3D Printing in Snowboarding. Source: shelf/Shutterstock.com
3D Printing in Snowboarding. Source: shelf/Shutterstock.com

In a world where games and races are won by inches and milliseconds, superior equipment can mean the difference between a win and a loss. 3D printing is playing an important role in developing equipment and giving individual athletes and teams a competitive advantage.

Sports Technology Engineer Dr. Mike Vasquez specializes in creating materials that increase sports performance. His goal is to maximize a team’s or individual athlete’s abilities and safety through engineering better equipment.

After graduating from MIT, Vasquez went to work at the Sports Technology Institute in Great Britain where he used 3D printing technology to improve equipment in a variety of sports. Through this technology, the time it takes to design, manufacture and test a piece of equipment is greatly decreased. “Injection molding to try and prototype things very quickly usually gets costly and you have to send it to outside manufacturers to get it done and shipped back,” said Vasquez. “It’s a time-wasting process.”

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is building an object layer by layer from a computer Aided Design (CAD) file. 3D printed objects are made of hard plastics, resins or metals depending on the type of printer and the technology used.

Not only did Vasquez use 3d printing to prototype, but also to manufacture end-use products. These are items that are actually put into use as a final product. One of these examples involved wheelchair basketball athletes and their chairs.

Wheelchair basketball was developed after WWII and involves athletes with varying abilities. “The issue is with athletes that have certain functionality limitations is a lot of times the standard or off-the-shelf wheelchair frame isn’t up to their liking. Especially if they’re trying to perform at the Olympic level,” said Vasquez.  

Vasquez and his team used 3D scanners to scan the athletes in different positions like shooting, sitting and passing. They then used the digital model to 3D print custom wheelchair seats that give the athletes a better range of motion and minimizes sliding in the seat.  

Other sports companies are using 3D printing as part of their manufacturing process as well. Burton Snowboards, based in Burlington Vermont, has 3D printers in their product development lab. Burton uses these printers to create functional snowboard bindings. Vasquez explained the bindings are developed to hold up to cold and water and sustain the same abuse of production bindings. The printed bindings lasted all season.

Other companies that have employed 3D printing include Nike, who 3D printed footwear prototypes and custom football cleats. F1 race cars are now being equipped with high-end parts, which were first prototyped with 3D printers and tested in wind tunnels, to improve performance and speed.

The opportunities offered by 3D printing seem to be limitless and has the potential to transform how athletes interact with their equipment and better perform in the games they love.