3D printing in sport, how to reach new records with technology

When talking about 3D printing, you can think of creating highly technical materials typical of the automotive or aerospace industry. Yet, 3D printing has now reached a wide range of applications, ranging from fashion to sport.

From ergonomic (and perfectly shaped) seats to custom handlebars and endless other custom-made possibilities, 3D printing in sports now seems to offer numerous possibilities to those athletes who can afford these totally tailor-made accessories.

From the analysis of the athlete's physical characteristics to the production of the item or accessory via 3D printing, companies operating in this sector can thus see their products shine at the highest level and on an international scale. Some of these custom-made accessories, in fact, have gone far beyond the podiums of local competitions, all the way up to the Olympics.

An example is the collaboration between Sara Bertolasi and Elmec Informatica. During the Rio 2016 Olympics, the Italian athlete managed to compete despite an injury to the ischium, thanks to an ergonomic seat and trolley, designed and made by the Italian company upon her requests.

These are not only products that improve performance but, in some cases, they allow athletes to continue practice their sport, especially in case of accidents, injuries or issues of other nature. A clear example of how 3D printing has revolutionised the sports industry is with the creation of technical prostheses, which have allowed athletes from around the world to begin to or keep competing despite their physical disabilities.

From 3D printed prototypes to competitions

3D printing had already entered almost all areas of production, including those related to sport; however, in this context, its use was limited to prototyping prior to mass production, or to minor parts of sports equipment.

Following the example of the most advanced applications in the medical field, in recent times companies have realised the potential of this technology for a 100% customised production, for athletes who bring their tools and accessories to the race.

Modern sport has reached such a level of competition that, in order to make a difference, it is necessary to resort to every smallest opportunity for improvement.

When Scuderia Ferrari chose to use, for the first time in its long history, a matte car paint, it broke the news. Nonetheless, the time of the presentation of the car for the 2019 F1 championship the reasons were clear. The new paint gives the car better aerodynamics, less weight and less adherence to the single-seater of debris and fragments of tyres coming from other cars on the track.
Motivations that go well beyond tradition and aesthetics, not secondary for a company like Ferrari, and that explain well how today it is necessary to push every possible lever to get the most out every race.

Tools like the 3D printing now allow you to manage every detail of the object you create, whether it's a handlebar, a brake lever, a seat or any other accessory or sportswear.

3D printing in sport: endless potential to overcome modern limits

We are getting closer and closer to the point where, in many of the sports where the human factor is still decisive, the possibility of setting new records and improving performance will be reduced to the thousandth of a second.

It is enough to look back at what happened in the last century, even though it was marked by two world wars and numerous conflicts and criticalities, to realise how much technology has done for sports at large, starting from tools and accessories that no amateur would consider using today, except at funfairs.

From the first modern Olympics in 1896 to the super-technological 2020 edition in Japan, which already promises to be surprising in many ways, what really made the difference was the ever-increasing contribution of the most advanced technologies.
Sport is therefore also this, a laboratory where new sportswear and technologies like shoes made with 3D printing have already led athletes such as Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Eliud Kipchoge to exceed their limits and to reshape world records. However, it has also led athletes with genetic peculiarities or problems during their career to continue to compete or train: an example of that is the multiple world champion Michael Phelps and his shoes, designed to accommodate special 3D printed soles that allow the athlete to train in comfort, despite his size 15 feet.

3D printing for the sport of the future

It doesn't take much imagination to visualize 3D printing as one of the main enablers of the sport in the future. Nevertheless, the potential new uses of 3D printing in the field of sports is still to be discovered. Just think of the possibility of 3D printing during the course of a race a spare part for a broken bike or a helmet in the case someone forgot it at home in a quick and cheap way, resulting in a 100% customised product.
It is therefore difficult to identify a sport discipline in which 3D printing will not be able to have its say in the next few years, just as there is no clear discipline that can benefit more or less than others.

What is certain is that 3D printing already has a role in many areas related to sport and that its contribution is no longer limited to prototyping or training, but goes down to the field of competition to offer a concrete contribution and, in many cases, to change the approach of athletes to their exercise.

In the future, this will mean supporting athletes at the highest levels towards the constant search for physical, psychological and technical improvement, with materials that will increasingly be integral parts and strengths of the athlete himself, rather than external appendages to be learned and managed.

The ultimate goal is to use these 3D technologies for large-scale production, giving the end customer the ability to print their own running t-shirt, football shoes or a tennis wristband. We are, therefore, witnessing a rapid evolution of 3D printing in the world of clothing and technical sports equipment, whose application are still not entirely known.

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