3D printing is fast becoming an invaluable tool within the sports industry, with a rapidly growing range of applications. A host of top sports manufacturers have seen the technology’s potential. Adidas has recently begun trialling it for a new breed of running shoe, and Nike has been granted a major patent for footwear production. Now, a team of three engineers from the University of Bristol in the UK have developed a new 3D printing technique, which they hope will revolutionize the production of sports equipment for the average person.
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Sports retailers might not welcome this news but the engineers hope that their development will soon enable a vast range of composite materials; things like tennis rackets and golf clubs, to be printed easily and at a low-cost in people’s homes. They have even confirmed that their process, which uses ultrasonic waves to manipulate strong fibres, will be adaptable to off-the-shelf, 3D printers. However, the potential clearly ranges far beyond domestic sports equipment production, with Dr. Richard Trask, Reader in Multifunctional Materials in the Department of Aerospace Engineering, noting that it could also have substantial medical uses, in particular the vast and cheap production of ‘resin-filled capsules’.
As an extension for existing 3D printers, ultrasonic waves are used to precisely position millions of tiny reinforcement fibres into frameworks. This framework essentially provides the strength for the object. Following this, a highly focused laser ‘locally cures the epoxy resin’ (the adhesive agent for the framework) and then prints out the desired object. The process gives ‘reinforcement and improved strength’, whilst maintaining a 20mm/s print speed.
The world of high-level sport continues to embrace 3D printing, and with good reason. Motorsports are certainly no stranger to the technology, which enables the quick and easy production of specialist mechanical parts. However, whilst complex and precise 3D printing is only really currently accessible to highly funded sports like Formula 1. So down the road, innovations like this will inevitably bring these very same capabilities to the average sports player and company.
Indeed, the list of uses for 3D printing to the average sports player is almost endless. However, perhaps more interesting is the potential for sports gear customization. Shoes, protective padding and mouth-guards are all examples of items which could be improved for each individual user by exact dimension measurements that are customized for each wearer. While this kind of gear is usually purchased in standard sizes, breakthroughs such as this in 3D printing will eventually allow customization for individually-suited gear. Not only would this drastically improve performance in certain sports, but will undoubtedly be attractive to those who like their own perfectly fitting gear.
So how long until you can print out your own, fitted, customized sports gear? Not exactly sure just yet. But with progressive and sustained developments like this, that day might not be as far away as previously thought.