The 2018 Winter Olympics have wrapped up, and like their immediate predecessor, the 2016 Summer Olympics, this year’s Games had a very active participant in 3D printing. The technology made an appearance in the biathlon, the luge, and more – and it even helped one athlete to win the gold. Chinese speed skater Daijing Wu took the gold medal in the men’s 500-meter short-track speed skating event, winning the first gold medal in the sport for China and breaking a world record in the process.
Unlike figure skating, speed skating requires more than just the feet contacting the ice – it also requires the hands. Athletes use their fingertips to push themselves off at the beginning of the race and to brace themselves when rounding tight bends. Therefore, skates are not the only type of equipment that’s important to the skaters – gloves are, as well. The Chinese team, this year, had special gloves with 3D printed metal fingertips, courtesy of Chinese 3D printing company Farsoon Technologies.
Glove tips are normally made of resin or gel, but the metal tips provided a number of advantages. These included less friction between the athletes’ fingers and the ice. Made from titanium alloy (Ti6Al4V), the tips were buffed and polished so that they had a smoother surface and produced less drag than traditional glove tips. They were also designed to be comfortable and lightweight – they had 40% less weight and higher structural strength, while the wall thickness was reduced by 75%.
The glove tips were also fully customized. Each athlete wore gloves fitted to his individual finger size, resulting in a perfect fit with no gaps. They were personalizable as well, so that each skater could add a personal touch.
Did the gloves help Daijing Wu win the gold and set the world record? They certainly didn’t hurt, and it’s of course impossible to know how he would have performed with ordinary gloves instead of the 3D printed ones. 3D printing has demonstrated again and again that it offers advantages over more traditionally made kids of athletic equipment, but is it an unfair advantage? Personally, I don’t think so. Athletes have been trying for years to outdo each other with the best equipment so that they can perform as well as they possibly can – 3D printing doesn’t change that.
What 3D printing does, more than anything else, is to offer a level of customization that other technologies are not capable of. Athletes are now wearing and using gear that fits them perfectly, allowing them to be more comfortable and to move more easily. Ill-fitting equipment is a major detriment, and standardized sizes sometimes just don’t work for many athletes. 3D printing allows for equipment to be sculpted specifically for the individual athlete, taking away all discomfort and allowing them to perform at their very best.
In the end, it’s still about the athlete’s skill. 3D printing simply helps take away some of the challenges associated with the sports the athletes participate in, allowing there to be nothing standing between the athlete and their natural talent.
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