Sport and 3D Printing – the best stories from Rio 2016

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The 2016 Rio Olympics left us with lots of unforgettable memories. Great sporting achievements but, even more so, stories of men and women.

Preparation is the key to success. Four years of sacrifices, of zeroing in on the little details, can give you a slender but potentially decisive advantage over your fellow competitors. In this respect, the relationship between sport and 3D printing has never been so strong and decisive in terms of results.

At the 2016 Rio Games there were many 3D stories to tell even if the general public, naturally more interested in the purely competitive aspect of the events, were often unaware of the impact of this technology. With the stories of the various event winners and losers well documented elsewhere, we will instead take a look at the most interesting applications of 3D printing.


The flag bearer for Jamaica, she is one of the icons of women’s sprinting and is perhaps loved more back home than even the legendary Usain Bolt. We are talking about Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the greatest female sprinter of all time. Everyone will have noticed her Nike Zoom Superfly Elite shoes thanks to the huge media campaign run by Nike to coincide with Rio 2016 Olympics, but perhaps not everyone knows that they were printed in 3D.

Aside from the gaudy colours, which fit well with her unmistakable hairstyle, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce’s Nike Zoom Superfly Elite are the result of an extremely complex R&D process which stemmed from the need to fine-tune a technical limitation of hers during a very specific phase of the race. An important development in a sport where a one-tenth of a second advantage can make all the difference.

A series of in-depth studies showed how a particular geometry of the sole could guarantee the athlete improved rebound off the track. This objective was achieved thanks to the extreme personalisation of the product. As well as ensuring the perfect fit, thanks to their 3D webbed structure, the custom Nike Zoom Superfly Elite are able to react perfectly to the drive of the runner.

The form and thickness of the webbed “mesh” is the result of a design that ensures greater rebound off the track when the athlete exerts maximum downward pressure. It is a structure produced with 3D logic that really does work in 3D, considering all the forces exerted in the space.

suole stampa3d_fonte nike

Nike used 3D printing for both the personalised end product and for all of the prototyping phases carried out during the R&D process, using the static and dynamic data acquired from the athlete. The ability of 3D printing to create any form makes it possible to take a completely different approach during the design phase, guaranteeing a creative freedom that results in highly structured and complex organic structures. (credits Nike)

The Nike engineers were able to achieve these results by taking advantage of a previous set of experiences, inspired by observing the forms and movement present in nature. After all, what better source of inspiration in the area of organic forms than nature itself?

Speed in nature was analysed in various forms, studying for example the movement of the organisms that live in the sea. In projects of this type, although crucial the technical aspect is not always the most important. Engineering is able to guarantee a solution to any problem. The key is therefore inspiration. Truly understanding the problem. The goal we want to achieve.

Fraser-Pryce had to settle for bronze in Rio but Nike succeeded in capturing the gold thanks to her fellow countrywoman Elaine Thompson, another product of the Caribbean island’s seemingly endless supply line of sprinters.

rio_2016_stampa 3d nike

The finish of the women’s 100 metres at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson was the clear winner ahead of the USA’s Tory Bowie and the legendary Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (credits

The Zoom Superfly Elite are the most popular product in the Track & Field family branded by Nike for Rio 2016. The collection includes around 20 products in all.

nike spikes rio 2016 stampa 3d

The distinctive colourways that Nike chose to personalise its Olympic edition shoes are the same for the entire track & field range, which is made up of specific models for each discipline (credits


The same concepts adopted for Fraser-Pryce were also used for the shoes of American 400 metres queen Allyson Felix. Aside from the design of the sole, the model also used different technology for the creation of the upper (credits


The application of 3D technologies in sport is one of the most effective demonstrations of how mass customisation is not just a question of aesthetics but the potential solution to technical requirements that would otherwise be difficult to overcome.

The combination of sport and 3D printing makes stories such as that of Michael Phelps, the most decorated athlete in the history of the modern Olympics, a possibility.

Phelps is a true freak of nature, winner of 23 Olympic golds and 26 World Championship golds as well as a whole host of other titles in any swimming pool that has had the honour of hosting him. The American champion has unreal physical and technical attributes but what happens when you take the best swimmer of all time out of the water? Like all mere mortals, first of all Michael Phelps needs a pair of shoes to give his fins maximum protection and enable him to move his unique joints as naturally as possible.

This is where Under Armour comes in, a brand made famous for its technical sports underwear and military apparel. In recent years the American company has also produced footwear that is able to guarantee top level performance for both professionals and sports enthusiasts, who are able to find the results of its innovative research, stemming from the widespread use of 3D technology, in stores.


