Ball bearings and bikes share a long history of innovation. According to The London Economic:
“In 1869 came a breakthrough when French bicycle mechanic Jules Pierre Suriray designed the world’s first radial bearings. These were used to great effect by Briton James Moore when he won the world’s first-ever bicycle race between Paris and Rouen on a Penny Farthing. By adding ball bearings to his innovative safety bicycle – the forerunner of every bike you see today – JK Starley solved the problem of smooth axle rotation and freedom of pedalling which paved the way for the high-performance bikes we see today.”
German plastics engineering company Igus makes tribological plastics that go into self-lubricating bearings, chains, and other parts used in industry. They explain that “tribology deals with friction, wear and lubrication and the technologies for the optimization of friction processes.”
So it seems fitting and almost a historic full circle that Igus would get into the bike business. There are real advantages to plastic bearings; CEO Frank Blase explained he first got the idea after talking to a beach bike rental company when on vacation.
“These were continuously exposed to sand, wind, and saltwater and sometimes only lasted three months before they had to be replaced,” said Blase. Maintenance and replacement are often expensive and time-consuming in this industry.”
Plastic bearings don’t need lubrication:
“Lightweight, lubrication-free high-performance plastics are used in all parts of the bicycle, from two-component ball bearings in the wheel bearings to plain bearings in the seat post, brake levers, and pedals. All of these components have integrated solid lubricants and ensure low-friction dry operation – without a single drop of lubricating oil.
Igus is in the parts business, not the bike business, so it teamed up with Dutch firm MTRL, which had been working on the design and production of a plastic bike for a while. Bikes are usually assembled from parts that come from all over the world. My e-bike has a Dutch frame, a German motor, Japanese shifters, and probably a whole bunch of Chinese castings and fittings.
Igus notes: “If sustainability matters, then cycling is the best option for urban mobility. But it’s not that easy. Raw materials bought in from distant countries, overly long supply chains and high material wear – not every bicycle is equally sustainable.”
This is also a problem when you need parts in a hurry or there is a supply chain crisis such as we are having thanks to the pandemic. MTRL says, “Since 2016 we’ve been rethinking every part of the bicycle, its purpose, material and origin. We are strongly betting on innovation, launching even more strategic projects in the fields of recycling and in-house production, to further minimize the footprint of our bicycles.”
With the Igus:Bike, almost every part comes from one supplier. They can be molded or 3D printed out of the different high-tech plastics needed for bearings and other critical parts, while the frame and other components can be made from recycled plastics. Note how there is a description of each part; the RE bar is the degree of recycling. Most of the complex moving parts are specialty plastics.
Parts are redesigned to suit the materials; note how instead of a normal crank, there are planetary gears that distribute the load. In many ways, it’s a better bike.
According to MTRL:
“Imagine your current bicycle. What if it would never rust, never need oil, never need cleaning? Imagine you could make an entire new bike from your old one. Produced locally, without waiting for parts to ship from Asia.”
The prototypes were made from recycled fishing nets, and MTRL says it is planning manufacturing facilities near plastic landfills around the world.
“From ocean plastics to motion plastics – the igus:bike concept has what it takes to become a high-tech ecological product,” says Blase.
Igus has bigger plans than just working with MTRL. “We want to enable the bicycle industry to produce plastic bikes,” said Blase.
MTRL meanwhile will launch a child and adult bike in the Netherlands by the end of 2022. Interestingly, the bike made from virgin plastics will cost 1,200 Euros and one made from recycled plastics will cost 200 Euros more. This is not surprising: We have noted many times before, recycling is virtuous but it is expensive. The current run-up in the price of oil might change that and make the recycled plastic closer in price.
This post might seem a bit odd on a website where we complain endlessly about plastics, but this is the plastics industry at its best. It uses recycled materials; it is the antithesis of single-use; it is low maintenance. And hey, maybe it is so weird looking that the guys with the angle grinders will give it a pass. More at Igus:bike.