3D Printing

3D Printing Is Personalizing Tennis But Don’t Lose Your HEAD Just Yet

Ralf Schwinger, R&D Director at HEAD Sports, one of the world’s largest producers of tennis racquets and tennis related apparel, spoke at London’s 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing Industrial Applications Summit about his company’s view of 3D printing. He did not simply rave about the advantages of 3D printing as much as he delved into the specific applications that require 3D printing and those that are just – at this time – wishful thinking.

It was even more interesting because HEAD just released its Adaptive String Pattern (ASP) technology which is a system based on two exchangeable grommet sets that can be selected to achieve more spin and power or, alternatively, for more control. Although it does allow for a higher degree of personalization – at least in terms of performance – the final product does not require to be 3D printed, however the original prototype was, as Schwinger revealed that HEAD has been an adopter of 3D printing technologies since 2002.

The company began with SLA systems in 2002, then introduced a Stratasys Dimension SST system in 2004 for formal and functional prototyping. It currently uses SLS to manufacture grommets in glass reinforced PA 10 and makes some metal parts using SLM, both through external partners.

So HEAD can certainly be considered an intensive user of 3D printing technologies although the demands of tennis racquet manufacturing do not yet call for the use of 3D printing in final products. Before that happens, a series of hurdles need to be overcome, beginning with establishing a system to help companies find the right AM process for them among an ocean of constantly evolving possibilities. Manufacturers need to help companies choose a process simply by indicating the type of part, the materials to be used, the quality and evenness, the stability, the functional requirements and the number of parts/speed of production.

Head prototype 3d printed Materialise’s 3D Print Barometer could be a help in this direction although it is focused primarily on prototyping requirements. Mr Schwinger stressed that although many things are possible (such as Local Motors’ 3D printed cars) it does not mean they are feasible on a mass market scale and that sometimes 3D printing lets creative minds dive into “wishful designs” that are not necessarily efficient or attractive to the end user (3DPI’s coverage of the CRP futuristic tennis racquet was expressly mentioned as an example).

According to HEAD’s head of R&D, AM shines in shape prototyping, functional prototyping (testing alternative materials), tooling, small quantities of spare parts and very high performance parts in fields such as aerospace. It struggles, however, in surface quality, as additional tooling is required, and in high performance parts (for example a grommet made of Zytel ST 801). 3D printing’s potential strengths are seen to be in the realm of personalization, material mixtures at microlevels and in special geometries.

The bottom line is that the fact that 3D printing was used to produce a particular object is not in itself a reason to buy a product for the great majority of consumers, as for any other manufacturing process. “It will still take some time before 3D printing for final products will be advanced enough to truly be able to offer advantages in terms of performance to a tennis racket,” Mr Schwinger concluded, “For that to happen product managers need to collaborate with designers and consumer insight experts, to find new areas of application.” Since a tennis racket has a roughly 2 year lifecycle before it needs further innovation, that may happen sooner than thought.