By Jen Booton
With luge competition in full swing at the Olympics this week and Chris Mazdzer becoming the first U.S. athlete to medal in the men’s singles, Stratasys is hoping its work with USA Luge last summer will contribute to additional success on the track.
Stratasys /zigman2/quotes/207628786/composite SSYS +2.42% partnered with the team to 3-D print molds for customized parts that the team then implemented into sled prototypes. The quick pace of the turnaround of new molds enabled the team to make quicker changes to sleds and experiment with new designs closer than ever to the start of the competition. Two U.S. athletes, Justin Krewson and Andrew Sherk of the men’s doubles, even used some of the 3D-printed molds for parts on their sleds during competition at Pyeongchang.
The advantage of using additive manufacturing is that it enables Team USA to more quickly and cost effectively make incremental improvements on sleds that travel at speeds exceeding 87 miles an hour at competitions won in fractions of seconds.
“There’s a lot at stake here, and we like the idea that we can come up with an idea and pretty quickly turn it into something tangible and testable,” said Gordy Sheer, a 1998 Olympic doubles silver medalist and USA Luge’s marketing and publication relations director. “This 3-D printing gives us the ability the customize to the billionth degree.”
The team leveraged a Stratasys 3D-printing process called Fused Deposition Modeling that enabled it to rapidly and cost-effectively build and test racing sleds that were tailored to the body of each athlete. Previously, the team had used a process called standard composite fabrication, a more expensive and traditional manufacturing process with longer turnaround times and fewer options for customization.
Stratasys’ technology helped team designers engineer mandrels for the Doubles Tower, a composite structure at the sled’s front that is used to accurately position riders’ legs during the race. The part, according to engineers, is “extremely difficult” to fabricate due to complex geometry.
With the speed of 3-D printing, team designers were able to 3-D print the complex mandrels, layup and cure the composite structure, and wash-out the tooling material in less than a week — far quicker than the weekslong traditional process.
“Not only are they able to go faster, but they’re able to print much more complex shapes than they might be able to do with traditional tooling. Complex shapes save weight and help with performance,” said Tim Schniepp, Stratasys Senior Director of Composite Solutions. “What we found was we iterated relatively quickly, could make parts, make changes and do it again — so they were able to really dial in the final shapes and performance of the sleds.”
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The team also tested 3-D printing the entire sled body layup tools, which included a removable middle section that enabled the team to adjust the height based on each athlete so that it could maximize their comfortability and the sled’s performance.
“When athletes are comfortable they can focus on driving the sled,” Sheer said. “That’s really the most important thing, eliminating as many things that could potentially distract an athlete or team. This allows them to feel good and zero in on exactly what they want out of the sled.”
Following a successful test run that USA Luge hopes will contribute to podium wins at this Olympics, Stratasys believes the team will be interested in expanding its capabilities with 3-D printing in the future.
Potentially down the road, the team might consider 3-D printing entire parts used on sleds, rather than just the molds, which would enable it to make last-minute adjustments to gain an edge on performance.
“This is the first phrase, but we definitely have some bigger plans and ambitions down the road,” said David Dahl, an applications engineer at Stratasys. “To print parts that go directly on the sled would allow them to wait even longer to optimize the design closer to race time.”
USA Luge also tapped Dow Chemical last year to tweak some of the sled’s component materials ahead of the Olympics. Using a web of sensors, GPS data, physics models and lab testing, Dow helped to improve the team’s speed and agility, and help racers understand the South Korean race conditions before they flew into Pyeongchang. For the luge team, which deals with race day temperatures on the ice that can dip as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit, Dow worked on compensating for the fact that frigid temperatures make materials more rigid by tweaking the inherent properties of the sled’s bridge.
Jen Booton is a senior writer at SportTechie covering the many ways technology is disrupting sports. This first appeared on SportTechie — “USA Luge Team 3D Printed Its Way To The PyeongChang Olympics”. Follow her on twitter @jbooton.