3D Printing Set to Bring Customization Revolution to Sports Equipment

Many professional athletes enjoy the benefits of customization, including personalized workouts, apparel and equipment uniquely tailored to maximize their performance. Now, 3D printing is taking customization to the next level, delivering everything from safety gear and equipment, to medical devices, to uniforms and shoes that are form-fit and manufactured from scratch to suit the dimensions of a specific individual. As 3D printing technology continuing to proliferate and decline in cost, such made-to-order products are no longer only available to professional athletes - even amateurs can benefit from fully customized equipment.

Sports equipment is suitable for the capabilities of 3D printers, with such gear often small in size and built using a single material. Most importantly, the effectiveness of sports equipment is highly dependent on how well it fits—and how well it fits an individual’s needs. A 3D printer can build a piece of equipment based upon a computer scan of an individual’s body and/or movements, tailoring each aspect for a perfect fit.

For example, shoemaker New Balance has developed a track shoe that has custom-tailored spike plates on the sole, built using a 3D printer. To customize the shoe, an individual athlete wears sensors in his or her shoes during training. The sensors gather information on how the foot interacts with the shoe. Using this information, New Balance can determine where to place the spikes optimally for a specific athlete. The spike plates employ complex shapes that are difficult to create with traditional manufacturing methods, but are well-suited to the capabilities of 3D printers.

New Balance developed this system working with top track athletes. However, a range of startup companies are bringing custom 3D printed footwear to the general public. For instance, SOLS is offering custom insoles. Consumers can use an iPhone or iPad to take a picture of their foot, and SOLS will deliver 3-D printed orthopedics much more quickly than is possible with conventional manufacturing techniques.

Other examples of 3D printed sports equipment include:

- Helmets for sports including football, skiing, baseball and cycling that use 3D printing to produce complex micro-structures that are able to dissipate the force of impacts better than conventional foam padding.

- Custom casts that can be printed on the sidelines of a football game, enabling faster healing for athletes who sustain broken bones.

- Artificial limbs that are custom-printed to suit amputee athletes.

- Custom-made mouth guards based on scans of athlete’s teeth.

- All kinds of athletic devices, ranging from golf clubs, to footballs, to lacrosse stock heads.

The 2016 Summer Olympics is likely to feature the high-profile use of 3D printed equipment among the world’s top athletes. This may serve to popularize these products among consumers all over the world. The day may soon arrive when all consumers can scan their bodies at home or at retailers and then receive a complete set of fully customized 3D printed gear and apparel for any sport, customized exactly to their liking.

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