3D printing helps Paralympians gain the advantage

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Through James novak, University of Queensland and Andrew Novak, University of Technology Sydney

Major sporting events like the Paralympic Games are fertile ground for technological innovation. Athletes, coaches, designers, engineers and sports scientists are constantly looking for the next improvement that will give them the edge. Over the past decade, 3D printing has become a tool to improve sports such as running and cycling, and is increasingly used by Paralympic athletes.

The Paralympic Games feature athletes with a wide range of abilities, competing in a wide range of different categories. Many competitors use prosthetics, wheelchairs, or other specialized components to help them perform at their best.

An interesting question is whether 3D printing widens or narrows the gap between athletes with access to specialized technologies and those without. In other words, is the widespread availability of 3D printers – which can now be found in many homes, schools, universities and makerspaces – helping to level the playing field?

Joe Townsend, member of the ParalympicsGB triathlon team. Credit: Jordan Mansfield / Getty Images.

Forget about mass production

Mass-produced equipment, such as gloves, shoes, and bicycles, are usually designed to accommodate the body shapes and playing styles typical of able-bodied people. As such, it may not be suitable for many Paralympians. But unique, custom-made equipment is expensive and time-consuming to produce. This may limit access for some athletes or force them to come up with their own “do it yourself” solutions, which may not be as advanced as professionally produced equipment.

3D printing can provide bespoke equipment at a more affordable price. Several former Paralympians, such as British triathlete Joe Townsend and American athlete Arielle Rausin, are now using 3D printing to create personalized gloves for themselves and their fellow wheelchair athletes. These gloves fit as if molded onto the athlete’s hands and can be printed in different materials for different conditions. For example, Townsend uses stiff materials for maximum performance in competition and gloves that are softer for training, comfortable and less likely to cause injury.

3D printed gloves are inexpensive, produced quickly, and can be reprinted whenever they break. Because the design is digital, just like a photo or video, it can be changed based on athlete feedback, or even sent to the nearest 3D printer when parts are urgently needed.

Harder, better, faster, stronger

An elite athlete may wonder if the 3D printed parts will be strong enough to withstand the performance demands required. Fortunately, materials for 3D printing have come a long way, with many 3D printing companies developing their own formulas to meet applications in various industries, from medical to aerospace.

In 2016, we saw the first 3D printed prosthetic leg used at the Paralympic Games by German track cyclist Denise Schindler. Made of polycarbonate, it was lighter than its previous carbon fiber prosthesis, but just as strong and better fitted.

With research showing that sprint cyclists can generate over 1000 Newtons of force during acceleration (the same force you would feel if a 100 kilogram person were standing on top of you!), These prostheses must be incredibly strong and durable. . Schindler helped her win a bronze medal at the Tokyo Games.

More advanced 3D printed materials for Paralympic equipment include carbon fiber, with Townsend using it to produce the perfect cranks for his handbike. 3D printing allows the reinforced carbon fiber to be placed exactly where it is needed to improve the rigidity of a part, while remaining lightweight. The result is a part that performs better than an aluminum part.

3D printed titanium is also used for custom prosthetic arms, such as those that allow New Zealand Paralympian Anna Grimaldi to safely grip 50kg weights, in a way that a standard prosthesis could not. to reach.

Different technologies working together

For 3D printing to provide optimal results, it must be used in conjunction with other technologies. For example, 3D scanning is often an important part of the design process, using a collection of photographs, or dedicated 3D scanners, to scan a part of an athlete’s body.

Such technology was used to 3D scan a seat mold for Australian wheelchair tennis champion Dylan Alcott, allowing engineers to manufacture a seat that provides him with maximum comfort, stability and performance.

A man in a wheelchair hits a tennis ball with a racket.
Dylan Alcott of Team Australia competes with Sam Schroder and Niels Vink of Team Netherlands in the men’s quad wheelchair tennis gold medal match on Day 8 of the Tokyo Paralympic Games. Credit: Buda Mendes / Staff

3D scanning was also used to create the perfect grip for Australian archer Taymon Kenton-Smith, who was born with a partial left hand. The grip was then 3D printed in hard and soft materials at the Australian Institute of Sport, providing a more reliable bow grip with shock absorbing capabilities. If the handle does break, an identical part can be easily reprinted, rather than having someone handcraft a new one that might have slight variations and take a long time to produce.


Read more: 3 Reasons Paralympic Weightlifters Move Seemingly Impossible Weights


All of these technologies are increasingly accessible, which means that more non-elite athletes can experience unique pieces. Hobbyists and professionals alike can already buy running shoes with 3D printed soles and custom 3D printed bike frames. For those with access to their own 3D printer, surf fins, cycling accessories and more can be downloaded for free and printed for just a few dollars.

However, don’t expect your home 3D printer to be making titanium parts anytime soon. Although technology levels the playing field to some extent, elite athletes still have access to specialized materials and engineering expertise, which gives them a technological edge.


This article was co-authored by Julian Chua, sports technology consultant at ReEngineering Labs and author of the Sports Technology blog.

James Novak, Principal Investigator and Associate Lecturer, The University of Queensland and Andrew Novak, Principal Investigator, Sydney University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.




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