Somewhere in the story of Bastion Cycles is a joke about how many former automotive engineers does it take to create the world’s first market-ready 3D printed bespoke bicycle? The answer is three, and the tale is even better when you learn they pooled their redundancy packages from Toyota to form a company now leading the field in advanced bike manufacturing only a few years after its launch. By Dee Rudebeck.

After the R&D specialists were handed their notice from Toyota in 2014, they sat down and nutted out a new business concept. Bastion Managing Director Ben Schultz recalls how he and his co-founders, James Woolcock and Dean McGeary, wanted to incorporate their three passions: cycling, leading-edge manufacturing and Australian-made production. All keen cyclists, it was a classic case of creating the bike they wanted to buy but which didn’t exist. Bastion empowers the rider to design their own adjustable bike that is a unique fit not only to their desired specifications and aesthetic preferences, but the physical capabilities of their own body with all its ticks and quirks.

Bastion shares the industrial warehouse it occupies in Fairfield, north-east Melbourne, with three other specialised bicycle-related companies. Schultz says they think of it as an advanced manufacturing bicycle hub because, though there are synergies between the businesses and they send each other work, they share the space because none of them could afford to be there independently otherwise. This co-operative approach is an intriguing part of their business model, and just one of the ways Bastion likes to do things differently.

When a cyclist commissions a bicycle from Bastion, they should not expect the experience they might have purchasing a bike from one of the well-known larger manufacturers. They won’t enter a flashy retail store and view scores of factory-fresh bikes, choosing a few to test-ride and deciding which one they want to take out the door with them. At Bastion, after an initial chat with Schultz or Woolcock about their requirements, they will spend the next 2-3 hours at Riderfit, one of Bastion’s companion companies at the front of the building. There, they will be put on a physiotherapist’s table to address any injuries or asymmetries they may have before having their physical data measured and recorded.

“We don’t just measure the customer’s arms, legs and torso length, then make assumptions about the bike size that will fit them,” Schultz says. “Two people who have the exact same body dimensions could need totally different bikes. That’s because of their flexibility or injury history, and asymmetries in their body that they didn’t even know they had.”

So one leg might be shorter than the other or a rider’s hip rotation might mean one leg pedals differently to the other. Schultz uses a suit-tailoring analogy: “There is custom clothing where a tailor will measure your body dimensions and then take a pattern and size it, and then there’s the full bespoke suit service where they’d cut a pattern, pin it on you and do three or four fittings and checks, where they’d get you to twist and bend to make sure it’s not bunching up anywhere – that’s the level we work at.”

Riderfit will analyse how all the customer’s data comes together while watching them pedal an adjustable bike frame in the workshop. There is then further detailed discussion about component specifications and performance preferences, but Schultz admits that it’s often not the highly advanced technical manufacturing options that get some clients excited.

“The majority of the discussion is probably around the paint job – what colours and designs to choose,” he explains. “Some people like to keep it raw and let the materials shine and others paint the entire frame.”

The paint job is done once construction is completed in the back of the building at another of Bastion’s companion companies: Bikes by Steve.

Bastion aims to arm the customer with as much information as possible to ‘precision craft’ their bike. Based on their consultation, Bastion provides them with a four-page report that contains graphical representation of how the bike will handle, comparing it to other bikes on the market or bikes they’ve owned before to illustrate how a certain geometry or spec will make the new bike quicker or more agile, for example.

The tailoring service is not all that’s unique, Schultz adds: “We were the first company in the world to bring a fully international-standards tested, commercially available, 3D printed bicycle to market. People had used the technology in bikes before but purely at a design concept or university-study level. Although the price point is high, it’s been received by the market. There is literally no one else in the world making bikes the way we make them.”

Bastion uses carbon fibre tubes to make the bike frame, but with titanium joints created using 3D printing technology that enables a lattice-like internal honeycomb structure, allowing strength while minimising weight. Bastion’s printer, a Renishaw AM250, is kept busy, running 24 hours a day, six days a week. It uses aerospace grade Ti6Al4V titanium alloy powder and a high-powered precision laser to weld layer on top of layer in a pattern governed by a CAD design to build three-dimensional shapes.

