Aaron Pearson
Vice President of Public Relations

Every day we see new and interesting applications being improved by 3D printing. But what about customizing sports equipment to give the athlete a competitive advantage?

3d printed fencing hilt, tsukuba university Personalized fencing hilts produced on a multi-material Objet350 Connex 3D Printer

Well that’s exactly what is happening at the University of Tsukuba, Japan.

The university is renowned for its research and development in three key areas: Sports Equipment, Sports Training and Sports Conditioning.  A research team led by Professor Norihisa Fujii at the university’s Faculty of Gymnastics is developing customized equipment used by Japan’s fencing team which helped them win the Silver medal in the 2012 London Olympics.

Talk About Your Competitive Edge!

First you need to understand the importance of the “hilt.” It’s the handle of a fencing sword and it must match the fencer’s hand perfectly – even the slightest change in the shape of the hilt can affect a competitive fencer’s maneuvers. The smallest deviation could mean the difference between winning and losing a match.

Historically, there was only one type of fencing hilt.  Each fencer would have to manually file down the hilt so that it would perfectly match his or her hand and give them a non-slip surface (you don’t want to lose your sword!).  Since each hilt was customized by hand, if a particular sword would break, it was essentially impossible to replace it with another one with the same grip.

Taking the Silver, Making History

For the 2012 Olympics, the researchers at the University of Tsukuba scanned the actual equipment used by the fencers and then used the Stratasys Objet350 Connex multi-material 3D Printer to 3D print the grips. That meant iterative prototypes of each sword could be quickly produced. The 16-micron accuracy of the PolyJet-based Objet350 Connex 3D Printer enabled the researchers to make minute variations according to the feedback received from the athletes.  A total of 70 prototypes were produced.

Once a fencer found the perfect sword/hilt, several copies of that sword could then be 3D printed.  For the first time in fencing history, each competitor had five identical spare hilts.

On the heels of the success of the Olympic fencing project, The University of Tsukuba is now exploring other 3D printing sports applications such as protective equipment for gymnasts, shoes for javelin throwers, triathlon wear, sailing masts, a footwork assessment system for badminton, and more.