Michael Phelps has been endorsed for many years by Under Armour, which created a special version of the UA Architech for him partially produced using 3D SLS printing technology (credits Under Armour)

Under Armour Innovation Lab has designed the experimental UA Architech range. It was designed using Autodesk Within, a Generative Design software used in industry to design mechanical parts and in the medical field to design artificial limbs and orthoses.

Generative design is based on modelling criteria that exploit the possibilities offered by 3D printing. Thanks to generative concepts it is possible to design products which are equally strong yet much lighter because of the smaller quantity of material used.

Whenever you see a webbed design, and especially if it is irregular, it is a good bet that it was designed by the algorithms of generative software. And then 3D printed.


Unlike the classic sole-midsole block, the heel of the UA Architech is a single structure. By “emptying” the midsole it is possible to attain the same stability as a standard shoe but with a much lighter structure. This is an important detail particularly for heavier athletes with larger feet, such as Michael Phelps (credits Under Armour)


To the left the UA Architech belonging to Michael Phelps, which give an idea of the size of the American legend’s feet. As well as the exclusive UA Architech line, produced with 3D printing technology, Under Armour has also produced “traditional” models for Phelps like the Slingshot (on the right) in the two versions of the Olympic edition (credits

The UA Architech line is an Under Armour pilot project with only 96 pairs made available on the US market costing 300 dollars each.

If Under Armour exploits the results of its research into 3D printing the other major sports footwear brands are sure to follow their lead. We have talked about Nike but there are others. New Balance, in partnership with 3D Systems and Nervous, has developed a generative design project that encompasses the entire length of the sole.

Adidas, meanwhile, is working hard on Futurecraft, a range of footwear with webbed soles, this time regular, which however offer the possibility of personalising the insole. For the Futurecraft project, Adidas opened a dedicated plant in Germany with specific 3D printers for industrial production. One particular detail of the Futurecraft project is that it uses polyester parts recycled from fishing nets. A concrete commitment to developing production methods that are more attentive to the future of the planet. Often accused of speculating to the detriment of the environment, sports multinationals are very attentive to protecting their image with marketing initiatives that combine technology with respect for resources.

new balance e futurecraft 3d printed shoes

To the left the New Balance running model with a single 3D printed sole-insole structure. To the right the first Adidas Futurecraft model (credits New Balance and Adidas)

The technologies and patents change but the sports world and 3D printing are the drivers behind a common goal: to provide athletes with the lightest and most protective product possible while responding to their static and dynamic characteristics – key elements in all sporting activities – in the most effective way.


Track cyclists reach speeds of up to 80 km an hour. With this in mind, it is easy to understand just how big an impact aerodynamics can have on performances. At certain levels even a millimetre, or a gram, can be the difference between success and failure after years of hard work and training.

This next sport and 3D printing story focuses on the French track cycling team which competed at Rio 2016 thanks to a Look bicycle equipped with personalised Jet One handlebars.


French sprinter Thomas Boudat, rival of Italy’s Elia Viviani in the Omnium event. At Rio 2016 he competed with one of the seven Jet One handlebars commissioned by the French national team (credits

Jet One had a series of goals: extreme rigidity, maximum lightness and absolutely perfect geometries for the riding position of each cyclist, optimised during attentive biomechanical tests.

Jet One was developed by Erpro & Sprint in collaboration with S2A, producer of 3D printers for metals. The following films show some of the details of the R&D carried out for the production of the Jet One handlebars.


If it wasn’t for 3D printing the ‘Settebello’ – the Italian men’s water polo team – probably wouldn’t have won bronze at the Games. Two key players, goalkeeper Stefano Tempesti and centre forward Matteo Aicardi, managed to stay in the pool despite having very serious injuries which threatened to rule them out of the tournament.

Whereas Aicardi’s injury was a “straightforward” broken nose suffered early on in the opening match, Tempesti’s threatened to be a whole lot more serious. About a month before the Games the legendary Italian keeper had suffered a partially detached retina. After successfully undergoing surgery, he began a course of rehabilitation that he managed to complete in record time, enabling him to leave for Rio together with his teammates. Following the injury, Tempesti was able to train safely thanks to the protective mask created specifically for his face using 3D printing.

blueprinter aicardi tempesti stampa 3d

Centre forward Matteo Aicardi led Italy to their second consecutive Olympic medal following the silver at the 2012 London Games (credits; to the right, some of the prototypes of the protective mask (credits blueprinter)

Lightness, strength and ergonomics for a one-of-a-kind mask made of nylon. One of the most interesting technical aspects of the project was the heat sintering technology used by the Blueprinter M3 3D printer, which is relatively economical compared with more advanced laser sintering devices. An example of how it isn’t always necessary to spend vast sums of money in order to achieve an objective if you have a proper understanding of 3D technologies and their applications.


