The Future of Sports: How additive manufacturing will transform the sports industry

Recently, New Balance released their 990 Sport sneaker which has a 3D printed heel made from New Balance’s new Rebound Resin material that creates strong lattice structures while also maintaining a springy sole. While this shoe is traveling through the media in the 3D printing world, New Balance is not the first company to incorporate 3D printing into sportswear.

Adidas teamed up with Carbon over a year ago to create the first ever functional 3D printed midsole for their Futurecraft 4D shoe. Not only has this shoe earned Adidas attention from the media, but it has pressed other companies to generate innovative products if they want to be a leader in the sports industry. With these products highlighting 3D printing capabilities, it’s likely additive manufacturing (AM) will be the next big thing in the sports industry.

Why now?

AM, or 3D printing, is continuing to grow and enter new industries. It has found wide adoption in the automotive, aerospace, dental, and medical industry for quite some time. The question is, what changed in the sports industry and 3D printing that makes AM so attractive?

The bar for performance continues to rise

Most people enjoy watching a sports game, but everyone loves watching a game where history is made. Athletes strive to become better and faster so one day they can be the one making history. However, this has become more challenging as traditional manufacturing is reaching its limit due to its subtractive manufacturing approach. AM can provide engineers and product designers increased design freedom as they can work with new materials and complex geometries that traditional manufacturing can’t handle. Using additive, designers can increase a product’s strength-to-weight ratio, creating products that are stronger, or equally strong, while using less material. A lighter product reduces the amount of energy athletes must exert, allowing an athlete to reach a higher speed or maintain a high speed for a longer period of time.

Safety concerns have escalated

As many of you know football is one of the most dangerous sports when it comes to safety, but were you aware that over 60% of high school concussions stem from football? Preventing concussions has become the top priority in football at all levels, from recreational football, to high school, to the NFL. Creating personalized equipment is one of the most effective ways to increase safety. Historically, traditional manufacturing has been a barrier to personalization since creating personalized equipment significantly increases a product’s cost and lead time. However, AM enables companies to make highly personalized equipment in a couple of days and for a fraction of the cost. In the future, AM will also be able to increase the functionality of a product by incorporating new technologies or features.

For example, 3D printing company Carbon team up with Riddell to create a 3D printed football helmet that reduces the chance of concussions for NFL players. Rather than using foam to absorb a force upon impact, Carbon 3D prints a lattice structure to replace the foam that absorbs and disperses the force from an impact throughout the helmet. On top of this, the athlete’s head is also 3D scanned so the helmet fits perfectly and moves less during a collision.

The helmet was introduced to select NFL players and was the third safest helmet in the 2019 helmet lab testing results. In the future, there is the potential that sensors will be embedded into helmets to determine the location and severity of an impact and help determine if the athlete should continue playing on the field.

Industries need shorter supply chains

Companies are also looking to introduce products faster, since the more products a company releases the more likely the company is to increase its revenue. Currently, injection molding and design rework are the bottlenecks in the manufacturing process, so speeding up production would require a new manufacturing process. One fix, that doesn’t require significant restructuring of a manufacturing process, is replacing injection molding with rapid prototyping.

A 3D printer can be installed in a warehouse which eliminates the need for companies to send products back and forth for design rework because the products can be printed on site. This will significantly reduce the time needed to release a product as well as reduce the overall cost of a product since less money will be spent on shipping.

The bottom line

While a partially 3D printed shoe is great for marketing, the real value of AM is going to be in massive improvements to performance, safety, and lead times. The technology in AM will continue to evolve as more research is performed and provides even more opportunities for new designs. As companies like Adidas and New Balance continue to push innovation, more and more products will be released with concepts that seemed impossible a couple years ago.

How to get started

Before jumping into AM, think about which part of your business you want to improve. Is it shortening the supply chain so products can be introduced faster, or is it providing product designers and engineers a technology that gives them more freedom in designing products? Consider an innovation workshop to find new ways to improve your business and see if AM is a solution. Lastly, understand the technology of 3D printing and what it can do.

01/ July 2019
Cammy Frei
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