Wilson's newest basketball prototype is 3D-printed and doesn't need air
When it comes to sporting equipment, there hasn't been a whole lot of change around the basics, and it's hard to top the rubber bladder full of pressurized air used in sports from basketball to football to volleyball. Wilson, one of the leading manufacturers of sporting equipment in the world, refuses to let the perfect get in the way of the innovative, though, and has introduced a new 3D-printed basketball prototype that very well might change the way we play the game.
The key innovation in the new prototype is that it is "airless", meaning that air is able to pass through it freely thanks to the detailed pattern of holes along its surface. Rather than rely on pressurized air to produce the characteristic bounce, it relies on the natural elasticity in the resin it's made from.
This isn't the first time that 3D-printed materials have been studied as a replacement for pressurized air, as Gizmodo notes. Tire manufacturer Bridgestone has been working on an airless tire for more than a decade, albeit with mixed success.
Getting an airless tire to work in all terrains and weather conditions is definitely a taller order than making a basketball that will play well on various basketball courts, but that doesn't mean that making an airless basketball is a simple thing.
Making an airless basketball
Dr. Nadine Lippa, Wilson's R&D Manager for Basketball, was given a pretty daunting task when she joined the company: reinvent the basketball.
"The technology that really struck me was additive manufacturing," Lippa says in a short documentary film about the prototype produced by Wilson, "because it just enables so much change about the ball that can completely alter the athlete's experience, the way its made, everything that we care about."
"The engineers started working with industrial design, so bringing those two together we were able to come up with several designs that we then later iterated on that resembled a basketball, felt like a basketball, but also performed like a basketball," Lippa said.
In order to get the design right, Wilson worked with General Lattice to produce the actual 3D structure of the ball, which is a series of hexagonal holes instead of the traditional leather panels held together at a seam.
Wilson then took the digital file containing the design to materials firm EOS for the actual manufacturing, which produced the prototype with an additive 3D-printing process using a bed of powder and multiple passes with a laser to "etch" the actual basketball into existence.
"Working with a brand like Wilson is a little bit different for EOS," said John Walker, Business Development Director for EOS North America, "because we are traditionally working with aerospace companies, automotive companies, [and] medical device companies."
Still, EOS turned out to be a great fit for this first-of-its-kind prototype. "Additive manufacturing was the right choice for the airless prototype," Walker said, "it's literally the only technology on earth that could bring this concept to life."
After the prototype was produced, it was then cured and dyed to give it its distinctive black look. It was then sent to a Wilson NBA testing facility in Idaho where basketball players assessed how well the prototype actually worked as a basketball. Wilson, so far, is very encouraged by the results.
"This is only a dot on the development path," Bob Thurman, Wilson's Vice President of Innovation said, "but we're really excited about the first step that we have here. You know, basically, this is like 'Let's make one [basketball] and let people enjoy it' and understand where we need to move forward in the future."
It's too soon to tell if the lone prototype — Wilson's R&D team calls it The One — will ever make it to production, but a basketball that never needs inflating and can give consistent performance is certainly going to have a lot of sports fans' interest.