Printing a Better Game: 3D Printing and the Evolution of Golf Equipment

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The governing bodies of professional golf — the R&A and USGA — have finally dropped the widely expected news that testing conditions for golf ball conformation will change, rendering nearly every golf ball in circulation non-conforming from January 2028 onward. The change of rolling back official ball specifications has been hinted at for years in attempts to reduce the impact that increased hitting distances are having on golf’s long-term sustainability.

This mandate will require manufacturers to start from scratch and presents a unique opportunity to retool their ingrained processes. With five years until the initial new regulations take effect, manufacturers can explore the potential benefits and feasibility of 3D printing in revolutionizing golf equipment. This innovative technology has the power to ensure rollback compliance and completely transform the entire sports equipment industry. But it’s not as simple as it sounds.

A Rollback-Ready Alternative?

One of the primary challenges golf ball companies face is whether they can create a ball that performs well under the new rules and mass produce it efficiently and effectively. Golf balls are consumable products sold in huge quantities by brands such as Titleist and Bridgestone. Can the requirement to produce 3 million completely new model golf balls be an opportunity to create these new balls more efficiently than ever and with higher end product quality?

Brands can use this pressure from the USGA and R&A to let go of the constraints imposed by traditional manufacturing methods. This is a significant undertaking, as many golf balls will need to be produced in a short amount of time, and manufacturers most likely need tooling readily available to put into production. This is where 3D printing technology can be extremely useful.

Manufacturers could use the time between now and the allotted cut-off date to develop various types of tooling and assess whether metal 3D-printed tooling can produce superior results in terms of performance, design, and overall quality.

The exponential time-saving, importance of speed to market, and freedom to iterate cannot be underestimated. For instance, if Callaway or TaylorMade produces multiple lines of golf balls, each line requires a complete overhaul in design and tooling to produce them at scale. Although not as flashy as direct-printed metal 3D-printed putters or driver faces, traditional 3D-printed tools can make a massive impact.

They can be used as a temporary solution to start production immediately while traditional tooling ramps up in response to regulatory changes. On the other hand, the most effective use of 3D printing is to design a tool “utilizing conformal cooling” that allows the molder to have greater control over the molding process. This increased control will result in higher quality parts outputted from the mold and shorter cycle times for the molding process.

3D printing offers a rapid prototyping platform for testing and developing rollback-compliant golf balls. Manufacturers can iterate on designs quickly, fine-tuning dimple patterns, core materials, and aerodynamic profiles to optimize distance within the new regulations. If 3D printing tooling is applied correctly, it can reduce risk and improve cycle time, as well as quality. The ability to start working within a week instead of waiting three months for research and development, for example, can make a huge difference within the five-year deadline.

Beyond the Ball

3D printing empowers athletes and manufacturers alike to take control of their equipment, going beyond the limitations of mass-produced gear. Custom fitting plays a crucial role in golf equipment today, but it’s more of a custom tailoring process than a truly bespoke one. In the future, golfers might be able to walk away from a fitting with clubs that are “truly bespoke” to their individual biomechanics, optimizing their swing distance and power transfer.

The USGA heavily regulates the design of golf equipment and limits its performance. This is similar to how NASCAR keeps the cars uniform. With the help of 3D printing, golf club heads can be made lightweight, and their moment of inertia (MOI) weighting can be improved for optimal launch of the golf ball off the club face.

However, the casual player uses the same equipment as touring pros. To make golf more enjoyable for the casual player, there has been talk of bifurcation, which means that the rules for equipment used by pros and casual players would be different — think wooden bats for Major League Baseball players compared to aluminum bats for college players, kids and weekend adult leagues.

Advocates of bifurcation suggest implementing different equipment standards for professional golfers compared to average Joes and Janes. This could involve removing USGA equipment restrictions or limiting regulated equipment specifically to professional tournaments. This would bring increased enjoyment of the game for casual players and maintain the integrity of the game at the pro level.

However, opponents argue that having different rules for professionals and amateurs could complicate the game and create inconsistency that could be detrimental to the sport.

While amateur golfers have access to custom club fitting and minor club customization, there are many more equipment customizations that are only available to professional players due to their cost and impracticality at a retail level. However, thanks to 3D printing technology, highly customizable and precise manufacturing is possible on a larger scale. This could lead to the creation of golf clubs with unique designs manufactured from scratch to match to

Regardless of the rule changes and if the technology continues on this route, manufacturers could experiment with novel materials, designs, and configurations to enhance performance. This can potentially lead to longer distances and improved accuracy through democratized access to highly customized golf equipment. 3D printing has a place in today’s equipment design as companies hit their design limitations using traditional manufacturing modes under the USGA standards. If bifurcation eventually becomes the norm, the possibilities for 3D printing in golf club design would be limitless. No matter which way the future of golf heads, 3D printing has a place. We can be used to maximize efficiency within tight regulations of the USGA or blow the doors what’s considered possible today, if bi-purification wins out

Stuck in the Rough

Despite its potential, 3D printing faces hurdles that may hinder rapid mass production in such a short timeframe.

One of the primary obstacles is the cost associated with 3D printing, particularly when it comes to utilizing high-performance materials and executing complex designs. The expense of acquiring and utilizing such advanced printing technologies could render them prohibitive for many youth leagues and families. This financial barrier may impede accessibility to innovative golf equipment, creating a potential divide in availability to different segments of the golfing community.

Moreover, the operation and maintenance of 3D printers demand a certain level of technical knowledge and expertise. This requirement poses a significant challenge for leagues and families, particularly those with limited resources or technical proficiency. The need for specialized skills in managing 3D printing equipment could potentially exclude certain segments of the golfing industry from harnessing the benefits of this cutting-edge technology.

With the upcoming regulation changes in mind, the future of golf could be written in lines of code and printed in layers of polymer. 3D printing is not just a manufacturing tool; it’s a catalyst for innovation, personalization, and inclusivity. As this technology matures, we can expect to see a sporting landscape where equipment adapts to athletes, not the other way around. The rollback of golf balls might be the first swing, but 3D printing is poised to change the game for good.

About the Author

Jon Walker, Government Relations Specialist and Key Account Manager at EOS North America, helps EOS develop the next great market opportunity while enabling outside organizations on their journey toward 3D printing adoption. Throughout his career, Jon has worked with nearly 50 Fortune 500 companies specializing in manufacturing. Since joining EOS North America, he has established his expertise within noncommercial organizations, sporting goods companies, and the automotive industry. These projects include General Motors, Ohio State University, Bauer Hockey, Wilson Sports, Ford, and Jabil. The projects involve developing novel AM applications and enabling them into their supply chain.

Prior to working at EOS, Jon managed sales activity in the Midwest at GF Machining Solutions, working with customers to increase quality and reduce processing time for customer parts focusing on the mold and die industry. He began his career working for Mazak Corporation, working as a direct salesman and growing to a management position. Jon honed a skill for automation related projects and serial production applications during his time with Mazak.

Jon holds a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) from Elmira College in Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support Services.

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