Designers in the sports world have been one of the quickest groups to adopt additive manufacturing technology. They’ve developed a few insights and perspectives that might be useful for engineers in other fields. David Woodlock, Application Development and Design Manager at HP, discusses a few of these insights.
Designers of sports equipment need to show something quickly to the customer, get their feedback, and then iterate fast. Additive manufacturing/3D printing technology is perfect for such a need.
But designers in the sports world have a special focus. “Product developers, product owners and designers in this space are focused on the end-user in a way that you don’t necessarily see in other industries,” notes Woodlock.
“What we’ve seen 3D printing be able to do is let designers respond to users faster. That starts with getting better prototypes out in the field, often to professional athletes, to check out how the design stands up to abuse. That’s the kind of immediate impact we’ve seen with additive technology.”
Faster iteration also has another benefit for the designer. Woodlock sees how his team shifts their thinking more to how they can enhance the design and bring to the athletes what hasn’t been possible before. It’s about figuring out what the users care about and how the design team can use this new tool to advance the state of the art.
One example is the Cobra Golf putter. The challenge in the design was trying to predict how the putter would feel and how it would affect the bounce and roll of a golf ball. The HP design team went through dozens of iterations quickly, got feedback, and was then able to make changes fast.
The team realized that additive opened a new design space for them. If such a part is machined or cast, there are certain limitations on how one fills the part volume. With additive, though, the team could create new cavities and play around with putting material in different places.
“Additive gives us a bigger design space,” notes Woodlock. “What is the best trade-off of all of the different new avenues to get to a new solution?”
Not only did 3D printing come in handy for prototyping the putter, but it is also being produced in small volumes on HP’s metal 3D printing technology.
An area that influences sports design is personalization. The more you can tailor a design to an individual’s capabilities, the more successful the product. With additive technology, it’s possible to account for different sizes, different strengths, different swing profiles, and so on.
This ability also means designers can offer a larger number of options for a design. Notes Woodlock, in the past, SKUs were usually limited to three sizes. Some of this was due to supply chain logistics. “But with full personalization, not only is there a one-off for a specific person, there’s also the option to offer 10 sizes versus three, and that’s a ton of value.”
The timing is right because of the effects of COVID. “As people seek relief from quarantining, we’ve seen the bicycle industry explode by more than 50% in 2020. Nordic skiing, hiking, all of these sports are taking off because people want to get out of their homes. With this trend, though, you’re getting people of different sizes, different athletic abilities, different genders, and you could argue that previous sizing did not fit enough of this new diverse set of demographics that are getting into the sports.
“So, if you think about it now, I’ve got a more diverse group of participants. We can enable them all to have that same high-level experience that your pro athlete does because we’re going to start making sizes that will fit them. I think it’s perfect timing and thankfully the additive industry is getting the kind of investment that can explore some of these areas.”
Cross transfer of skills
But does the experience gained in sports design transfer to other engineering fields?
“It’s a certain level of sophistication with manufacturing data, which already existed with traditional technologies,” notes Woodlock. “Whereas now that understanding is coming to additive manufacturing, and that’s the secret sauce. Now, obviously, people in all these different sports arenas come up with unique ideas and that has a lot of value. The value of the engineering, the time, and the work is in consistency of a scaled manufacturing process and I think that’s totally applicable to any industry.
“If you have an additive application to scale in any industry, that is a skill set that is hugely valued in other industries. Because it’s still very unique.”
Another aspect of cross-transfer of skills is learning to think differently.
“In the sports field, a designer cannot discount a product or design because they don’t see value in it,” notes Woodlock. People have very different experiences in sports than I do. So, what I’m learning is, I can’t discount something because I don’t see value in, because I don’t necessarily represent everybody’s problems. Everybody else has very different problems, unique to themselves and I think that’s a lesson that’s kind of applicable to anybody.
The use of additive in sports applications will also help improve additive technology. Presently, materials, PLM software, metrology, and quality software have varying levels of compatibility with additive technology. But that is changing.
The primary opportunities to affect additive technology is certainly with materials, but also software, notes Woodlock.
“Sports design is an interesting space. I think it’s a great proving ground for new technologies that’s applicable everywhere else.
“As I go through some design processes, I run into times where the software can’t keep up with what I want to do,” says Woodlock. “The traditional CAD programs can make the shapes that I want to make, but the ordering systems can’t handle a single user ordering a custom part and getting it back to them in a way that fits into my ERP system.
“Also, my metrology and quality management software can’t handle all the new variables. What we’ve seen is that material costs and hardware has come a long way, but we got stuck at the software. So, you’ll see a huge investment in the software space. Look at the personalization ordering backbone for sporting goods. It is very similar to the one that you’d need for a personalized health care product like a prosthetic, or other custom products. This is a great opportunity for startups in the industry.”
On the hardware side of development, Woodlock sees metal 3D printing technologies coming out in a low-cost way as developers try to go after this middle space.
“It has been an underused technology, but it has some workflow issues that we’re trying to solve with a new way of doing essentially binding and I think that is an area that you’ll see people innovate. People don’t really know where you can take in the value you can create with it. So, I’m excited to see what some of these people come up with or how to use those technologies.”
“Engineering now is getting really fun because it’s moving into designing for the human being,” says Woodlock. “We’re past the point of technology for technology’s sake. We’re now at the point of what is the human experience and how can you improve that.
“Whatever discipline you study, be it chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, software engineering, the focus is on the person because that’s where I think the smartest, most empathetic people are uniquely able to solve and create value. Everybody’s looking for what improves my experience at home, riding my bike at work, anything like that and that’s kind of why I love sporting goods and that’s kind of a leader in all these spaces.”
According to Woodlock, there are a few fundamental new capabilities that the industry needs to adopt. It begins with what will design look like 10 years from now because it won’t be the same as it is today. “Traditional CAD programs have had a good run since the eighties or earlier and they’re kind of the same, equation-based approaches. Not very much has changed.
“But look at Pixar movies and look at the difference between Toy Story 1 and Toy Story 4 and notice the difference in the animators’ capability to make 3D bodies. The animators have tools that can ride the compute power curve that traditional CAD does not have. They can use more polygons, more mesh, and so on and create this huge curve in just processing power and how they’re able to design 3D objects.
“I think traditional CAD starts to go away and you start to hop on this train of what is animation doing? What is video game design doing? Because they are advancing fast. At some point, processing power will catch up or every designer will design like the animators. But it takes a ton of horsepower to render all those things. It’s very computational heavy. But that’s the future, not equations, organic shapes, representations, but leveraging what they’ve done in animation and bringing it into the creation of physical objects.
“Some of our best designers of 3D products come from either animation or video game design and they bring those skills into creating 3D objects that we then print and I think that’s the future.”