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Open Source Bicycle
  • Hi. I'm a bicycle mechanic and an avid cyclist and I think an open source bicycle could be a very powerful tool for any individual. I work at a bike shop and the price of purchasing and maintaining a bicycle can seriously add up over time. If an open source bicycle where to exist I think it would empower a great deal of people to build, maintain, and achieve an in depth understanding of their bikes. Furthermore it would allow any able bodied person the ability to travel efficiently with nothing more than their bike and the strength of their own two legs. Let me know what you think.
  • 14 Comments sorted by
  • Ben, I think the conventional bicycle - and by now a good number of unconventional ones - represents technology that has been thoroughly vernacularized over more than a century. It is pretty much open-source already!

    In fact, the mix-and-match nature of a bicycle is something worth studying for other projects. Designers are too blindly wedded to the idiom of the modern product, which has been developed expressly around the closure (indeed, the enclosure) of sources, and therefore design products around sets of complex, exclusive, over-critical component interfaces.

    Take the example of car headlights. Before c.1932 the norm was for headlights to be mounted either to a horizontal bar or to pedestals on the frame horns. This allowed a very wide variety of headlight configurations to be applied to any given design. The component designer did not have to deal with any but the simplest mounting detail, and thus a wealth of design responses is stimulated. This is a quality that survives in the basic bicycle. One might say that it is stigmergically open.

    For a long time after that the norm was a relatively simple circular, flat, annular-disc interface. This was not as stigmergically open as the prior arrangement, mainly due to difficulties in achieving an aesthetically happy arrangement without compound-curved sheetmetal directly adjacent to the flat headlight-mounting area; but it was a lot more open than the current norm.

    A former girlfriend of mine taught me all about good reasons and real reasons. Here the good reason is aerodynamic efficiency, more often than not. The real reasons are aesthetic, on the face of it, that is to say marketing; but really have to do with the closure of sources and the restriction of an industry to technologies of manufacture that are accessible only to a privileged few.
  • I hear you. What I meant is that the information needed to construct frames and components and accessories be made available to all. My experience thus far is that if you want to build a bicycle you need to buy all of those things from others which is expensive and not self sufficient.
  • Vote Up0Vote Down
    October 2012
    A really ecological open-source way to build bicycles could be to use bamboo poles for the frame, and fit them into adjustable joints that could be produced by additive fabrication.
  • Ben: surely it's a matter of measuring, drawing, and publishing?

    4ndy: I have this issue with bamboo all the time in architecture. My standard response is that it is fine and well as long as 1. the bamboo is grown locally; 2. the amount of engineering input required to convert the material to a usable form is not such to defeat the object; and 3. the final product does the job for a user who doesn't particularly give a damn about the issues. That invariably tends to rule against bamboo.
  • maybe the joints could be produced by additive fabrication and then reinforced by hemp which i've seen many pictures of. Another challenge would be building wheels. The wheels consist of a hob, spokes, nipples, rims, rim tape, tube, and tire. There are a lot of options. An extremely simple bicycle such as fixed gear bicycle consists of a frame, bottom bracket, headset, fork, stem, handlebars, seat post, saddle, wheels, cog, crank arms, a chain ring, and pedals. Hand brakes are optional since the way a fixed gear works allows you to break using your legs. My interest would be to create a way to document and distribute the information needed to build each of these parts to make a simple and functional bicycle from raw materials. I also do not have too much experience so I will need to learn a lot about each of the components in order to do this.
  • But also there are many different kinds of bicycles you can make from steel, aluminum, titanium, carbon, and bamboo frames, and many of the components consists of metal.
  • Vote Up0Vote Down
    October 2012
    Ned: Of course one point of using bamboo in construction is that it should be grown locally, and so provides a renewable low-energy building material.
    As for "the amount of engineering input required to convert the material to a usable form is not such to defeat the object", I'm really not sure what you're talking about when you say 'defeat the object', nor later when you say 'the issues'.
    Are you perhaps referring to the need to adjust a joint to fit various different diameters in bamboo poles? If you have experience of using bamboo in architecture, is there any particular way you find is best for securing the ends of varying poles? I was thinking of something like either hose clamps, set screws or lashings, but I think a set screw would eventually tear out of the bamboo with vibration.

    Ben: I'm not sure what you would stick hemp reinforcement fibre on with, but there's no reason why you can't for instance print a thin-walled model of a bicycle joint in PLA and use it to sand cast the joint that you'll actually use out of recycled aluminium or brass. I don't think direct metal sintering will be an option in most hackerspaces for the next couple of years though.
    To produce wheels, you either need access to equipment to form sheet metal with, i.e. bend a strip into a hoop and bend its edges up as a rim for a tube & tyre to be seated in, then the wheel can possibly be spot-welded together, or you need to steam a strip of wood in order to bend it into a similar form and probably fix it with adhesive. Spokes can be practically anything, but a hub is a difficult bit, especially a ratchet-freewheel type that allows you to apply force in one direction. I would be inclined to buy in or salvage a stock component, unless its users don't mind having their legs constantly in motion while going downhill due to not having that mechanism...
    It takes a fair bit of land to produce enough latex for tyres, but making a mould for them shouldn't be terribly complicated. Inner tubes would probably be more difficult since they must be much thinner.
  • 4ndy, in architecture (outside those parts of the world where it is a traditional building material) the form in which one most often finds bamboo is some form of engineered laminate. This is to make a material whose nature is to be long and cylindrical available in a wide, flat form, but the process of conversion tends towards the centralized and heavily capitalized. The source material is invariably Chinese.

