The Sporting Life

Posted On April 14, 2017 By Will Martin

In the 15th Century, artist Leonardo da Vinci drew a famed man with outstretched arms that fit equally within a circle and square in an attempt to illustrate the human body in a perfectly proportionate state. The Vitruvian Man, as it’s known, is said to be based on the ideas of a 1st Century Roman architect named Vitruvius who described the “ideal human body as a blueprint for universal design” and claimed that “architects who understood that design could use it to create perfect buildings.”

These Vitruvian principles are, in a sense, witnessed in modern day designers and engineers who use the human athlete as the inspiration behind innovative sports products. You don’t have to look any further than the recent Olympic Games to find the pinnacle of this design partnership between engineer and athlete. Ultra-light yet extremely strong carbon nanotube skis helped U.S. alpine skiers traverse the tough Russian terrain faster during downhill competition. A few American snowboard helmets were lined with high-tech military-grade composite padding specifically designed for winter sports. And a new high-performance two-person bobsled made of Kevlar and carbon fiber led the U.S. to three medals between both the men’s and women’s teams.

But this is real life, and most products are geared for everyday athletes; products designed to help train, enhance experience or accelerate recovery, whether you’re a baseball player or ballerina, bicyclist or longboarder. Creating a product to accomplish that involves design considerations like strength and comfort that remain mindful of the athlete.

Developing Products to Develop Athletes

When Roger Schmitz developed the Moxy Monitor, a wireless device using near-infrared spectroscopy to assess the muscle-oxygen levels of athletes, building an unobtrusive, wearable product was critical. His final Moxy was compact, made of a durable, lightweight plastic and designed with a curved side that easily molded to a runner’s leg. But that’s not all. He waterproofed the entire monitor—which housed a processor and other circuitry—to prevent sweat from infiltrating the interior and afford swimmers the same technology as their landlocked counterparts.

When Ginger Kaiser created the TurnBoard trainer for aspiring dancers, it was to remove the physical burden of practicing on pointe (or tippy toes), which then allowed for flat-footed turns so arm position and spotting could be focused on. Early product designs yielded boards that would flatten out while spinning, so a nylon-reinforced honeycomb design was incorporated to provide added strength to the board.

When Kevin Gentry, founder and CEO of Talon Vise, thought that mouth guards should be stored someplace other than a non-secure facemask, he designed a durable helmet clip that provided football and lacrosse players a discreet spot for storage between plays. The attachment was molded in a thermoplastic elastomer (TPU) material, which offers some fundamental benefits for products used during gameplay. The current, market-ready product sports a flexible, rubber-like build that grips the mouth guard well, and is abrasion and impact resistant.

Team Effort

Product development stories like that of Roger, Ginger and Kevin are a testament to the importance of quick-turn prototyping with a company that has experience across many different industries such as athletics, and the capabilities to manufacture parts made from real materials. Proto Labs’ CNC-machining and injection-molding services make it possible to get parts within days so designers and engineers can test form, fit and function, make iterations if needed, and start field testing their products with actual athletes.

Now indulge us a bit longer as we briefly wax philosophical again. Like the ancient drawing of the Vitruvian Man, designs that appear simple at first glance, can contain complexities apparent only after a deeper look. Our automated quoting system takes a product developer’s 3D CAD model and provides a detailed design analysis that addresses potential issues such as draft or wall thickness that may have not been immediately evident in the initial design. Modifications can then be made before a part is even manufactured. The result is better, more efficient prototyping.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter if you’re developing products for Olympic athletes or mere mortals. We all look to achieve a higher level in the products we make, which in turn, help shape the athletes who use them.

Sources: informationweek.com; newscientist.com; NPR.org; “Da Vinci’s Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image,” by Toby Lester