Why would a company known for airliners and spacecraft build a motorbike?

“We needed a product to show what’s possible with 3D-printing technology", said Angela Gruenewald, marketing manager for APWorks, a subsidiary of the French aerospace giant, Airbus. "[We] decided on a motorcycle because everyone already has a preconceived notion about what it is — a heavy machine.” From its headquarters near Munich, Germany, APWorks already produces proprietary parts for a variety of applications, including the automotive, medical technology, and robotics industries. But a bespoke motorbike would allow the company to show off its design and fabrication expertise in a decidedly more glamorous way.

The fruit of the company's labour, fittingly called the Light Rider, is no ordinary motorcycle. With its gleaming skeletal structure, this flyweight 3D-printed electric oddity looks more like a piece from a natural-history museum diorama than a rideable machine. But the bike's biomimicry is no mere gimmick: The Light Rider's radical computer-designed structure probes the limits of engineering solutions inspired my nature.

To design the bike's frame and swingarm rear section, the APWorks team collaborated with Altair Engineering, a US-based consulting company whose structural-design software works through the principle of "morphogenesis" — which in biology refers to process of environmental forces defining a natural organism's form and structure. Morphorgenetic software is written to create forms that achieve maximum strength with minimal mass, and Altair's system has contributed to the designs of such boundary-pushing machines as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the Volvo Ocean 70 racing yacht, and the jet-powered Bloodhound SSC, which next year will attempt to break the land speed record.

Although the Light Rider's bare-metal frame weighs a scant 13 pounds, the bike can support a rider as heavy as 220 pounds. "And we can easily adapt the frame to support someone that weighs more or less than that", says Gruenewald. The software also allows engineers to optimise the design for different use cases — an off-road bike, for instance, encounters different structural stresses than a MotoGP racer, and therefore would require a frame that was stronger in different areas.

The 3D-printing process employed to produce the Light Rider's frame is a marvel unto itself. The system uses a laser to melt powdered aluminium alloy in thousands of layers, each only 60 microns thick — about the width of a human hair. Airbus Group Innovations, the company’s research arm, developed the frame's aircraft-grade alloy, called Scalmalloy, which it claims matches the specific strength of titanium. The fabrication process — and the strength of the material — allows the morphogenetic software to specify finer and thinner structures than traditional tooling or moulding methods of manufacturing can produce. In fact, notes Gruenewald, the Light Rider’s frame even features hollow branches that hide cables and other components.

No surprise, printing a motorbike takes a while. APWorks produced the Light Rider's frame and swingarm in 14 separate sections, each requiring a week to print. But the process is scalable for mass production, says Gruenewald.

A petite electric motor produces 8 horsepower and a healthy 96 pound-feet of torque, and with an exchangeable battery pack and a complement of off-the-shelf bike components, the Light Rider tips the scales at a modest 77 pounds. APWorks claims the bike will run from zero to 28mph in 3 seconds, reach a top speed of 50mph, and cruise for 35 miles between charging stops. And, as proof that the Light Rider is no mere flight of fancy, the company plans to build 50 examples of its 3D-printed wild thing, priced at a cool €50,000 apiece (about £42,000, or $56,000).

Such, it seems, is the heavy price of travelling light.

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