Without a doubt, Nike's (NYSE:NKE) highest purpose is to serve athletes. This often means designing athletic footwear made to perform at the highest levels of professional sports. Super Bowl XLVIII will showcase the world's first game-day football cleat "inspired by, and developed from 3-D printing."
The whole inspiration for the Vapor Carbon Elite 2014 Super Bowl Edition cleat began way back in 1996 when Michael Johnson was gearing for the Summer Olympics held in Atlanta. Nike designed him a sprinting shoe that focused on the "Zero Step," the moment before the first stride is taken, which determines the propulsion and acceleration speed. Essentially, the goal here was to reduce as much slippage as possible off the line, ensuring maximum athletic performance could be achieved. Michael Johnson broke a sprinting world record that year, and took home two gold medals.
In 2013, the inspiration behind Zero Step was reimagined for football and 3-D printing manufacturing, when Nike introduced the Vapor Laser Talon cleat for the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. It featured football's first ever 3-D printed cleat plate for aspiring NFL athletes to achieve maximum sprinting performance. The cleat preformed so well during the event that seven of the 10 fastest athletes were sporting a pair of Laser Talons.
Nike is using a 3-D printing technology known as selective laser sintering, or SLS, which uses a high-precision laser to fuse together plastic particles in a layer by layer manufacturing process. One of the biggest benefits to using SLS technology is that it can create extremely complicated geometries that would be nearly impossible to replicate using traditional manufacturing processes. Additionally, SLS-printed objects can be made extremely strong and lightweight. The Vapor Laser Talons made for the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine weighed a mere 5.6 ounces and were able to stand up to abuse from NFL athletes.
Accelerating the cycle
According to Nike, producing a product like the Vapor Carbon Elite using traditional prototyping and manufacturing techniques would have taken as long as three years, but thanks to the help of 3-D printing and its ability to rapidly iterate, the same process took only six months. In other words, 3-D printing can dramatically reduce lead times, giving designers more opportunities to improve upcoming products. This creates a winning scenario for Nike because it not only saves on cost, but it also gives the company an opportunity to innovate faster than the competition. Additionally, improved product designs ultimately benefit athletes by allowing them to reach their maximum potential.
This is only the beginning
From a design standpoint, 3-D printing invites an entirely new level of creative freedom into the process, allowing more possibilities than ever before. With only two 3-D printed footwear products under its belt, it's only a matter of time until Nike broadens its horizons and applies its knowledge of 3-D printing beyond the scope of football.
At the end of the day, there are lots of sports and athletes out there that could stand to benefit from the use of 3-D printing manufacturing. You should count on seeing 3-D printing being used more frequently in sports because it'll help athletes perform at their fullest. After all, this is Nike's primary reason for existence.
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Fool contributor Steve Heller has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Nike. The Motley Fool owns shares of Nike. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.