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How 3D Printing is Changing the World of Sports

Disclaimer: This Blog was previously posted on April 2nd, 2014 on 3Dprinting Reports by Mike Vasquez, PhD.

While you may not have guessed it, sports is one of the industries responsible for bringing to market some of the most cutting edge materials and process. Materials like carbon fiber, titanium, and even carbon nanotubes have all reached the mass market early in their development through the sports like golf, cycling, baseball and sailing. Sports, unlike the medical or aerospace industry has a relatively low barrier to entry when it comes to regulation and testing pre-market.

 

One of the most recent examples of this phenomena is 3D Printing. Companies like Reebok, Nike and Burton Snowboards were some of the early adopters of the technology and have been creating innovative prototypes and small batch products for close to a decade. The ability of 3D Printing to offer a personalized and customized solutions for athletes is the big reason that the technology has taken hold in the industry.

 

There are a variety of 3D Printing platforms out there but in the sports arena there are a few that seem to be the workhorses for the industry. For visual prototyping (parts that are just for handling, fitting or display) technologies like FDM or Photopolymer Jetting are commonly used. However, some of the most exciting developments have come through the development of functional prototypes and end use parts using technologies like laser sintering. Laser sintering is an additive technology that uses a laser to fuse polymer, metal, or ceramic powders to create near fully dense parts. The objects that result from these technologies are some of the most robust parts created using 3D Printing and have been used to make F1 parts and sophisticated sprint spikes.

If we look back at 2013 there were a few exciting examples of innovative uses of 3D Printing in sports:

  • Nike + NFL: One of these came earlier in the year with the release of Nike’s football sprinting spike launched for the NFL combine. The base plate was designed using laser sintering and the spike placement/shape was specifically engineered to optimize athlete performance. These cleats were put on some of the top college players as they ran their 40 yard dash. The cleates were specifically tuned to enable the players to get the fastest time possible.

  • Signal + Snowboarding: Another interesting application of 3D Printing in the sports world came in the world of snowboarding. A company called Signal used laser sintering to actually build a snowboard. Here’s the link. While the final product needed to be reinforced using metal rods, the company was able to actually put riders on the board. However, applying 3D Printing in snowboarding is not new. Burton Snowboards has been using the technology for many years to develop functional snowboard bindings.

  • Trek + Mountain Biking: Trek is another great example of a sports brand utilizing 3D Printing. They use multi-material photopolymer printers to build prototypes for a variety of the products. This not only enhances their designs but makes the full R&D process much more efficient as they gear up for full scale manufacturing.

Trends for this Year

3D Printing still has many limitations, especially when it comes to high volume production and materials selection. The first of these problems is likely not going to be solved in the next year but there is some exciting opportunities on the horizon with materials such as Desmosint TPU-92A1 developed by Bayer. This is a flexible elastomer material that could enable creation of parts like shoe soles, protective padding and vibration damping components which up to this point was difficult to do with the existing materials that more more rigid in their final form (like Nylon-12).

Given the difficulty in scaling up the technology, I believe that a majority of the exciting applications in the sports space will come from companies trying to address a small cohort of the customers or athletes. Most likely these will be the elite/professional athletes who can attract a lot of visibility. So look out for new innovations in these areas, especially with the Winter Olympics coming up.

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