Rio Olympic Games: 3D Technology Plays a Major Role in Apparel, from High-Tech Skinsuits to Futuristic Shoes


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rio-2016Winning the gold requires drive and ability that’s beyond the exceptional, maximum strength and optimum body weight that few of us could achieve, combined with a fierce sense of team loyalty and competition. Olympians are the utmost of performers with finely honed skills that are often due to a matter of science too as coaches know exactly what those in their charge need to do, when, and how fast. Every move and every tick of the clock matters, sometimes down to the very millisecond. That’s why each component in the athletic performance is so important. While you may just consider apparel as part of the uniform or sometimes even a statement of style, today it may actually be the most scientific part of the athlete’s performance.

With 3D scanning, digital design, and 3D printing all entering the picture, today in athletics we see everything from cycling skinsuits to Nike running shoes being created and customized specifically for athletes—in labs. These items are not created overnight either. It can be quite a process, from testing a 3D printed mannequin in a wind tunnel to choose exactly the right material for Tom Dumoulin in an important time trial race to studying sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and redefining the running shoe.

Now, as the summer Olympics, held in Rio, open today, the subject is more relevant than ever. You can’t refer to this as fashion design—but more like sportswear materials science and customization. And this will certainly be the first time the games have featured such suits and shoes as you will bear witness to, taking design and streamlining as close to the limit as possible, reaching for those coveted medals. This expands to the Paralympics too (running September 7-18), where spectators will see athletes such as German silver medal winning cyclist Denise Schindler wearing a 3D printed prosthetic leg, and 3D printed racing wheelchairs featured by BMW Designworks.

You can be sure that the big sports companies have offered all their resources to Olympians, sponsoring them with attire such as:

  • Nike’s 3D printed silicone protrusions that redirect air flow around runners.
  • Adidas’ design suits created via 3D scanners, meant to help swimmers maintain their form.
  • Assos skinsuits created with 3D technology for the US cycling team.

Getting a leg up (or one going forward faster) isn’t always legal in sports, for sure. But when it comes to apparel, manufacturers are learning to be very resourceful about the guidelines.

 “We make sure we stay inside those rules, but we will get to the very edge of them if we can,” said Adam Clement, senior creative director for team sports at Under Armour. “Our goal is to innovate in a way that ultimately makes the Olympic rules change. We’ll adjust, but we’ll feel proud of that accomplishment.”


Many hours of testing are going into making suits at Whitespace. Many different forms of manufacturing and prototyping are employed.

At the Whitespace Lab for Lululemon, they go to the max in testing. Tom Waller, Senior Vice President, states that they use a broad spectrum of technology in their facility from physical testing of products to building prototypes. They understand that while the materials science for athletics backing them and helping them to win is crucial, even more important is comfort, and the added confidence of knowing they look good. One of their biggest challenges is finding the balance in performance and aesthetics. To achieve that balance, testing and a wide range of technologies are employed.

There are numerous considerations to be examined when fitting the athletes. Air resistance in cycling is obviously a crucial factor. This is something that can’t be taken lightly, simply because the athletes run extremely close races, and the most minuscule amount of time saved can be instrumental.

“Four seconds in four kilometers is (the difference between) first and eighth place,” said Jim Miller, Vice President of Athletics with USA Cycling.

But just because so much time, effort, and science is behind these suits and shoes does not always mean they are going to inspire applause from the team—or the world. There are issues with humidity and perspiration that cause general discomfort, as well as larger consequences like a major team loss; for example, Under Armour created a speedskating suit, rendered in high-tech, for the US team. When they performed miserably in Sochi, Russia two years ago, some pointed at the design, which was delivered on the fly to the athletes. The company has new suits in the testing phase currently and is promising to be more timely with the customized sports suits.

US team members received their skinsuits from Assos only two weeks ago and with that in mind, have been told that if they are uncomfortable, to feel free in making the choice to wear their regular suits.

It is also important to emphasize that clothing can’t possibly play more than a small role in the outcome of the race.

“You’re not going to catch magic on race day from magic shoes,” US marathoner Desiree Linden said in an interview. “But if I train really hard and I get a blister or don’t step on my foot right, the race doesn’t matter anymore.”

Obviously, manufacturers are keen on top athletes sporting their wares, with many sponsorship deals floating around. Brooks, one of the top running specialists, worked with Linden in the creation of her Hyperions. Meant to fight blisters, boost traction, and promote energy, Linden is a fan of the shoes for certain, which Brooks began marketing in June.


The basic Hyperion

 “It feels like you do get a spring,” Linden said. “There’s no wasted energy. It’s going right back into you. It feels fast.”

Making a customization for Rio and the heat, Linden and other athletes will be provided with extra ventilation for their feet via extra laser perforations.

Other high-tech innovations include borrowing technology from NASA spacesuits for both rugby and volleyball teams. Dispelling heat is a big priority in Rio, and these uniforms feature internal crystal-pattern sheets for temperature resistance and heat absorption. Nike will also place their air-resistance protrusions in track suits for many teams this year, as well as converting them to tape so that runners can simply attach them to their arms or legs. The company relied on both 3D printed prototypes and wind tunnels for testing here as well. That technology also allowed them to create improved shapes for long-distance running.

Other innovations you’ll see on the field will be US sprinter Trayvon Bromell wearing Vazee Sigma track shoes made by New Balance with 3D printed protoypes. Runners like David Rudisha (of Kenya) will also feature Adidas Adizero MD shoes, tested and prototyped for both stiffness and thinness for stability and added speed

And while the designers and teams may push the limits in every way possible, from the lab to the field, the powers-that-be are watching. Apparel does have to be up to regulation, and historically some clothes have been barred, such as full-body suits in swimming, which were also imbued with NASA technology—and gave winners such as Michael Phelps a direct advantage offering buoyancy and eliminating drag.

So although the world of 3D design and printing often seems rather lawless in its infancy as many are bringing forth inventions we never before considered, in sports there is a rule book to follow—and the stakes are serious.

It should be fascinating to watch the Rio Olympics kick off and see how many athletes we can catch on the screen wearing some of these highlighted designs—as a reader, you have special insight into what might just give them that tiny edge toward standing proudly on the podium with medals draped over their necks. And while you watch, just imagine what we’ll see in future sports events, as engineers worldwide are already working on designs for another decade into the future. Let us know what you think as the Olympics kick off! Discuss further in the 3D Printing & Rio Olympics & Paralympics forum over at

[Source: National Post ]

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