The handbike has become very popular in Italy thanks to the successes of former professional racing car driver Alex Zanardi, who has reinvented himself as the undisputed number one in this discipline following his tragic on-track accident in the US.

As well as the man and his incredible qualities there is also the machine and its technology. Long-time sponsor of Zanardi, BMW designed and manufactured the handbikes of Team USA for the 2016 Rio Paralympics. The star of the American team is without doubt Josh George, a multiple medal winner at various distances in the T53 category (the categories correspond with the type of disability, Ed.).

Josh George’s handbike was designed following a full 3D scan of the athlete, from which the 3D models at the base of the aerodynamic simulation process were produced. According to BMW, thanks to the use of 3D technologies the aerodynamic load was reduced by as much as 15% thanks to a series of little tweaks, regarding both the bike and the position of the athlete, made possible by digital simulations.

As such, it wasn’t a case of revolutionising the design method but rather of using advanced 3D technologies to optimise the results.

When developing the Team USA handbike BMW made extensive use of carbon fibre, the perfect material due to its lightness and torsional rigidity, a quality that enables the athlete to use as little energy as possible when riding it.

The Paralympics are of course also the place for seeing 3D printed prosthetic limbs in action. True masterpieces of engineering with parts that are increasingly light, solid and tailored to the characteristics of each athlete.


He is one of the leading time trialists in the world and at Rio 2016 he showed it. We are talking about Dutchman Tom Dumoulin, winner of the silver medal in the extremely demanding Olympic time trial. Beaten only by Fabian Cancellara, Tom managed to leave Chris Froome and all the other favourites trailing in his wake. A remarkable achievement given the serious injury that threatened his participation in the event right up until the morning of the race.

How did he do it? Without doubt it was largely down to the incredible athletic conditioning of the classy young Dutchman from whom much is expected in the next few years. But a small part of his success can also be attributed to his special bodysuit. A masterpiece of technology that forms the basis for another story of sport and 3D printing.

A lot of 3D technologies were used to design the bodysuit, forming part of a high-level technical-scientific project in which 3D printing was used for a quite unique purpose: to create the dummy of Tom Dumoulin used in the wind tunnel tests. In this case 3D printing was not the process that led to the creation of the end product, but the rapid prototyping experience made it possible to achieve the goal, optimising the work in the intermediate phases.

Among the various details connected with this project one is specifically associated with the personalisation of the product.

Asked about the benefits of his superbody, Tom Dumoulin revealed that as well as providing a real aerodynamic advantage, having such a tailor-made product helps him above all from a psychological perspective. Being able to wear a piece of advanced technology developed specially for him gives him greater peace of mind: the certainty that with every drop of sweat he is maximising his performance.


There are many other compelling 3D stories connected with Rio 2016 that we could tell, each with their own technological angles that we will certainly be able to come back to again in the future.

These stories have taught us a great deal and inspired us to examine the technological aspects that those responsible for research and applications in the 3D arena have to take into consideration. It was a chance to reflect on one key factor: that there is no limit to the potential of 3D technology. Quite the opposite in fact as it is from hybridisation that solutions to practical and operating requirements are born.

One concrete example is the 3D scanner developed by Protocube Reply to acquire and digitally reproduce data on feet. A technology that is able to produce devices that adapt to the practical needs of orthopaedic clinics, research centres or any professional that requires extremely accurate data to develop orthoses and personalised footwear.


Open source hardware/software configurations make it possible to design custom 3D scanning devices able to satisfy a wide array of different requirements. The image shows the assembly phase of a 3D scanner created for a company that produces custom orthoses. The custom orthopaedic solutions sector is witnessing a great deal of experimentation and research into new 3D scanning solutions (credits Protocube Reply)

This was possible thanks to the use of open source hardware technologies, which permit the 3D scanner to be customised on the basis of any operating requirement. Considering its intrinsic characteristics the price of this solution is very accessible given the professional user groups it targets.

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This post is also available in: Italiano

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Francesco La Trofa

Architect and journalist with 20 years’ experience in 3D technologies.
Consultant to public entities and 3D businesses for aspects relating to design and communications.
Head of editorial content at and co-founder of Digital Drawing Days, the only event of its kind in Italy.
Actively involved in research and teaching at Milan Polytechnic.
Edits 3D STORIES for Protocube Reply.