    I'm glad you're thinking in terms of poles, rather. For connections, take a look at steel-tube scaffolding for inspiration. Bamboo is obviously less hard than steel, so one would have to adapt the actual detail. The basic principle is that of a lashing connection, where the member axes are always the mean member diameter apart.

    Thanks for the links about latex - all of which argues for a reduced demand for tyres.
  • (Also keep in mind that dandelions are good for a lot more than rubber, if viewed organically.)
  • for the a hub I've ridden fixed gear and I've learned to enjoy it equally if not more than a freewheel. There are hubs I'm familiar with, track hubs, that give you the option to us a cog or a free wheel. I have no Idea how to construct one of these hubs but I use them. One challenge is that there is a huge number of different bicycles for different riding styles. For example a road bike vs a mountain bike. If you design both there are a great diversity of designs for both kinds of bikes. So if we are to design an open source bicycle it would probably be ideal to start with a design for a simple road bike and a simple mountain bike.
  • Hi Ben

    From-scratch bicycle manufacture is a non-trivial process of precision preparation joining of reasonably inexpensive components. Even if you throw away all constraints and concern for interoperability with industry-refined control & drivetrain parts that Ned seems to universally consider as mere differentiation gimmicks, you are still tasked to construct a frame that is durable, light-ish, and tracks straight. A balance of technique and tooling are needed to accomplish that - some framebuilders have more of one than the other, but you can never be totally devoid of one of those. The lack of bolts in the core assembly means that one party (or assembly line) must contain the entirety of this specialization so as to make the frame.

    The cost of this kind of specialization is high enough to make the production of a small amont of frames an economically ineffective venture, compared to the import of the bulk-made frames that are now prevalent, even when factoring in the distribution margins (and sometimes even the retailer's ones too). As a pastime or hobby, framebuilding is perfectly do-able and fulfilling, as long as one does not hope or depend on it making 'cents'. Some kinds of differentiated bikes can only be had through a bespoke build, although the commercial market is broader than ever for once-rare types of bikes as handcycles, recumbents, and cargo bikes.

    There have been some ventures which have aimed to provide inexpensive, laser/CNC-produced tooling to lower the barrier to entry for building frames, but most usually dissolved under the weight of the effort involved to simply refine a design and get it out the door with no prospect of financial gain in return - many decide to use the skill they've applied/acquired to do more profitable things or to keep the design, manufacture, and possible sales of their tooling with themselves. 

    So maybe there is a lack of "open hardware" for bikes as you said in the beginning, but I don't think its in the core product, it's in the tooling. The technique has been described in chronicled in many places and books, if you care to do some research about it. But I don't think there's a nefarious closed ecosystem in bike parts today as Ned suggests beyond that of getting a builder's/retailer's distribution account for components and bicycle-specific tubing and frame fittings. The bike product ecosystem is not the main source of the expense of making a frame - its just the sheer cost of time and labor to bring it all together by hand, with some fixed cost in tools (which has slightly fallen over time). The importers' product is still made by hand, but with a lot of closed machinery and closed society (and manipulated currency) that depresses wages. Imported steel bikes are made with tubing that is substantially cheaper and more abundant in China than anywhere else, and the "horsehair-and-glue" (carbon fiber) bikes are made with fixed-mold tooling that is not practical for the small builder to replicate for an entire size range of a single frame design (one-offs are occasionally done).

    The evolving mini/micro CNC tools available can now make simple 2D bolt-together aluminum components (no open designs yet) like brakes and levers but the parts' durability would still be inherently weaker than that of the forged components that the industry incumbents can make with their massive presses (1000's of tons), fixed molds and internal (but conceptually open) processes. The time spent and costs paid to tool oneself to make CNC bolt-on parts would again dwarf the markups paid to buy finished parts from the incumbent manufacturers. Unless you need to build a differentiating feature, "rolling your own" does not make sense here either. Making hubs is very possible with a lathe, but again, forged hubs are stupid cheap compared to turning down a billet. And don't get me started on laying up fabric tire plies and rubberizing them, again, a mold heavy process. I supposed a one piece valve-tube-tire "donut" could be made single-handedly, but there's a reason those haven't been popular for a hundred years.

    Now, "freak bikes" that have little focus on precision and lightness but more on art, fun or (im)practicality still require technique but less in tooling or bike specific tubing products. And they don't look any worse when equipped exclusively with salvaged and discarded bolt-on parts. Aiming at this segment for some first efforts would give the taste of the process without the constraints of trying to make a (mythical) "cheaper hand-built " road or MTB frame. - both of which are quite reasonable and possible to acquire second hand in most places except the "Global South".
  • I'm not sure I understand everything your saying joey but I think I understand most of it. I am avid cyclist who uses the bicycle as my soul form of transportation and I race bicycles as well. A lot of my interest in an open source bicycle comes from an interest in self sufficiency opposed to commercial value. They are probably the most environmentally friendly source of transportation I can imagine.
  • joeykork, I think I see where you have misunderstood me. When I say, "Designers are too blindly wedded to the idiom of the modern product ..." I refer to product designers in general and those looking at open-source or other alternatives in particular, and not bicycle designers. Indeed I recommend a thorough study of bicycle manufacture instead of the prevalent idiom in the field in question. That is, if the component-interface regime on an open-source car, for instance, works like that which has traditionally held for bicycles, rather than the (rapidly shifting) current norm for automobiles, we shall have gained.

    The bicycle industry is one relatively free from "nefarious closed ecosystems"; for which reason I recommend it as an example of how other industries might work.
  • If I wanted to build a bicycle from scrap metal where would I have to start?

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