[Image: Associated Press]

It’s no secret that football is a dangerous sport. It’s fast-paced and high-impact, and protective gear can only do so much, as repeated tragedies involving traumatic brain injuries have shown. According to the American Academy of Neurology, more than 40 percent of retired NFL players showed signs of traumatic brain injury, a disturbing statistic considering how damaging and life-altering such injuries can be. But technology, and 3D printing in particular, show promising potential for reducing the number and severity of head injuries suffered in sports like football.

A number of companies and research institutions have been working with 3D technologies to develop better football helmets. Riddell is focusing on personalization for better protection, while startup Hedgemon has turned to the hedgehog for inspiration in impact resistance. Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Autodesk are redesigning helmets and other sports equipment to be smarter and safer using complex micro-architectures.

[Image: Riddell]

What these new design approaches have in common is that they all rely on 3D printing and/or 3D scanning, whether for prototyping or production. Without 3D technology, it would be impossible to create a helmet perfectly shaped to an individual player’s head, for example, or to inexpensively prototype the complex microlattices or quill-like structures that are the basis of these advanced designs. Helmets aren’t the only way 3D printing is making sports safer, though. While head injuries are the most potentially life-threatening, there are plenty of other injuries that can end a career – and/or a team’s championship hopes.

Lower limb injuries – to the foot, leg, ankle, or knee – are a major cause of football players being sidelined. Two injuries in particular have been highlighted by the NFL as especially common and problematic – and preventable. Lisfranc injuries, which affect the middle of the foot, and turf toe, which refers to the spraining of the ligaments around the big toe after it’s bent upwards, are small but debilitating injuries, often requiring surgery and weeks of recovery. According to the NFL, many of these injuries could be prevented simply by equipping players with better-fitting cleats.

“We’ll bring in laser scanners into the locker room,” said Dr. Jeff Crandall, chairman of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine engineering sub-committee and Director of The Center for Applied Biomechanics at The University of Virginia. “They’ll scan the feet. They’ll look at the shoes, in terms of the type of shoes for that position, as well as the shape that fits that foot. Our hope is that we’ll get optimized performance, in terms of safety.”

3D printed cleats – at least partially 3D printed ones – made their debut in Major League Baseball this spring when the Cleveland Indians’ Corey Kluber took the mound wearing a pair of customized cleats fitted with 3D printed plates. Those plates were specially designed and 3D printed to accommodate the pitcher’s weight as he transfers it from one foot to the other while pitching. That weight transfer is one of the subtle things that fans don’t normally notice or think about, but that makes the difference between a good pitch and a bad pitch – or in the prevention of an injury.

[Image: New Balance]

Injuries are part of sports, and that will never completely change, but it’s interesting to think about how many of them can be prevented simply by making a few small adjustments to a player’s gear so that it’s perfectly custom-fitted to him or her. I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t suffered blisters or pain as a result of shoes that don’t fit right. Even if they’re technically the right size, the actual size and shape of people’s feet varies so much that standard shoe sizes are really just approximations. 3D scanners, however, can capture the exact contours of a person’s feet, allowing for shoes that actually do fit – and the popularity of 3D printed, customized insoles and shoes from companies like Wiivv and Feetz shows that there’s a real need for this kind of tailoring.

[Image: Adidas]

That goes double where sports is concerned. It remains to be seen whether 3D printed shoes will eventually become the industry standard, but they’re more likely to become ubiquitous in sports first. Several major shoe manufacturers have released partially 3D printed shoes geared towards athletes, particularly runners, promising to improve performance through designs tailored both towards the sport and the athlete.

Shoes and helmets are likely only the beginning in terms of technology transforming sports, and we’ve also seen 3D printed mouthguards for fighters and soccer shin guards come into protective gear. If cleats can be customized to a pitcher and his unique throwing motion, who’s to say that the next big thing won’t be personalized bats to perfectly fit each player’s grip? What about the clunky gear worn by catchers and hockey goalies? How much might customization improve range of motion and reduce injury for these players?

There’s no doubt that technology is transforming all major sports. Purists might lament the flashy signs and digital advertisements cluttering up stadiums, and that’s understandable – but when it comes to safety and injury prevention, no one can argue against new fabrication methods. It’s not just gear, either – efforts are underway to develop a new NFL playing surface that’s more like natural grass, again with the hopes of reducing injuries. Where it will really get interesting is if debates open up about 3D printed, customized sports gear and equipment improving performance. Is a pair of personalized 3D printed shoes an unfair advantage? If that’s the case, should 3D printed custom gear be made league standard – to level the playing field, so to speak? Those are questions that could be hotly debated, but in the immediate present, all focus should be on how technology can help to prevent injuries – and that effort looks promising. Discuss in the Sports Injuries forum at 3DPB.com.

 

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