Glory Days: Athletes Aim High With 3D-Printed Products

Emerging victorious on the world's biggest sports stage requires a level of sacrifice, determination, and talent that only a few special individuals possess.

This year, multiple athletes will be relying on something beyond sheer strength, skill, and intestinal fortitude as they compete against their rivals: 3D-printed products.

Sprinter gives competitors a run for their money with 3D-printed sneakers

This past March, track and field star Allyson Felix tweeted a fitting quote from Marilyn Monroe:

"Give a girl the right shoes, and she can conquer the world."

For Allyson Felix, "the right shoes" are the Nike Zoom Superfly Flyknit, a pair of sneakers that were specifically designed to fit her feet using 3D printing.

Felix and her coaches collaborated with a team of analysts and engineers from the Nike Sports Research Lab to design and develop the cutting-edge running shoes. The sneakers, which took approximately two years and 70 different iterations to perfect, were precisely adapted to comply with the unique contours of Felix's foot size, as well as her body type and running stride.

Nike relied on its innovative Flyknit technology to develop the footwear. This helped to eliminate any non-essential features, lowering the weight of the sneakers to less than half their average size.

The overall development schedule was accelerated using 3D printing technology, which reduced sampling time from weeks to days. The 3D-printed prototypes enabled the Nike team to elicit Felix's feedback quickly, giving the engineering team extra time to modify the sneakers and provide a new and improved version for Felix to test.

The sneaker was completed this past spring, with Felix commenting that the final product "feels like an extension of [her] foot."

Even better, the 3D-printed shoes are producing results.

"We're seeing faster times in practice," said Tony Bignell, vice president of Footwear Innovation at Nike.

If her practice improvements are any indication, Allyson Felix is sure to reach new heights competitively thanks to her brand-new 3D-printed footwear.

German cyclist looks forward to future success with a 3D-printed prosthetic limb.

One athlete, German cyclist Denise Schindler, is taking the use of 3D-printed products a step further. She's looking to win on the strength of a 3D-printed prosthetic leg the next time she races.

Schindler, who lost the lower portion of her leg in an accident when she was two years old, is working with orthopedic technician Thomas Wellmer and U.S. software company Autodesk to develop the customized 3D-printed prosthesis.

The benefits of 3D printing a prosthetic limb over creating one manually are plentiful. Primarily, 3D printing offers distinct advantages in speed and cost-efficiency.

"One of the big benefits of doing it digitally is that the process is much faster," Schindler says. "With the 3D model, we can see the changes much better and react faster."

The engineers at Autodesk are using an all-in-one software called Fusion 360 to model, animate, and simulate how the prosthetic limb will function. This software enables the team to quickly and continuously modify and improve different iterations of the prosthesis.

The team has made tremendous strides to date. Schindler has been training with the latest version of the 3D-printed prosthetic leg and is confident that the final product will be ready to go well before her next big race.

While Schindler's short-term goal is to win in her upcoming competition, her long-term objective is to introduce 3D printing as a viable alternative to existing prosthetic limb production processes - helping to increase the availability of well-made, inexpensive prostheses to aspiring amputee athletes everywhere.

Individualized products: Key differentiators for athletes and companies

Athletes aren't the only ones gaining competitive advantages with 3D-printed individualized products.

Ninety percent of companies believe their customers "value" or "strongly value" individualized products, according to SCM World research. As a result, more and more organizations are transforming their existing operations to provide these offerings - while gaining an edge against their competition.

To get started, companies must have certain foundational capabilities in place, namely product platforming and postponement, which provide organizations with the physical ability to create individualized products.

In addition, enterprises need to develop a set of differentiating capabilities, including digitization strategies such as digital supply chain and smart manufacturing. A digital supply chain enables organizations to connect, monitor, and customize products. Smart manufacturing helps companies to increase agility using the Internet of Things and analytics.