How 3D printed sports equipment is changing the game

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Today, Additive Manufacturing (AM) or 3D printing as it is more commonly known, is being used extensively in healthcare and medicine, fashion, aerospace and automotive industries, and it’s estimated that the technology’s adoption in the world of sports is set to rise too.

With the high level of speed, precision and functionality achievable in products manufactured by industrial 3D printing companies like ProtoLabs, there is huge scope for bringing enticing new benefits for all sporting disciplines. We dive into some of the most significant ways in which 3D printed sports equipment is already raising its game.

Greater customisation of sports footwear

Because of the accuracy of products achievable using Additive Manufacturing, there is an increased level of customisation possible for sporting equipment. One of the key areas where it has already made its mark is footwear. Although we will have to wait to see the fully 3D printed sports shoe, elements of a running shoe have been manufactured already using the technology to improve comfort and performance.

Midsoles are one of the most popular shoe parts to be 3D printed so far. Using materials such as Thermoplastic Polyurethane (TPU) the parts are designed for maximum strength, flexibility and durability to improve shock absorption and elasticity. Adidas notably used AM to create running shoes for its lattice midsoles for its Futurecraft 4D footwear. The structure of the midsoles was designed to help with performance cushioning, shock absorption and rebound. According to Adidas, ‘the midsole is designed to compress forwards under loading and counter mechanical forces while delivering a unique gliding sensation for our runners’.

Nike also began working with the technology in 2013, producing a 3D printed plate for its Vapor Laser Talon soccer shoes, and in 2014, used Selective Laser Sintering (or SLS, a form of 3D printing that sinters small particles of polymer to form a solid structure) for its Vapor HyperAgility Cleat, enabling maximum speed and traction on the football field.

Sporting equipment for Paralympic athletes

The high customisation possibilities of 3D printing have also helped in the realm of sporting equipment for Paralympians. In the 2012 Paralympics, 3D printed seats for wheelchairs were used for the first time in basketball competitions. To reach an optimum design, exact measurements of an athlete’s body were taken to tailor the seat design to precise specifications. Lightweight wheelchairs and bespoke prosthetics have also been produced, along with artificial limbs to suit the specific needs of individual players.

 

Safety sports gear

By their very nature, all sports test the boundaries of physical human ability, so safety plays a big role, and 3D printing is starting to, as well. Helmets are a vital form of safety equipment in games such as American football, rugby, cycling, water sports and many more. The use of 3D printed lattice structures are proving particularly useful in providing greater comfort and improved pressure distribution for impacts. Similarly, mouthguards can be printed using video scans of the upper jaw for a precise fit, and shin pads are also making their mark. In 2016, Austrian company, Zweikampf  produced the world’s first serially printed shin guards that have been dubbed one of the most technically advanced shin pads ever produced. Weighing just 75g with 7mm thickness, they are custom printed according to a player’s unique shin scan and are designed with a Y pattern on the front of the pad, which distributes the impact across the shell of the pad for high impact protection.

 

Personalisation of sports gear

Not only is 3D printing effective for safety but it also makes way for wider possibilities when it comes to personalisation. A new case, a new specialised logo or a new colour are all possible. But personalisation is not just about style. You can also personalise sporting equipment such as golf clubs and tennis rackets to improve grip and performance. For example, golf clubs can now be made swiftly using metal 3D printing. There are lots of variables when it comes to the features of a golf club: the angle, groove design and weight all play a part. Thanks to the capability to produce prototypes quickly with AM, various iterations can be made, ultimately leading to the potential for greater experimentation and innovation.

Conclusion

The sports industry, like all others, will always be looking for ways to improve results, whether its safety, performance or comfort. But it’s not only there where 3D printing lends a helping hand. Thanks to the universal capabilities of Additive Manufacturing technology, sporting brands, business and all those associated with producing products for the industry will be able to take advantage of the sustainability and affordability benefits, shorter lead times and the convenience of onsite printing in the future. For 3D printing, kick off has only just begun.

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