“The advantage of titanium is that it delivers a much nicer ride comfort and quality,” says Schultz. “So there’s a performance benefit for no weight increase. It’s got to do with the level of damping and compliance in the material.”

This is where the team’s automotive backgrounds come to the fore: “When you are in a car or a bike, there is road noise. It’s a very small but high-frequency vibration as the tyres are rolling over the rocks in the asphalt. Titanium is much better than carbon fibre at isolating and smoothing out that vibration or lessening it.”

The science of smooth cycling

So why does smoothness relate to feeling fresher at the end of a ride?

“It’s because after you’ve been on an all-carbon fibre bike for five minutes, you don’t notice the vibration any more but your brain is still processing it,” Schultz explains. “When you’re in a car, it’s the same if you have that road or wind noise. Your brain filters it out – you can still have a conversation – but your brain is still processing it.

“It’s that constant processing of stimulus that tires people out. It’s been proven in studies in cars and aircraft. They try to minimise it so pilots don’t get tired. People in passenger seats get cranky because of this constant noise. So it translates to a bike. But we’re not Boeing or NASA; we haven’t done the peer-reviewed studies to prove it yet.”

That said, Bastion is in talks with RMIT University this year to design such a scientific study to quantify this anecdotal finding.

“I know from my experience at Toyota that it’s a very difficult thing to quantify but we’re going to try,” Schultz adds. “Subjective feedback from more than 100 customers, from ex-professionals through to beginner riders, is that Bastion bikes are smoother than their current bike. It’s definitely there, we just have to figure out how to measure it.”

For such a young company, there have been a number of milestones on the road to sustainability.

“The first sale in 2016 was pretty exciting,” says Schultz. “We had a 30% discount on the first five bikes and they sold in two days. And none of those people had seen one.”

Apart from bringing the 3D printing inhouse earlier this year, the other key decision Schultz and his co-founders made was partnering with 16 bike fitters and retailers around the world, as 70% of their business is now exports.

There are a couple of other bespoke bike makers in Australia and while Schultz is confident of Bastion’s appeal, his main concern is that this small market keeps growing for all of the manufacturers here: “What we really want is for more people to not buy a standard production bike out of China and buy something locally made and bespoke. The more people who start to make that jump, then their friends will buy them and their friends. And some of them will come to us.”

There are only hundreds of people each year who buy bespoke, but tens of thousands of people buying bikes from the big brands, whose top-of-the-line models might cost $15,000 or $16,000. Bastion bikes start at around $13,000 but most customers spend around $18,000.

“So that’s only a 10% jump to get something from us that is tailored to you,” Schultz adds. “We just need to get in front of some of those people because we don’t have the marketing budget that the big brands do. We can’t sponsor a Tour de France team when they need 200 bikes every season. We haven’t even made 200 bikes yet. We’re still only four years in, we’re still on that uptake of the early adopter curve, although sales have gone up this year.”

So what’s in the pipeline for the future? Bastion has just received a grant from the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre (AMGC) to support development of their next model, which will be a lot more innovative – though Schultz isn’t able to elaborate more. To build the bike, they’ll have to come up with a series of new processes and technologies. It’s an exciting time at Bastion as the trio return enthusiastically to their R&D roots.

Bastion also operates a consultancy arm specialising in design for additive manufacturing and bespoke engineering solutions. This element of the business has been bolstered by the ability to print titanium parts in-house, and is already producing components for five other bike builders globally. Bastion is also producing custom high-performance parts that are used by the Australian Olympic track cycling team.

So it seems Toyota’s loss is the bespoke bicycle world’s gain.

“Yeah, I love it,” says Schultz. “I wouldn’t do anything else now. I just love it.”

He does it in family-friendly hours too, leaving at 3pm most days to pick up his child from school. Woolcock also works from home one day a week and looks after his pre-school-age daughter. The work often has to resume once the families are in bed, but nonetheless Bastion’s co-founders have built a successful business, created their dream jobs, and achieved a happy work-life balance to boot.

If only all redundancies turned out so well.