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From bespoke seats to titanium arms, 3D printing helps paralympians achieve an edge


Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

Major sporting occasions just like the Paralympics are a breeding floor for technological innovation. Athletes, coaches, designers, engineers and sports activities scientists are continuously searching for the following enchancment that may give them the sting. Over the previous decade, 3D printing has become a tool to drive enhancements in sports activities like operating and biking, and is more and more utilized by paralympic athletes.

The Paralympics options athletes with a various vary of skills, competing in a variety of various categories. Many opponents use prosthetics, wheelchairs or different specialised elements to allow them to carry out at their finest.

One fascinating query is whether or not 3D printing widens or narrows the divide between athletes with entry to specialised applied sciences, and people with out. To put it one other method, does the widespread availability of 3D printers—which may now be discovered in lots of houses, colleges, universities and makerspaces—assist to degree the enjoying discipline?

Forget mass manufacturing

Mass-manufactured tools, akin to gloves, footwear and bicycles, is mostly designed to swimsuit typical able-bodied physique shapes and enjoying kinds. As such, it will not be appropriate for a lot of paralympians. But one-off, bespoke tools is dear and time-consuming to supply. This can restrict entry for some athletes, or require them to provide you with their very own “do-it-yourself” options, which will not be as superior as professionally produced tools.

3D printing can ship bespoke tools at a extra inexpensive worth. Several former paralympians, akin to British triathlete Joe Townsend and US observe Arielle Rausin, now use 3D printing to create customized gloves for themselves and their fellow wheelchair athletes. These gloves match as in the event that they have been molded over the athlete’s palms, and may be printed in numerous supplies for various circumstances. For instance, Townsend makes use of stiff supplies for optimum efficiency in competitors, and softer gloves for coaching which are snug and fewer more likely to trigger damage.

3D-printed gloves are cheap, quickly produced, and may be reprinted each time they break. Because the design is digital, similar to a photograph or video, it may be modified based mostly on the athlete’s suggestions, and even despatched to the closest 3D printer when elements are urgently wanted.

Harder, higher, quicker, stronger

An elite athlete is perhaps involved about whether or not 3D-printed elements will probably be sturdy sufficient to face up to the required efficiency calls for. Fortunately, supplies for 3D printing have come a good distance, with many 3D printing firms growing their very own formulation to swimsuit functions in varied industries—from medical to aerospace.

Back in 2016, we noticed the first 3D-printed prosthetic leg used in the Paralympics by German observe bicycle owner Denise Schindler. Made of polycarbonate, it was lighter than her earlier carbon-fiber prosthetic, however simply as sturdy and better-fitting.

With analysis exhibiting sprint cyclists can generate more than 1,000 Newtons of force throughout acceleration (the identical power you’ll really feel if a 100-kilogram individual have been to face on prime of you!), such prosthetics must be extremely sturdy and sturdy. Schindler’s helped her win a bronze medal on the Tokyo video games.

More superior supplies being 3D printed for Paralympic tools embrace carbon fiber, with Townsend utilizing it to supply the perfect crank arms for his handbike. 3D printing permits bolstered carbon fiber to be positioned precisely the place it’s wanted to enhance the stiffness of an element, whereas remaining light-weight. This ends in a better-performing half than one produced from aluminum.

3D-printed titanium can also be getting used for custom prosthetic arms, akin to people who permit New Zealand paralympian Anna Grimaldi to securely grip 50kg weights, in a method an ordinary prosthetic could not obtain.

Different applied sciences working collectively

For 3D printing to ship most outcomes, it must be utilized in conjunction with different applied sciences. For instance, 3D scanning is usually an vital a part of the design course of, utilizing a group of pictures, or devoted 3D scanners, to digitize a part of an athlete’s physique.

Such expertise has been used to 3D-scan a seat mold for Australian wheelchair tennis champion Dylan Alcott, permitting engineers to fabricate a seat that provides him most consolation, stability and efficiency.

3D scanning was additionally used to create the perfect-fitting grip for Australian archer Taymon Kenton-Smith, who was born with a partial left hand. The grip was then 3D-printed in each exhausting and mushy supplies on the Australian Institute of Sport, offering a extra dependable bow grip with shock-absorbing skills. If the grip breaks, an equivalent one may be simply reprinted, relatively than counting on somebody to hand-craft a brand new one which may have slight variations and take a very long time to supply.

All these applied sciences are more and more accessible, that means extra non-elite athletes can experiment with distinctive elements. Amateurs and professionals alike can already purchase running shoes with 3D-printed soles, and 3D-printed custom bike frames. For these with entry to their very own 3D printer, surf fins, cycling accessories and extra may be downloaded without spending a dime and printed for only a few {dollars}.

However, do not anticipate your property 3D printer to be making titanium elements anytime quickly. While the expertise is leveling the enjoying discipline to a sure extent, elite athletes nonetheless have entry to specialised supplies and engineering experience, giving them the technological edge.


Paralympians still don’t get the kind of media attention they deserve as elite athletes


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