June 18, 2024

EOS, General Lattice Team Up with Wilson to Launch First Airless Basketball

Basketball enthusiasts admire their favorite players for their impressive court skills. However, until recently, there has been little focus on improving the basketball design. Wilson Sporting Goods, the official supplier of basketballs for the National Basketball Association (NBA), leaned on additive manufacturing (AM) to create the world’s first airless basketball, the “Wilson Airless Gen1.” The company partnered with EOS North America and General Lattice, Inc., both members of America Makes, along with DyeMansion and SNL Creative, on its development and manufacturing.

According to Nadine Lippa, Innovation Manager in the Team Sports Division at Wilson, the premise began when Kevin Krysiak, Global Senior Director, challenged her to design and fabricate a basketball using different processes and materials. “One of those processes was 3D printing,” she said. 

The partnership was a fusion of expertise, with EOS North America contributing its industrial 3D printing technology, General Lattice, Inc., (GL Labs) based in Chicago, IL, bringing its advanced lattice design capabilities, DyeMansion based in Austin, TX, offering its post-processing technologies, and SNL Creative based in Los Angeles, CA, serving as the primary manufacturing hub.

The basketball was developed using selective laser sintering (SLS) technology which enables intricate and customized designs, improved durability, and consistency. Its new design eliminates the hassle of air pumps and needles, thereby eliminating the inflation and maintenance process for players. “This was a way to show the NBA that they [Wilson] are trying to push the boundaries of what can be done with a basketball,” said Nick Florek, General Lattice Co-founder.

Wilson’s reliance on AM technological advancements is a window into its burgeoning potential and growth across broader industries.

Improving an iconic product 

Despite its popularity, a persistent challenge with the existing basketball design is the constant need for inflation and the potential variation in its performance from court to court.

“In general, balls going flat and consistency in performance is a challenge. If you’re taking the air out of the equation, every basketball would hopefully be the same with less variation from court to court,” noted Florek.

From a manufacturing perspective, a 3D-printed basketball offers supply chain value by eliminating waste and reducing production lead times and costs.

“A ball conventionally involves multiple components sourced globally, leading to significant transportation and waste. In contrast, the 3D-printed ball is a single material printed on one piece of equipment, presenting a solution to supply chain challenges. Its sustainability is evident when considering the reality of shipping, energy, and storage costs in the supply chain,” said David Krzeminski, Ph.D., Senior Additive Minds Consultant at EOS.

The process to Gen1: The airless prototype

While 3D-printing airless spherical products is not new, meeting the specifications for an NBA basketball required considerable effort and collaboration between teams over six years with GL Labs supporting within the last two. Each step required a meticulous qualification process to ensure performance.

According to Florek, GL Labs’ computational design capabilities were advantageous for significantly decreasing the file size and optimizing the ball’s distinctive hexagonal lattice architecture.

“We use data to drive different design elements, so parameters like the beam thickness or the size of the hexagon on the outer lattice are our sweet spot as a company,” he said.

EOS was tasked with printing the basketball using the EOS P396 printer while considering how each detail of its process could impact material composition, including weight, size, bounce, and potential enhancements.

“Throughout the whole process, the sensitivity of each part of the process maintains what that ball essentially needs to do as an output. Any deviation from that—any warping, any inability to de-powder a spot—that would come out in the testing,” said Krzeminski.

Once completed, DyeMansion was responsible for post-processing, coloring, and surface finishing, with SNL Creative manufacturing the first launch.

Additionally, Wilson’s team gathered feedback from professional basketball players to develop the prototype, demonstrated by KJ Martin, a basketball player from the Houston Rockets, during the AT&T Slam Dunk Contest.

Wilson’s reliance on AM technological advancements is a window into its burgeoning potential and growth across broader industries.

Based on its prototype’s iteration, Wilson officially released the limited-edition Airless Gen1 basketball to the public earlier this year, with design improvements and extended color options.

Advancing AM to a broader audience

The launch of the Wilson airless basketball is an excellent example of how collaboration among different industries can lead to the successful adoption of 3D printing technology in traditional manufacturing. This innovative product highlights AM’s potential to enhance customization and product ingenuity across various industries. The airless basketball is a remarkable achievement in the evolution of AM and its impact on how goods are designed, produced, and consumed.

“AM has had its ups and downs. Expectations were high, but the technology still needed to arrive. Now, we’re slowly coming out of that initial drop in excitement. Any success in AM pushes the entire industry forward despite the challenges,” said Florek.

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