3D Printing technology is changing the way that many entrepreneurs and startups bring to market their first line of products. The technology has been around for over thirty years but for the most part been contained to larger, more industrial enterprises. Now, as prices fall and barriers to accessing the machines are removed, more and more companies are finding ways to take advantage of the technology.
3D Printing takes advantage of a process called additive or layered manufacturing. The process starts with a digital 3D model designed on a computer. When you press ‘Print’, your digital 3D design is sliced into many thin layers (~100 microns or about 2x the size of a human hair). These layers are the blueprint for constructing the part. The 3D printer takes these blueprints and deposits thin layers of either metal, plastic or ceramic material. The specific outline and shape of the part layer is then treated so that it hardens. This consolidation process repeats many times, cross-section by cross-section, and the final part is completed once all the layers are added. For those new to the technology, here’s a video overview of a 3D Printer in action.
Diamond Kinetics has been using the technology for some time to prototype baseball bat sensor fixtures. The Diamond Kinetics SwingTracker sensor attaches to the knob of the baseball bat, and we’re constantly iterating to make the fixture better. 3D Printing (available thanks to the Tech Shop in Pittsburgh) enables us to try out different designs and optimize the positioning the the sensor to get the most visually pleasing, effective and player-friendly design possible.
3D Printing is not new to sports. In fact, top companies like Nike, Reebok and Burton Snowboards have been using the technology for years to design cutting-edge equipment for their athletes. Companies like these have been pushing the envelope for what is possible with the technology. I worked with Burton Snowboards to improve their snowboard bindings using 3D Printing. We printed bindings and components using a 3D Printing process called laser sintering (one of the most sophisticated and advanced forms of the technology). The benefit of 3D Printing these parts was that they could be used by professional snowboarders to do ‘On-Snow’ testing. This saved time and money during the design process…not to mention it was pretty fun to go out to the mountain to ‘test’ the parts.
Another example of 3D Printing in sports comes from Nike. The company debuted a customized football spike for last year’s NFL combine. The shoe was outfitted with a customized base plate. Because 3D Printing allows you to create intricate and complex designs without additional cost or tooling, the spikes look much different than a conventional spike. The reason for this was that cleat elements were specifically designed to maximize how fast the athlete could run by matching the cleat placement with the shape of the shoe.
One of, if not the most attractive, use of the technology is that it enables highly customized shapes to be created without the use of expensive tooling. This has several implications in sports, including baseball. Parts can be personalized for a much lower cost and this has the potential to give athletes the advantage of having their equipment specifically tuned to their body type and ability. Diamond Kinetics will continue to use the technology to make the best product possible and we will be sure to keep you posted on how our sensor cap iterations evolve as we get closer to launch.