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Now Available from 3D Printers: Sports Equipment (for Better or Worse)

4 May, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

The announcement that an Australian company had created soccer shin guards using a 3-D printer barely caused a ripple in the larger consumer world. On the sports business level, however, there was considerable concern accompanying the acknowledgement of a growing trend as 3D-printed commodities take hold of the consumer-driven portion of the industry.

An article in Sports Techie noted that 3D printing has made strides into a large portion of the running shoe market, with both New Balance and Under Armour, two of the world’s running-shoe-producing giants, now making some of their goods entirely via 3D printing.

The article brought up the inevitable point – how long will it be until sports equipment is created via 3D printing? A second Sports Techie article notes that some of that might already even be on the way, with tennis racquets, golf clubs and other high-end equipment having the potential to be created in the home (or at least the very financially sophisticated home.)

That would not be good news for retailers. It would be particularly bad news for small brick-and-mortar stores who already struggle to bring in business while battling against Internet giants that can undercut their prices. But those online stores could also start to suffer as increasingly, engineers are able to enable a vast range of composite materials to be created. They have even confirmed that their process, which uses ultrasonic waves to manipulate strong fibers, will be adaptable to off-the-shelf, 3D printers. (If that last sentence made your eyes glaze over, don’t worry; you’re in good company. Research has shown that most Americans don’t find 3D printers user-friendly enough to purchase and use on a regular basis.)

In addition, there may be problems with intellectual property rights (IPR). The sporting goods industry already suffers from the problems created by copycat gear produced on the black market. Should equipment become user-friendly enough, or should there be enough people who can use it well enough, the new stream of equipment could put a dent in the bottom line of long-standing companies. And in many cases, it’s not just the fact that the manufacturing sector in America is hurt by it; it’s the fact that the gear being produced might resemble the original, but it hasn’t undergone testing, particularly not for safety standards.

Shoes are one thing, but protective gear is another. And in many cases, what’s hitting the market may be excellent equipment. A custom mouth guard company called GuardLab is using 3D molds to create mouth guards that fit each player as perfectly as possible.  But what about the engineer who has enough tech smarts to create a youth football helmet – but not the knowhow to make sure it will fully protect players from concussions? What about the person who creates low-cost protective eyewear for squash or racquetball, but doesn’t create something that stands up to an on-court mishap? The possibilities are worrisome.

The potential for the consumer to create dangerous equipment and goods has already come to the attention of authorities. An article in TechRepublic notes,

“Before the majority of Americans could wrap their heads around how 3D printing works, a man named Cody Wilson designed, printed, and successfully fired a 3D printed gun. The STL file was available for free on his website the next day, and 100,000 people downloaded it before the U.S. Department of State ordered him to take it down. Since an all-plastic 3D gun probably won't catch on, other companies are working on using SLS technology to print a metal one. So, in December 2013, Congress voted to renew an expiring ban on plastic firearms that could slip past metal detectors, though it didn't add any new restrictions on plastic guns. Philadelphia was the first city to ban 3D printed firearms. A Chicago lawmaker wants to make it illegal to use a 3D printer to make gun parts unless the user has a federal gun manufacturer's license.

Wilson's plastic 3D printed gun showcased these loopholes in the law and caused an uproar across the country about the potential dangers of 3D printing technology. Whether you agree with it or not, the ability to easily print and distribute weaponry will surely cause skepticism about this technology for some time.”

While computer-generated guns are a more frightening threat than that of pirated sports equipment , count on the issue of computer-generated materials to continue making gains in prominence – and on the industry to try to regulate it.

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