One of the big developments of the past year in the consumer 3D printing market has been the introduction of professional-level bike saddles, manufactured using Carbon’s Digital Light Synthesis (DLS) technology. Within the span of a couple of weeks at the end of last summer, Carbon revealed two partnerships with established bike companies: Specialized and fizik. We’re going to take a closer look at what the new trend signifies for additive’s adoption in the cycling world.
To recap, at the end of August 2019, Silicon Valley-based Carbon announced that it had teamed up with American bicycle manufacturer Specialized to develop a 3D printed bike saddle with superior comfort, performance and protection. The saddle, called the S-Works Power Saddle, is made using “Mirror Technology,” which effectively consists of a combination of Carbon’s 3D printing, materials and a complex lattice structure designed to absorb impact and improve stability.
About a week later, Carbon revealed a second partnership with Italian cycling company fizik and introduced the jointly developed Adaptive saddle range. This bike saddle is also made using Carbon’s DLS technology and EPU 41 material, and is designed to offer cyclists superior power transfer, shock absorption and padding. The Adaptive saddle is said to overcome many challenges associated with using foam materials for saddles and will eventually be offered as a customized product.
Both bicycle saddles—though different in style and form—are inspired by the idea that a flexible 3D printed lattice with a tunable structure can improve upon existing foam materials, which, while padded, offer few other performance benefits.
This concept has taken shape in other ways: 3D printed smart materials are now being explored as more effective alternatives to foam in helmets and footwear. In both cases, the lattices can be designed to offer superior impact resistance where it is most needed, while being more breathable and comfortable.
Comfort is key
As in footwear and helmets, comfort in cycling is important, but most cyclists will tell you there is vast room for improvement. Most saddles have yet to find the ideal balance between comfort and performance and stability. Even worse, a bad saddle can have very real repercussions, like nerve pain, numbness and urinary problems.
In the case of Specialized’s S-Works Power Saddle, a combination of 3D printing, intelligent design and pressure mapping has helped to improve the saddle on all fronts. The 3D printed lattice, informed by pressure mapping data, enables a quick rebound which is likened to suspension for the rider’s sit bones. The lattice was also designed for breathability to improve comfort, and is very lightweight (just 189 grams), which can lead to performance improvements.
Looking at fizik’s Adaptive saddle, many of the same tactics are used: 3D printing, lattice geometries and pressure mapping data all come together to create a streamlined saddle that has zonal cushioning designed for power transfer and support. fizik also plans to collect pressure mapping data from individual customers to eventually produce customized 3D printed saddles in the near future.
What do cyclists think?
From what we’ve read of trials and reviews of the 3D printed bike saddles, the performance is not really in question. In many cases, the cyclists reported a more comfortable ride in which they even forgot about the seat. In one review of the S-Works Power saddle, cyclist Dave Everett noted that the saddle’s softness came as a surprise compared to conventional saddles, but a pleasant one.
The main sticking point, at this stage, seems to be cost. With a price point well above most standard bike saddles (around $500), the question seems to be whether the higher cost of the saddle matches the increase in performance and comfort. For amateur cyclists, the answer might be no, but for elite cyclists, the opposite might very well be true.
A recent review of the fizik Adaptive 3D printed saddle by Philipp Schwabb says that the saddle’s comfort was immediately noticeable, and that it provided “great internal damping” even on long rides. The main criticism of the 3D printed fizik saddle was that it collected rain and mud in bad weather and was harder to clean than a traditional saddle because of its lattice structure.
Overall, it seems like Carbon and its cycling partners are really onto something: cyclists are constantly looking for ways to improve their ride and performance, and 3D printing is, in many ways, looking like a viable solution. 3D printed handlebars and other bike components have already been touted by professional athletes—even those competing at the Olympics level—because of their light weight and customizability. 3D printed saddles could be the next frontier for professional or elite cycling, where even the slightest competitive edge is crucial.
As the first 3D printed bike saddles are brought onto the market, it will be interesting to see how broadly the equipment is adopted. fizik’s Antares Versus Evo 00 Adaptive saddle is already available to order, starting at €390. Specialized’s 3D printed saddle is currently being tested by several of the companies cycling partners and is expected to become available this year.