized chrome.

Another motorcycle.

The ancient beast you’re riding cries out at the sight of its long lost brother. The engine redlines and you pull in the clutch to show it who’s boss. The headlights flicker mysteriously, and you chalk it up to faulty wiring.

Hopeless fool that you are, a few hours later, the barn find is on the back of your flatbed and you’re backing it into your garage. It’s older than the last one, and in tougher shape. But you’ve got time, and love, and elbow grease. You’re crafty. You’ve tracked down primeval parts before, from some of the earliest two wheeled fiends to ever chew on the pavement. You're a regular archaeologist at this point.

And yet… the sheer number of missing, rotten, and rusted parts begins to overwhelm you. Flashbacks to the summer of 2012 when you had to abandon what you thought was the find of a lifetime: the 1969 R 60 , fall on you like a bad dream. You realize, horrified, that this deserving and rare artifact might be too far gone, like the other. Perhaps a genuine surgeon could bring it back—but you? Never.

And then the stroke of brilliance. Nothing more than a memory, really, but it gets your cognitive gears turning. The year was 2018, and BMW unveiled an entirely 3D printed motorcycle chassis at their Digital Day event.

Another memory of when you came across a couple guys on a forum bragging about their own 3D printers and all the niche parts they no longer have to spend months hunting down, rings a second after.

A week of diligent research later and you’ve ordered an original Prusa i3 MK3S. You’ve made a promise to yourself—and to the derelict machine you rescued from a dusty grave—that a complete lack of spare parts on the World Wide Web won’t stay you from your task. Now you don’t have to rely on the used market. A self-assembly kit comes the day after the MK3S. Aided by countless YouTube tutorials, you manage to build the machine that’s going to bring Frankenstein’s motorcycle back to life.

The huge frustration of tracking down spring retainer guides, shock body protectors, bushes and bumpers—the torturous and fearsome carburetor gasket—are suddenly a thing of the past. A host of free software and 10 hours of tutorials instruct you in the subtle art of 3D drawing. You’re by no means a master, but what used to take weeks or even months of waiting and combing the net now takes days at the most. And you’re learning new things and honing a new skill while you’re at it.

The best parts of working on an old motorcycle are amplified. The worst become distant nightmares, never to be encountered again. You're no longer a hapless mortal begging for mercy as you scour the net, you're Prometheus himself, forming your destiny out of clay (or if we want to get technical, PLA or PETG). The more you practice mocking up precise designs in LibreCAD, the firmer the truth sets in: 3D printing is an absolute game changer for restoring old motorcycles and vehicles.

That’s right—classic cars are in the mix, too. BMW breaking out the 3D printer for Elvis’s 507 isn’t a one off thing. Porsche, infamous for many classics that had short production runs, has taken to implementing Powder Bed Fusion processes to manufacture metal and plastic parts that would otherwise be too expensive to recreate. A new branch aptly titled Porsche Classic is entirely dedicated to pumping life back into the vintage sector. French company GRYP is open for business—they’ll even create the CAD file to proper specification for you, taking all the learning out of the process.

For less than the yearly salary of a single employee, a small business or dedicated enthusiast can purchase a 3D printer that can create complex parts with a tiny fraction of the previous effort, time, and money which those parts would have demanded. Handcrafting precise components is a thing of the past--especially when those parts are non-aesthetic. Labor costs are dramatically reduced, and the headache of organizing traditional methods of manufacturer can be negated entirely. The savings are substantial, too. Relying on the old method of CNC for a precise part could require a month of waiting and $500-$1000 per unit: with a quality 3D printer, that same part can now be made in house for less than $20.

The implications of what 3D printing means when it comes to recycling, reusing, and revitalizing old machines cannot be understated. It's genuinely revolutionary; thousands of companies and a hundred times that many private consumers are riding the wave. Incredibly, industry insiders are telling us we’re only at the tip of the 3D printing iceberg. The world of machinery has been irrevocably changed, and it’s only going to get better from here. Cheaper printers, a wider array of CAD files to share between users, better software, and more precise components will only increase the rapid innovation we've witnessed in the last 10 years.

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