Super Bowl Broncos vs. Seahawks. Source: NFL
Super Bowl Broncos vs. Seahawks. Source: NFL

Nike used 3D printing to develop football cleat optimized to dig in faster for best performance.

When the best football players in the world take the field this Sunday most fans won’t consider the technology that went into building the small cleats protruding beneath each player’s shoe. Football loving technology buffs may be surprised that players wearing Nike shoes this Sunday will be running on cleats that were designed and prototyped using 3D printing.

3D printing is an additive manufacturing process that builds an object layer by layer using a variety of technologies. In this this case, selective laser sintering (SLS), was used. This process uses high-powered lasers to fuse small particles of materials into a three-dimensional shape.

“With 3D printing you can have an idea, sketch it out, 3D model it, and by the next day you come to the office and you have a part,” Nike Director of Innovation Shane Kohatsu told CBS News.

The technology, he said, “really changes the pace that we get to work and it really changes how far we can go in a short amount of time. You can imagine how liberating that is for a designer.”

The project began when Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson, now working with NFL players as a speed training coach, wanted to give his athletes an edge. The idea was to develop a cleat that would reduce slippage when the player starts to sprint, just before that first step hits the turf. Johnson calls this pivotal moment, when propulsion and acceleration are determined, the “Zero Step.”

“Nike’s new 3D printed plate is contoured to allow football athletes to maintain their drive position longer and more efficiently, helping them accelerate faster through the critical first 10 yards of the 40,” said Johnson in a press release. “Translated to the game of football, mastering the Zero Step can mean the difference between a defensive lineman sacking the quarterback or getting blocked.”

Nike used motion capturing cameras to review and study the Zero Step. Then used 3D printers to prototype the cleat plates and spike shape. They tested dozens of prototype cleats making incremental adjustment to the design to increase performance.  

Kohatsu said it might have taken three years to complete this project using the traditional method of injection molding, which requires building molds, filling them with molten plastic, and waiting for them to set. Previous prototyping processes were laborious and took months to make even the slightest tweaks. Prototypes had to be repeated with each redesign.

“SLS technology has revolutionized the way we design cleat plates – even beyond football – and gives Nike the ability to create solutions that were not possible within the constraints of traditional manufacturing processes,” said Kohatsu.

Once the best design was found, the cleat plate was used as a prototype for the shoes. The shoes the players will wear on Sunday are known as the Vapor Carbon 2014 Elite Cleat. More information can be found at http://nikeinc.com/news/nike-debuts-first-ever-football-cleat-built-using-3d-printing-technology#/inline/17741.