You’ve heard a lot lately about 3D printing. Did you know it was invented over 20 years ago? Having started in the 1980s, 3D printing sometimes called “additive manufacturing” or “rapid prototyping,” has since gained popularity in a variety of businesses. Entrepreneurs use it to test prototypes and new products. At major corporations, it can be found in their research and development departments. Experimental fashion designers push trends to the edge and the medical field has used it to create custom devices and anatomy models. Now, the sports industry has used 3D printing in a variety of applications.
This rapid prototyping process connects a user’s computer aided design to a 3D printer capable of dispensing successive layers of almost any material to create an entire object. Similar to a CT scan, each of the layers can be seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the final object. The range of materials is staggering and printers can generate items made of plastic, polymers, acrylic, wax, ceramic, metals, edible mediums and biocompatible materials.
Without a doubt, the potential of this new form of rapid prototyping has not been fully realized but the developments so far have been inspiring. The use of 3D printing has been explored by virtually every permutation of business. The sports industry is no different and has been an early adopter of the technology.
Due to its low cost and availability to create prototypes at universities, local community centers, and even your own home, 3D printing has gained popularity with at-home inventors Fortune 500 companies, like GE, and the company synonymous with athletic gear: Nike.
Nike has been experimenting with 3D printing for the past few years and has developed several items utilizing this versatile technology. In 2014, they developed a pair of cleats called the Nike Vapor HyperAgility Cleat. The cleats were specially created to increase athletic agility during targeted football drills. Nike also created a pair of shin guards called the Mercurial FlyLite Guard (for sale on nike.com) and a limited edition duffel bag with a 3D printed bottom presented to select 2014 FIFA World Cup players.
The Mercurial FlyLite Guard has “a specially engineered shock system at the back of the guard, combined with an outer shell, that work together for optimal impact protection with increased flexibility and breathability” in addition to “provid[ing] the most anatomical fit to date,” according to Nike’s official blog. The duffel bag created for the World Cup was also unique in its lightweight feel and flexible durability, all attributed to the 3D printed plastic mesh incorporated in the bottom of the bag.
Nike has spear-headed efforts to create lightweight and shock-absorbent material for use in sport protection. In the future, could Nike expand its 3D printed sport padding for football, baseball, or soccer? Perhaps they will be the first to pioneer a 3D printed football made from synthetic leather. Trying to keep up with the cutting edge of technology to elevate their brand, Nike has utilized 3D printing to create unique and practical solutions for advancing sports equipment.
Is their next step to conceive a new generation of lightweight polymer helmets to replace current ones used in the NFL? Helmets that could be stronger, more lightweight, breathable, and more effective in the prevention of concussions. Nike may be a strong contender in finding the solution but they are not the only ones in the running.
Reebok has been utilizing 3D printing for years to create preliminary models for their sport shoes, clothing and accessories. In an industry where it is a race to launch the latest and greatest products, Reebok is using 3D printing as a way to cut out the process of waiting for molds to be made, plastics to cure, and the time it takes to snail mail prototypes back and forth between Reebok and its contractors.
In recent months, UnderArmour has also hinted at using 3D printing in future clothing lines to enhance its popular brand. Kickstarters (publically-online funded products and services) have also emerged to offer advanced products using 3D printing. One such company is Sole Light, whose 3D printed insoles keep runners and cyclists cushioned during prolonged activity. Dr. Mark Vasquez, an MIT graduate and sports technologist, used 3D scans of wheelchair basketball players to create more effective wheelchair frames and seats. By utilizing the 3D scans to analyze the anatomy of the player, Dr. Vasquez then designed a 3D printed seat which conformed better to their bodies in addition to a lightweight frame for more efficient movement across the court.
A project launched by UnderArmour, GE and the NFL called the “Head Health Challenge” tasked scientists, researchers and sports enthusiasts to “produce advancements in preventing, measuring and detecting brain injury, innovative brain protective materials and devices, and training methods that result in behavior modifications”. (http://www.healthdatachallenges.com/). This four year project has so far yielded one solution employing 3D printing. It is a microlattice engineered to lessen a blow to the head and instances of concussions. A group of scientists from the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) worked with the firm Architected Materials, Inc. to develop this new type of padding resembling a honeycomb. In the future, it could replace the standard foam inserts used in helmets. The project could potentially award up to $40 million to participants, and ultimately prevent traumatic brain injuries in the field of professional and amateur sports.
The future of 3D printing is bright in all aspects of the sports industry. Printing customized sports equipment on demand for an athlete’s specific needs could soon sweep across stores like Academy Sports, Nike, or Dick’s Sporting Goods. University athletic departments could be testing prototypes such as football cleats, new golf clubs, protective padding, or tennis racquet handles to enhance performance. BMX riders could print broken parts on demand during races or even print a forgotten helmet. Creating models of athletes in 3D could also help scientists understand variations in performance and print items tailored for that individual.
The medical field has also be greatly impacted by the use of 3D printers. No longer will clunky plaster casts be used for broken bones. A flexible and custom fitted brace can be printed on the sidelines that promotes faster healing with the added convenience of being water proof. Will ACL surgery consist of 3D printed biocompatible material instead of a tendon autograft? This capability may not be as far-fetched as it seems.
Patients who would have needed expensive prosthesis are already receiving 3D printed arms and legs. The prosthetics have been completely customized for maximal comfort and offer the same usability as a pricey “traditional” counterpart. Children, too, are receiving uniquely 3D printed prosthetics. Recently, a boy named Jack Carder, who was born with just a thumb on one hand, was fitted with a 3D printed prosthetic hand from the e-NABLE group (a network of “passionate volunteers using 3D printing to give the world a ‘helping hand’” at no cost.) This innovation gave Carder the ability to throw out the first pitch at a Columbus Clippers game.
The affordability of 3D printing can now reach those who normally would not be able to incur the cost of a more expensive and sometimes clunky prosthetics. With the ability to completely customize each piece without a large lapse in time or additional processes, developers can create a more comprehensive design to suit the needs of their clients. Although specialized prosthetics for sports and other activities are available from companies like TRS Inc., 3D printing can allow for more thorough testing on these life-changing items that allow those without limbs to pursue their love of sport. Will advancements in these prosthetics make both amateur athletes and paralympians run longer, swim faster, or jump higher? It certainly seems like a possibility with the ever-evolving world of 3D printing.
It’s clear that 3D printing is not limited to Fortune 500 companies or academia. A hobby printer for the home user can be purchased for as little as several hundred dollars allowing for any athlete to customize their own equipment. As grants become available for schools to purchase 3D printers at discounted prices the exposure of what this technology can do will fuel the minds of future generations. Not only will big businesses or universities be able to test their ideas, the average Joe with curiosity about 3D printing can delve into it with an idea on how improve their golf game and perhaps help others in the process.
Ms. Jennifer Kelly is the Webmaster for the United States Sports Academy, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.