KJ Martin Slams Airless 3D Printed Basketball in NBA Dunk Contest

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In the NBA Slam Dunk Contest during All-Star Weekend 2023, Atlanta Hawks’ small forward KJ Martin debuted an airless basketball prototype that was 3D printed by Wilson Sporting Goods. Mac McClung of the Philadelphia 76ers may have taken home the dunk trophy, newly renamed after Dr. J, but additive manufacturing (AM) was still one of the night’s big winners.

 

For years, Wilson worked on the concept basketball with the help of German AM heavyweight EOS, while startup General Lattice provided computational design expertise. Ultimately, the ball was comprised of eight elastomeric, lattice-design panels printed on an EOS P 396 machine using specialized materials. The smoothed finished surface and color were achieved DyeMansion’s VaporFuse Surfacing and DeepDye Coloring technology. However, the key to making the 3D Airless Prototype Basketball work, such that it “nearly” fits the specifications of a regulation ball, were still figured out by designers at Chicago’s Wilson Labs. The project was headed by Wilson’s innovation manager, Dr. Nadine Lippa, a PhD in polymer science, with a specialty in sports performance.

In a Forbes article about the 3D Airless Prototype Basketball, Lippa explained, “The materials with high energy return were often not durable enough for our application. The adequate method-mechanical-material combination that bounced like a basketball was elusive to the team and there were so many additive technologies to sift through and understand. It took us several years to find the right combination.” In the same article, Martin commented, “When I first heard it, I didn’t know what to expect. Once I actually saw the ball in person, it was crazy. I didn’t expect a basketball with holes to bounce and feel like a normal leather basketball.”

Although they might have a less superficially scientific veneer than applications for, say, medical or space, innovations in AM for sports and recreation are no less technically rigorous than other discoveries in other areas of the industry. For instance, at Additive Manufacturing Strategies (AMS) in New York (February 7-9, 2023), Jon Walker, an account manager at EOS, discussed another project in which the company collaborated with a major sporting goods manufacturer: 3D printing helmet components for the hockey equipment company, Bauer.

Similarly to any other industry where the end-use products at hand involve high wear-and-tear, solving problems in AM for sports requires an adherence to the strictest physical principles — and in the case of hockey helmets, at least, such considerations can make the difference between life and death. So, while an airless basketball likely won’t save any lives, one can still imagine the potential unlocked by Wilson’s successful effort rippling out into other sectors.

To cite the first example that comes to mind, companies like Michelin and Goodyear have been working on 3D printing airless tires for years. Moreover, beyond airlessness, it’s easy to imagine the underlying technology here being useful to a whole host of products requiring structural reinforcements. In that sense, the prototype struck upon here could lead to innovations in replacements for materials in addition to leather, such as metal and cement.

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