3D printing hits the ground running

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Customised comfort - a 3D printed spike plate attached to the bottom of a New Balance track shoe - Credit EOS

The sports apparel company New Balance Athletic Shoe has started using plastic laser-sintering technology to 3D print custom spike plates for athletes’ shoes to help improve times on the track. New Balance has used force plates, in-shoe sensors, and motion capture to optimise the spike plate specifically to each athlete and 3D printing technology from EOS to create a product personalised for each athlete.

The spike plate is used to improve a runner’s traction when competing on a track, and according to Kim Conley, a member of Team New Balance and a US Olympic runner, are of critical importance to her performance.

Using conventional methods, a spike plate would require several injection moulds of various sizes, each costing thousands of dollars. These moulds will run thousands of plates before being retired or replaced, often annually, by a mould for a new model. With the EOS solution, the laser-sintered batch produces around four unique plate pairs and take five to six hours to manufacture.

Katherine Petrecca, business manager of New Balance, commented, ‘By laser sintering our customised spike plates we can manufacture on demand, fluidly adjust our process to accommodate different sizes and widths, and update designs without the continuing capital investment required by injection molding. Incorporating the laser-sintered spike plate also allows us to achieve a five per cent weight reduction compared to traditionally manufactured versions. For a competitive runner, the smallest change in weight can make a significant difference.’

New Balance have also worked with Texas-based Advanced Laser Materials to design a new blend of nylon powder for the 3D printed plates, which helps minimise build time and results in optimal tensile and flex moduli.

Team New Balance runner Jack Bolas takes a spin around the test track at the company’s sports research lab - Credit EOS

Sean Murphy, senior manager of innovation and engineering at New Balance, said: ‘There are so many great things that came out of this process, compared with the methods we used in the past to develop and manufacture products.

‘We record a runner’s data, generate multiple plates we feel will meet his or her needs and provide several pairs of track spikes simultaneously for them to try. It’s great to have them identify and respond to each different variation that we produce.’

Conley has already set personal records whilst wearing the laser-sintered spikes for both the 3,000 metres (8:44.11) and 5,000 metres (15:08.61).

Eventually, New Balance hope to open the technology to non-professional consumers. Petrecca explained, ‘Design-driven additive manufacturing really holds the promise of more on-demand production and more individually customised designs. The spike plates are the first step we have taken with our athletes.

‘As the material options expand, as our own proficiency with the technology increases and as capacity for additive manufacturing grows, we believe we will be able to bring 3D printed products, in some format, to the everyday consumer.’

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