3D printers have made custom manufacturing easy and inexpensive.
Which is why 3D printing is the perfect tool for the sports industry. Custom shoes, gloves, helmets, and much more are already available for public purchase, all made with 3D printers. But how far does the industry go, and what are the biggest impact points this new technology will have on the sports scene? Here's a look.
Where It's Used
All major sport equipment manufacturers have adopted 3D printers as an integral part of the manufacturing process. But chances are your new bike helmet isn't made by a 3D printer as the volume of items made is still limited. Where sport equipment companies make use of this technology is in the prototype stages of production. The ability to quickly and easily design, create and test a product is invaluable and rapidly speeds up the production timeline. Furthermore, a 3D printer gives developers the opportunity to easily alter the design and functionality of items, making it invaluable to concept creators.
The Small Stuff
Even at a high level of play, it's the small stuff that can give you a big edge. After many hours of use, shoes wear down or break; cleats don't grip as well as they once did. 3D Printers can create new spike plates, insoles, or even bicycle handlebars. Of course, the more complex the item produced, the more expensive it will be. For instance, in 2015, Bradley Wiggins broke the hour bicycle record (the distance traveled by a cyclist in one hour) on a bike with titanium handlebars manufactured by a 3D printer; these handlebars cost around $4,000.
Equipment, however, is just one area in which 3D printers have made a big impact in sports. For those who play at elite levels, the ability to recover from injury is paramount. Sports medicine has been revolutionized by 3D printers, not just because it can make machines intrinsically better, but because the machines used in sports medicine to help rehabilitate injured players can be fixed quickly and easily. Apple Rubber, for example, creates custom o-rings and parts for medical equipment so a team or medical facility never has to wait weeks for a single component.
Prosthetic limbs may be where 3D printers have made the biggest impact on individual lives. While many disabled athletes use prosthetic limbs, this goes far beyond sports to a place that improves lives all over the world. However, these prosthetic limbs can now be designed for maximum efficiency for each particular sport—even more efficient than the human body in some cases. Take Elle, for example. Elle is a swimming leg prosthesis for a single leg that features a vacuum seal below the knee. Its interchangeable fin can be altered depending on the user's needs, and an adjustable air chamber can help the user control buoyancy. Another achievement in prosthetic limbs is that of robotic hands, which takes about 40 hours for a 3D printer to create, and runs near $1,600, but is more responsive than conventional models. Furthermore, it utilizes electromyographical sensors that stick to the user's skin and enable control. Not only does this product take a relatively short time for a 3D printer to produce, it's cheaper and has the same functionalities for advanced bionic prosthetic limbs used by athletes.