Feb. 24, 2015 | By Alec

While 3D printers are obviously very capable of 3D printing toys, I would generally not assume it's a suitable technology for sporting goods at all, due to the extreme pressures exerted on them during use. However, that is exactly what American golf manufacturers have done. They have recently 3D printed a metal golf club that is more than capable of being used to play golf. In fact, ‘The 3D printer does such a good job in welding the metals that you get the micro-structure that you need to produce a stronger product.’

Ping’s Director of Engineering Paul Wood was interviewed by golfalot.com at the 2015 PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Florida, and fortunately he revealed all their 3D printing secrets. As he explained, their decision to dabble with 3D printers was entirely based on the convictions of a relatively new employee. ‘He was convinced that the area of 3D printing was going to be huge and that we needed to investigate it. So I said, “fine let’s go and build something”,’ Wood revealed. ‘Maybe we were a bit early because there weren't many people doing that back then, but we had been watching it and doing stuff on it so we decided to find someone who could make a product with a 3D metal printer and try it out.’

Wood (right) talking about the putter.

After doing some research, the Ping engineers discovered that the layer-to-layer welding of a typical metal 3D printer actually results in great structural qualities. ‘So I asked what kind of material properties are we going to get, is it at least somewhat close to a cast product and he said, "no it is actually better, you actually get a stronger product" and that really blew my mind,’ Wood says. ‘The 3D printer does such a good job in welding the metals that you get the micro-structure that you need to produce a stronger product. [...] You normally think of the weld line as being where something breaks because you are taking two bits of strong metal and you are welding them together and that is the weak point, [but] through material testing it has proved to be stronger than the cast equivalent.’

But moreover, the 3D printing production process has also proven to be easier and quicker when compared with traditional processes. ‘We are really limited by the thickness of the layers and therefore how many layers it takes to make a club and the speed of the laser. Right now it is a little ponderous, in the order of around 24 hours [for one head],’ Wood explains, and when compared to traditional casting methods that is quite quick indeed. ‘The current process is more complicated than that because you have to go through making moulds and then go through the casting process. So although casting a product doesn’t take that long the whole process of creating a mould and taking that to casting is a more mass manufacturing method and you are talking about 6 weeks easily.’

3D printing, in constrast, is also considerably more simple. ‘[Casting clubs] means there are a lot of steps in the process. With 3D printing the process is actually very simple. CAD file, printer, finished product. There is a lot of work that goes into that, but the process itself is very straightforward.’

Ping therefore set out to 3D print a G25 iron, and let a lot of contracted players test it extensively. ‘A lot of our players couldn’t tell the difference between the 3D printed product and the cast product, that’s how good quality it was,’ Wood revealed. Since then, they have worked on a 3D printed putter, that came out as a perfect product during just the first iteration. In fact, it only needed to be tidied up a bit to deal with the roughness, and its ready to use. The proud manufacturers put it on display at the 2015 PGA Merchandise Show, where it has astonished many visitors.

A montage of the 3D printing production process behind the putter.

And as Wood went on to state, the same technology can be used to a large variety of golf club parts, such as hollow heads, hybrid clubs and drives. It can, theoretically, even be used to make shafts and grips. ‘ The shape of the shaft may really not lend itself that well to a 3D printer, so the traditional way of making a shaft may be more sensible now, but in theory it could. As the machines get bigger maybe it will be an option in the future.’

Wood therefore envisions a future wherein players can approach the company for custom-made clubs with very specific stats – say a 9.9° driver, even though they usually come in at 10.5°. ‘That is where the imagination comes in as this is a brand new technology and it is really about where can we take this. We want to be the first ones in, so it means we are the first ones thinking about this and leading the development of this technology. It’s exciting; with the 3D printer I am confident that we can get to an even better place than where we are now,’ he says.

In fact, that could become a reality sooner than you’d think, as the Ping manufacturers are already looking at integrating 3D printing into the manufacturing process as a VIP experience option for exclusive and professional clients. ‘The idea now is to provide a VIP fitting experience where you sit down with a club designer, take one of our models and work out how we tune that product for you,’ Wood explains. ‘It isn’t a blank piece of paper where we let somebody design a putter from scratch, but we will take the design and customise it based on the fitting they have and what the player wants and customise that putter exactly for them.’ In a nutshell, that process could look somewhat like how professional players are fitted out.

If that plan becomes a reality, these exclusive clubs could cost something around $8,000 to $10,000, but that is largely because metal 3D printing is simply still a very expensive process. ‘These metal 3D printers are nearly $1 million, so they are not cheap machines at all right now. This is the chance to be one of the very first to get a product using this new technology,’ Wood adds. But for that price, you would be able to get a club in just about any type of metal you prefer.

Of course, much of this is still speculation as Ping has hardly had any experience with 3D printed manufacturing yet. But the very fact that they are maintaining a positive attitude towards 3D printing as a high-end manufacturing option, suggests that 3D printers definitely have a future in the world of golf. ‘In 2 or 3 years we will know a lot more about the reality of the technology in these areas.’



Posted in 3D Printing Applicatons


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