Since 1884, the Louisville Slugger Innovation Center in Roseville, California, has manufactured baseball bats and equipment for Major League Baseball and college, high school, and youth teams. Product designer John Steel uses a combination of traditional and modern tools for the design and manufacturing of aluminum and composite bats. He relies on the Form 3 stereolithography (SLA) 3D printer to create both looks-like prototypes and manufacturing aids for prototype designs of the composite and aluminum bats swung by youth and collegiate players around the world.
“If you’re not 3D printing, you’re not going to keep up,” said Steel.
Steel’s first job was at an iron and steel foundry, where he learned traditional manufacturing techniques, such as wood patterning and CNC milling, and how to combine large industrial SLA and SLS 3D prints into traditional wood patterning techniques. Though the 3D prints were outsourced, the experience provided a thorough introduction to combining traditional and modern techniques. He later worked at a product design startup where he used two Form 1+ machines to iterate rapidly.
“We were cranking prototypes out all day, all night, using the full bed. I built our own wash and cure back then,” said Steel.
At Louisville Slugger, Steel is again able to merge the traditional with the modern, using desktop 3D printing, lathes, a CNC metal shop, a composites workshop, and more. The speed of iteration allows the Slugger team to release new products regularly and keep up with the demand for bats suitable for all different levels of play.
“We’re able to rapidly produce prototypes for quick iteration and testing. We use it every week, and if we’re working through a new design, we’ll iterate on it every day,” said Steel. “3D printing is a great tool to reduce the time it takes to get to market. You can use it from prototyping to problem-solving. Prototyping the initial design, to problem-solving the final manufacturing.”
There’s constant competition in the market, even for a brand with such a storied history as Slugger. Steel and the innovation team are continuously iterating and pitching new ideas, and the Form 3 helps them get those ideas through to the next stage even faster.
“I’ll have an idea, design it, and send it to the printer in 30 minutes, then bring it to the next meeting. 3D printed visual aids are worth their weight in gold,” said Steel. “Oftentimes, when looking at 3D renderings, we lack scale. Printing parts helps when attempting to reference how something compares in size along with being able to test ergonomics and fitment into existing products.”
3D printing improves the team’s understanding of the product development process and can help eliminate any crossed wires down the road. That team cohesion enables Steel and other designers to keep their workflow streamlined and productivity high.
Though integral for prototyping, Steel also uses the Form 3 for other applications, such as creating silicone molds and other types of manufacturing aids. The diverse material library enables a wide range of possible workflows and allows Steel to gain greater control over different processes.
“The Form 3 also allows us to leverage the breadth of materials available for other processes, like forming mold positives in silicone to back pour in urethane, silicone, or an epoxy,” said Steel.
The molds are used to create final-stage prototypes that include all the eventual types of material, like urethane or epoxy, that will be used in the final, traditional manufacturing process.