Wilson Sporting Goods and Azul 3D teamed up to apply additive manufacturing not just to a better pickleball paddle—they set out to rethink the design altogether. Their story is a case study in how to approach marrying new technology to existing uses.
Azul 3D brought to the partnership 3D printing technology and its suite of strong, durable materials. To push the bounds of manufacturing with 3D printing, the partnership combined Azul 3D’s expertise and platform with the five key pillars of additive manufacturing: part consolidation, novel geometries, customization, digital inventory and localized manufacturing.
“Pickleball is one of the fastest-growing sports in America,” said Bob Thurman, vice president of Wilson Labs at Wilson Sporting Goods. “We were excited to work with Azul 3D to create a better paddle and better pickleball experience for our customers. We look forward to bringing this paddle to market.”
Pickleball — a game in which players use wooden or composite paddles to hit a perforated plastic ball back and forth over a net on a badminton-sized court — is easy to learn and fun to play. Its popularity grew even more during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But players face two issues with paddles. First, the sound that the paddles make when they hit the ball can be loud — so loud that neighbors of courts have complained to city councils and even filed lawsuits to shut down the courts.
Second, since the sport is relatively new (invented in 1965) and can be fairly casual, the paddles — about twice the size of ping pong paddles — were originally homemade and never fully designed and optimized for the sport.
Wilson Sporting Goods and Azul 3D partnered to tackle both problems, eager to create better paddles for the ever-increasing number of players.
The two companies began by exploring what Azul 3D’s high-area rapid printing (HARP) technology could create. The technology, a proprietary version of stereolithographic printing —which converts liquid plastic into solid objects using ultraviolet light — can print vertically at high speeds and over vastly larger print areas than current commercial 3D printers, the company said.
HARP technology allowed the team to consider completely new geometries for the paddle. No longer was the geometry confined to traditional manufacturing setup. The technology allowed them to take five parts — two wooden handles, two fiberglass faces and a honeycomb core — and print them as one piece.
Current paddle designs use uniform honeycomb shapes that originate from the aerospace industry. When the fiberglass face seals both sides, it creates hundreds of tiny drums that create a loud noise every time the paddle hits the ball.
Using Azul 3D’s proprietary strong, durable materials, the team designed a custom material able to withstand repeated hits and the outdoor environment, then went to work creating a design to match the material.
The innovative design eliminates the traditional sealed chambers by patterning holes in the face of the paddle and including gaps in the columns that make up the core. This geometry —impossible to manufacture by traditional methods — reduces the total volume and changes the sound frequencies for the better, while still giving that “pop” feel that players want.
The design ultimately became the Quiet Paddle. Considering the growth of the sport and the extent of noise complaints, the Quiet Paddle could mitigate those concerns and help the sport grow even more popular.
The team also developed another paddle with a completely customizable core. In traditional paddles, the honeycomb cores are hexagonal, and players have a couple of choices in density, but the density is uniform throughout the paddle.
Azul 3D’s customizable cores can create lattices with different shapes — such as squares or triangles — or, potentially, different densities. That lets players tune their paddles to the response that they want — such as reducing dead spots found in today’s paddles or doubling the density to increase the punch in certain areas, such as the center or edge. Players even have the ability to pick the color and eventually grip size. All of these options give a truly customized product.
Called the Custom Core paddle, this design conforms to pickleball paddle rules and could help players take their game to the next level.
The paddles can be printed on-demand with Azul 3D’s recently launched LAKE printer, which employs HARP technology to print products from a wide palette of materials over large areas.
Given the wide variety of customization possible, it is no longer necessary to predict the demand; products can be manufactured on demand to the customer’s specification.
With its continuous vertical printing, the LAKE printer can print multiple paddles with varying geometries in unison. It can also print them quickly. The LAKE printer can print 12 Custom Core paddles per batch, which means it can print 156 paddles in 24 hours, or 57,000 in a year, for example.
Because they can be printed on-demand, the paddles reduce supply chain backups that have plagued many industries during the COVID-19 pandemic. While pickleball paddles are often assembled using five different pieces from different suppliers, these new paddles can be printed on-site, in one piece, using custom materials designed specifically for the product. This also reduces waste — nearly all the material is used to create the product.
Azul 3D and Wilson Sporting Goods are based in the Chicago area, which allowed the collaboration, design and production to happen at Azul 3D’s headquarters, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are a full-stack solution, partnering with manufacturers on everything from design, materials and printing to post-processing to ensure they have the best process on their factory floor,” said Azul 3D CEO Cody Petersen.
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