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Hot Off the 3D Presses: A New Generation of Fitness Equipment

Hot Off the 3D Presses: A New Generation of Fitness Equipment

"Where I see 3D printing helping companies such as ours is in the initial prototyping phase of a product," explained Mark Lynskey, founder and owner of Lynskey Bicycles. "A company our size does not have a dedicated, full-time department for prototyping, so when we need a new part, we have to find a way to mix it in with our normal production needs."

By Peter Suciu
09/17/13 5:00 AM PT

Health buffs today have no shortage of apps, gizmos, gadgets and devices promising to help them get and stay in shape. At the same time, new materials are enabling lighter, stronger and more diverse products.

The next revolution in fitness, however, could come from a technology that seems to have little to do with athletics but is already being used daily in the development of new products. It is the 3D printer, and it's a device that could change fitness.

"3D printing is perfect for sports equipment because the equipment is often rather small, of relatively uniform material or a few materials, and would indeed benefit from customization," said futurist Glen Hiemstra. "The stuff wears out and needs to be replaced."

'Some Crazy Shapes'

Numerous companies are already using 3D printing to develop prototypes, models and samples of finished products.

Bicycle production, for example, has shifted gears from various metal frames -- including steel, aluminum and notably titanium -- to carbon fiber that allows for more aerodynamic frames. This space-age material, which offers shapes and profiles not possible with metal, benefits greatly from the use of 3D printing during the preproduction stage and allows bicycle designers to see their creations not just on the screen but in reality.

"We are using 3D printing all the time," Eric Bjorling, a spokesperson for Trek Bicycle, told TechNewsWorld. "That thing can make some crazy shapes."

Trek, which is one of the largest bicycle builders in the world, is hardly alone in using 3D printing. Other companies including American Bicycle Group and Italian Colnago also rely on 3D CAD software that can allow designers to develop a bicycle frame on-screen and from there print out the parts in 3D.

That's significant, because it allows the designers to "see" clearances, cable routing and other details that can be difficult -- if not impossible -- to view via a software rendering.

'Initial Prototyping'

It is for those advantages that some "old school" companies are now considering 3D printing.

"While we have not used 3D printing to date, I have been looking at printers for some titanium accessory products and new titanium frame parts as well," Mark Lynskey, founder and owner of Lynskey Bicycles, told TechNewsWorld. "If you're developing products for an expensive material such as titanium, 3D printing can be a very efficient way to get initial prototyping done.

"Where I see 3D printing helping companies such as ours is in the initial prototyping phase of a product," Lynskey explained. "A company our size does not have a dedicated, full-time department for prototyping, so when we need a new part, we have to find a way to mix it in with our normal production needs."

That, not surprisingly, can "really hurt overall shop floor efficiency by slowing down normal production," he added. "It can take weeks to work it in with the normal shop schedule."

With 3D printing, on the other hand, "we can get initial prototype parts made without having to step foot on the shop floor," he pointed out.

Finished Products

It's not just prototyping on which 3D printing is wreaking transformation, however; finished products are being affected as well. Case in point? Athletic shoes, as companies including Brooks, New Balance and even athletic footwear giant Nike are looking to produce special shoes that can be printed as needed.

Brooks, for instance, has already developed its seamless Glycerin 11 shoe, the creation of which includes 15 to 18 layers of liquid polymer deposited over a molded mesh by a 3D printer.

Nike Vapor Laser Talon
Nike's Vapor Laser Talon features a 3D printed plate designed to enhance football athletes' performance.

Then there's French designer Luc Fusaro, who last year developed a technique that would allow for printing of customer-fitted track shoes. This relied on a 3D scanning system to perfectly match an athlete's foot; the shoes are then printed out via a selective laser sintering process that produces the strongest products from additive manufacturing.

Nike followed up this year with its Nike Vapor Laser Talon, an athletic shoe that can be tailored to whatever position the wearer is playing. As with other 3D printing techniques, this one utilizes the SLS process that fuses small particles to produce the finished product.

"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 Shane Kohatsu, director of Nike footwear innovation.

Catching a Wave

Along with the flexibility of 3D printing comes the possibility of customizable products. That's where companies such as Made see the possibility for customers to order a very specific product fit to their needs.

"We're pushing 3D beyond prototyping," said Shanon Marks, founder of Made SmartBoards. "It's critical for the technology to move beyond research and development and into commercialization.

"This will push material prices down and increase accessibility to the technology," Marks told TechNewsWorld. "Made is using 3D to create bespoke products on a large scale. We believe everyone should ride on custom gear, and 3D allows us to create highly personalized, data-driven boards that meet the exact needs of the rider."

Made 3D printed SmartBoard
Made's 3D printed SmartBoard is fully customizable.

In the case of surfboards, this can mean the personalization that has only been offered in hand-shaped boards, but now at a reduced cost and with a far faster production time than has ever been possible before.

Made can start with a bamboo underlay and fiberglass or carbon fiber wrap and in about 30 hours print out a board. With an additional day or two to finish the board, it will be a product ready to catch a wave -- far faster than if it was made completely by hand. Unlike mass-produced products on an assembly line, moreover, this one is customized to the end user.

The Promise of Titanium

Back in the world of bicycles, a similar phenomenon is occurring as industry giants such as Giant Bicycles start testing the ability to print out individual parts that can be "glued" together.

At the same time, while carbon fiber bicycles have overtaken steel and even titanium, the latter could see a comeback thanks to efforts by companies such as Change Bikes, which last year started testing 3D printed titanium sections for its frames.

The key in this case is that titanium -- unlike many other materials -- isn't typically mined as an ore, but rather is separated from sand. It is thus already in a smaller form, and there are now efforts to develop 3D printing of the metal.

At present this is just a small section of the frame, which is welded to the rest of the titanium frame, but it isn't difficult to see how eventually an entire bike frame could be printed out.

Reduced Waste

One issue that 3D printing does face is that it currently isn't easy to recycle the finished product, which is made up of layers of material.

"Our hope is to reduce waste in our production process," Marks said. "Made will be leading the charge when the ability to recycle an additively manufactured good without material loss exists."

The result could be that in the future, consumers may be offered customized bikes, shoes, surfboards or any other range of products and even lend a hand in the design process.

"I have little doubt that this will be the future someday," Hiemstra told TechNewsWorld. "As for materials, as nanoscale carbon composite tech continues to develop, producing things like bikes with sufficient strength will not be an issue. Scale will be the issue."


Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who has covered consumer electronics, technology, electronic entertainment and fitness-related trends for more than a decade. His work has appeared in more than three dozen publications, and he is the co-author of Careers in the Computer Game Industry (Career in the New Economy series), a career guide aimed at high school students from Rosen Publishing.


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