Dec 29, 2017 | By Tess

When you think of bocce or pétanque, it is hard not to think of groups of retired men, sipping on cool drinks and tossing balls in the shade of a park. It’s as though the casual sport is stuck in the past—in a good way, to be sure.

Boccia, on the other hand, a similar sport played by physically disabled athletes, is apparently ripe for innovation. Handi Life Sport, a Denmark-based manufacturer which has supplied boccia balls to the Paralympic Games since 1988, says it is currently exploring the potential to 3D print customized boccia balls for athletes.

Boccia maintains most of the classic rules of bocce and pétanque: players take turns throwing their team’s balls into a court in hopes of getting their balls closest to the jack ball or knocking their opponent’s balls out. It is, however, played indoors and can be played while seated (for wheelchair-bound athletes).

The equipment for the sport is relatively minimal and consists of twelve balls (six red and 6 blue, for each team) and a white jack ball. Like in classic bocce, the balls must have specific dimensions and weights. According to Handi Life Sport, boccia balls must have a circumference of 270 mm and weigh about 275 grams each.

If you’re wondering why 3D printing is being investigated for the production of future Paralympic boccia balls, you’re not alone. As a technology that is usually appreciated for its ability to make lightweight and complexly structured parts, using 3D printing to make a weighty ball does seem a bit strange.

Still, Handi Life Sport believes 3D printing could be its key to staying ahead of competitors for the production of boccia equipment for the Paralympics.

As Kirsten Bromann, co-owner of Handi Life Sport, explains: “We are investing in technology for the future—otherwise we may as well turn the key. But in the future, we may need to print 3D so that we can compete for the prize and ensure our participation at future Olympic competitions.”

Kirsten and Jens Bromann, owners of Handi Life Sport

Currently, the Danish company is facing competition from manufacturers in China, which are capable of producing Paralympic boccia balls at a much cheaper cost. Rather than try to keep up with China’s low costs, however, Handi Life Sport has opted instead to compete for quality and is seeking to innovate in its niche field.

The company is working in collaboration with Denmark’s GTS Institutes to improve and automate the production of customized boccia balls for Paralympic and amateur athletes using technologies such as 3D printing.

Before 3D printing, the company relied on handcrafting processes to manufacture the balls, often sewing them to specification for athletes with various physical disabilities—an effective, but expensive method. Now, after instituting a new, more advanced production chain (including a new website, and bookkeeping and shipping tools), the company says it has increased its revenue and has managed to remain relevant.

“Conversion processes have doubled our revenue and profits,” said Jens Bromann, co-owner of the company. “The development means that we can meet the increasing demand without hiring a lot of new employees. The investment in new technology has meant that we can take more orders and earn more without hiring more.”

Additive manufacturing will enable the company to further automate their production process for the boccia balls, and perhaps even to innovate their design for Paralympians even more.

“If you want to survive as a production company in Denmark—where the labor is expensive and economical—you can hardly avoid digitization and automation,” added Kirsten Bromann. “The saved time can be used to think creatively and innovatively. And here we have an advantage in Denmark because our foreign competitors who have access to cheaper labor are often not far advanced in the use of technology. It is a clear competitive advantage.”

3D printing is beginning to take on a more important role in the Olympic and Paralympic games. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, for instance, the French cycling team rode with 3D printed handlebars, while Team USA at the Paralympics were equipped with 3D printed wheelchairs.

With the next Winter Olympics coming up in 2018, we are eager to see what new applications for 3D printing are used.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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