The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics concluded just over a week ago, and it’s now been revealed that the Chinese short track speed skating team leveraged 3D printing to secure their two gold medals.
Back in early 2021, China-based 3D printer manufacturer Farsoon signed an agreement with the Chinese Olympic Committee to develop additively manufactured ice skating blades for the racers. They were 3D printed using AlMgSc, a high-strength aluminum-magnesium-scandium alloy used in the aerospace sector.
Boasting weight savings of around 20% when compared to conventional skate blades, the 3D printed parts helped the Chinese short track speed skaters take pole position in the 500m race.
“Farsoon’s 3D printed skate blades showcased better flexibility in use due to the reduced weight, which offers smoother and better ice grip at cornering and sharp turns,” said a member of the short track speed team. “During our regular tests under many extreme conditions, the optimized blades can successfully withstand the mechanical pressure generated by both intensive starting and fast sliding.”
The need for high-performance skate blades
Short track speed skating was one of the three skating events showcased at the Winter Olympics, alongside speed skating and figure skating. The race is arguably the highest intensity event of the three, calling for explosive speeds, extreme maneuverability, and intelligent positioning at such short distances.
As such, short track speed skaters look towards high-performance skate blades to shave milliseconds off their laps. Blades are required to be both lightweight and high-strength, enabling the skaters to glide effortlessly while still withstanding the stresses exerted on them during tight turns.
Farsoon’s 3D printed skate blades
To kick the project off, the Farsoon R&D team conducted a set of skate tests to collect data relating to each of the skaters. Specifically, they measured the stress on the blades and the stanchions at various points on the track, including the start, speeding, relays, and turns. Farsoon then used this data to design customized, topologically-optimized skate blades based on the force profiles of each of the skaters.
After testing a number of iterations and refining the process parameters of the build, Farsoon 3D printed the blades using the firm’s FS421M laser powder bed fusion system. The mechanical properties of the parts (strength, toughness, and fatigue) were also studied extensively before being cleared for use on the ice.
Traditional skate blades are typically made of tempered carbon steel or aluminum to save weight. Farsoon opted for AlMgSc, which combines strength, ductility, and excellent heat resistance up to 250°C. According to the firm, the 3D printed blades were around 20% lighter than a conventionally manufactured counterpart, while offering improved lateral and tangential strength. The advanced designs also met the requirements for quick installation, positioning, and processing of the blades.
Additive manufacturing at the Olympics
Last month, the BBC (British Broadcast Corporation) also employed the use of 3D printing when it aired its first advert for the Winter Olympics. Named ‘Extreme by Nature’, the 40-second-long trailer is an imaginative mixed-media film combining stop-motion animation, entirely 3D printed frames, and a dash of in-camera effects to capture the intensity of the sporting event.
Last year, the Summer Olympics in Tokyo also featured their fair share of additive manufacturing. For example, a 3D printed rudder blade suspension helped propel the Australian sailing team to victory. The rudder blade suspension was manufactured by aluminum specialist Fehrmann Alloys using its high-performance AlMgty alloy at the request of Hamburg-based boatyard Ziegelmayer, the world’s leading manufacturer of Olympic sailboats in the 470 class.
Additionally, the Korean archery team took to the field with bow grips 3D printed by automotive manufacturer Hyundai Motor Group. The team won gold in the men’s, women’s, and mixed team categories at this year’s games, taking the total medals won by Korea’s archers to 103 since 1984.
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Featured image shows the Chinese short track speed skating team taking gold. Photo via China’s CGTN state news service.