The future of sport will be shaped by technology- which in turn will be driven by innovators, engineers and scientists. With the fiercely competitive environment of professional sports and the massive financial returns in both these and commercial sport products, industry needs to be quick to embrace any new sport technology if it is to secure an advantage.
The challenge for our region is identifying which sport technology will give an athlete that extra performance to reach the top step of the podium or enable your sports product to dominate the market.The good news is that there are plenty of candidates and, with the capabilities of engineering and manufacturing in the Sheffield City Region, research and development work is continually advancing materials, manufacturing, design, simulation and testing technologies.
So which of these technologies are we going to see influencing the world of sport in 2015? Predicting the adoption of a new sport technology is a risky business, as teams and sports companies are always keen to keep any potential advantage a secret until race day or their product launch. However, there are certainly some trends that are likely to continue and grow into next year, which our region should exploit.
Firstly there is the use of composites. These have been around in sports equipment for decades, but greater accessibility and understanding, improved performance and aesthetics combined with lower costs are making them more attractive, especially in consumer goods. It is also interesting to note the ‘onshoring’ of composite design as the competition between equipment (such as bicycles) manufacturers is driving the performance of their products and pushing the design and properties of the materials beyond the capabilities of the low cost manufacturing nations.
The growth of composites in consumer sports products is also in part due to these materials becoming fashionable with consumers having a greater awareness and confidence as the materials are being used publicly in more and more industries such as aerospace and automotive.
Another technology that will certainly influence sport in the coming years is Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM) or 3D printing as it is now more commonly known. This has already seen significant exploitation in elite and professional sports and, like composites, as the technology matures its application will only increase.
The machines and materials available for ‘printing’ are continually being developed with improved mechanical properties and resolution along with greater build volumes and reduced costs. Metallic ALM is now commercially available allowing the design freedom this technology offers to be used in more demanding environments which plastic materials cannot typically withstand.
The interesting opportunity in sport is for custom designs. The ALM materials are no longer for prototype use only and this opens the potential for bespoke products in the consumer sports market, offering amateurs similar performance benefits to those enjoyed by their professional counterparts.
There has been an increasing availability of customisable sports products, such as running shoes and bicycles, however this has largely been restricted to aesthetic personalisation. The ability to manufacture one-off or small batch products with custom geometry, but without expensive tooling, means sports equipment can now be tailored to an individual’s body, ability and specifications whilst still remaining affordable to those not supported by large racing budgets.
There are many more technologies with the potential to influence future sports products. Sensors and control electronics combined with software applications running on mobile devices have the ability to take an athlete’s interaction with their equipment to a new level. The feedback and ‘tune ability’ this can offer will enhance understanding, training and capability, ultimately improving performance.
Which technologies will be developed, and where they take sport, will be limited only by the imagination of those creating it and by the vision of those who see an advantage in its application.
True performance gains at any level are achieved by matching an individual athlete with their equipment and allowing them to develop together. Technology offers this opportunity and increasingly not just to the elite.