Wilson has used 3D printing to create an airless basketball.
It seems counterintuitive: An airless basketball? Basketballs bounce because of the pressurized air inside them. When the basketball loses air, it doesn’t bounce as high. Basic science.
But Wilson wants to break those assumptions with the Wilson Airless Prototype.
What if you had a basketball that was 3D printed and never went flat?
@tyler.m.webb We’re officially living in the future 🤯🏀 #sportsmarketing #sportsbusiness #unclecharlie #sportscontent #basketball #nba #marchmadness #wilsonbasketball #wilsonairlessprototype #nbadunkcontest ♬ original sound – Tyler Webb
- What is it and how does it work?
- Wilson has used 3D printing to create an airless basketball that never goes flat.
- It’s the same weight and size as a traditional basketball, and it bounces the same.
- How is it made?
- Wilson’s engineers partnered with several industrial design and 3D printing companies.
- To create the prototypes, they’re using a 3D printing method called selective laser sintering (SLS).
- The manufacturing process is more sustainable.
- Players never have to inflate or deflate it, saving time and frustration.
- A ball that won’t deflate over time or pop is more accessible to more people.
- Players and officials wouldn’t have to worry about having an over or under-inflated ball in a game.
- Some have said that the Airless Prototype is a little strange to hold since it’s not made with traditional leather.
- Others are concerned that the ball would hinder a player’s shot since the holes could affect how it moves through the air.
- It’s unclear how a basketball with holes in it would handle sweat or outdoor elements like wind and dirt.
Wilson officially unveiled the Airless Prototype basketball during the 2023 NBA Slam Dunk Contest with player K.J. Martin:
“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,” Martin said.
How does the Airless Prototype work?
The Wilson Airless Prototype is the same weight and size as a traditional basketball, and it bounces the same, but its structure and materials eliminate the need to inflate or deflate it.
The ball has a 3D-printed lattice design. A “lattice” is a framework of crisscrossed materials that forms a grid pattern, which means the ball is covered in a bunch of hexagonal holes that let air pass through the ball.
Scientifically speaking, it’s not clear how an airless basketball can bounce the same way as a normal basketball. Wilson has only said that its Airless Prototype “relies on a 3D-printed structure and research-grade materials to replicate the bounce of a traditional basketball,” and that it’s made with a proprietary material.
Why did Wilson make an airless basketball?
Since the Airless Prototype is only made of one material and with one machine, the manufacturing process is more sustainable.
Also, traditional balls deflate over time and pop. An airless basketball doesn’t. This would make the ball more accessible to more people. Players wouldn’t have to worry about keeping the ball in working order, or buying a new one when theirs pops.
“All inflatable balls, regardless of how they’re made or who makes them, no matter what sport, they eventually go flat,” Dr. Nadine Lippa, Innovation Manager at Wilson, said. “So we wanted to address that most common consumer complaint by eliminating the bladder completely and making an airless structure.”
This design has the potential to work in other sports, too (e.g., football and soccer). The additive manufacturing process means that every ball would be exactly the same. Players wouldn’t have to worry about using an over or under-inflated ball in a game, and leagues and officials wouldn’t have to watch out for intentional under or over-inflation (i.e., no more Deflategate).
How did Wilson design the Airless Prototype?
For the design and manufacturing of the Airless Prototype, Wilson’s engineers partnered with General Lattice, a computational design and digital manufacturing company, EOS, an industrial 3D printing company, and DyeMansion, an industrial polymer 3D printing company.
“Working with a brand like Wilson is a little bit different for EOS because we are traditionally working with aerospace companies, automotive companies, medical device companies.” John Walker, Business Development Director, EOS North America, said.
How is the Airless Prototype made?
The Airless Prototype is still in testing, so it’s not certain if/how Wilson will mass produce an airless basketball. However, to create the prototype balls, they’re using a 3D printing method called selective laser sintering (SLS).
It took a few years of testing out different combinations of materials, geometries, and additive manufacturing technologies to get a ball that would bounce the same as the standard one and still be durable.
Eventually, Wilson discovered that they could use SLS to make the ball exactly how they wanted.
For SLS printing, the user puts powder in the SLS 3D printer (in this case a powder made of proprietary custom polymer). A laser then sketches a 2D pattern into the powder by melting it, sort of like an Etch a Sketch but with lasers.
The printer repeats this process layer after layer until you have a 3D basketball made of solid materials.
When the printer is finished, they shake the loose powder off the ball, seal it, and dye it. Then they send it to the NBA’s testing facility in Ada, Ohio.
Is the NBA going to use the airless basketball?
Since the Airless Prototype is still in testing, it’s unclear if the NBA will use it in official games, but Wilson has consulted with NBA players in testing and improving the design.
What are the drawbacks to the Airless Prototype?
The Airless Prototype certainly has its critics, and the biggest complaints revolve around the open holes in the ball:
Some who have tried the Airless Prototype said that it feels a little strange to hold since it’s not made with traditional leather.
Plus, if you’re playing outside, what happens if it’s windy out? What if you get rocks, dirt, or other debris inside it? What if you get sweat in it?
Additionally, will the open holes in the ball mess up a player’s shot? More holes mean more airflow, so could the Airless Prototype’s design affect how the ball moves through the air?
We’ll only learn these answers over time, as the ball is still in the early stages of development.
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