There was a new star player at the 2023 NBA All Star Weekend’s Slam Dunk Contest Saturday: Wilson Sporting Goods’ 3D-printed airless basketball.
Houston Rockets’ forward K.J. Martin debuted the prototype ball on the court during Saturday’s game, calling it “a different experience for the people in the arena.”
“When I first heard it, I didn’t know what to expect,” Martin told Forbes on Feb. 18. “Once I actually saw the ball in person, it was crazy. I didn’t expect a basketball with holes to bounce and feel like a normal leather basketball.”
Designed by the company behind the official NBA game ball, the airless ball features a unique, honeycomb-like surface pattern that allows air to flow freely through the ball, and Horween leather is replaced with “research-grade materials to replicate the bounce of a traditional basketball.”
“This is a ball unlike anything we’ve ever seen designed to play like the basketballs we’ve always known,” the company announced on its website.
Nadine Lippa, innovation manager at Wilson, told Forbes that the challenges with creating a prototype ball that fit the performance specifications of a regular basketball were calculating the ball’s unique geometric design and compatible materials.
“The materials with high energy return were often not durable enough for our application,” Lippa told Forbes. “The adequate method-mechanical-material combination that bounced like a basketball was elusive to the team and there were so many additive technologies to sift through and understand. It took us several years to find the right combination.”
The prototype ball was blueprinted in partnership with design and engineering company, General Lattice, who turned the concept into a design file that was later sent to 3D-printing company EOS, Wilson says.
The partnership with Wilson was a first for the 3D-printing company, which typically focuses on 3D printing in the aerospace, automotive and medical device industries, said John Walker, government relations and key account manager for EOS North America.
“Additive manufacturing was the right choice for the airless prototype, because first off, it’s literally the only technology on earth that could bring this concept to life,” Walker said.
Unlike traditional additive manufacturing methods, which involve printing individual layers of extruded thermoplastics, EOS used selective laser sinistering (SLS) in the printing process, which involved the use of a powdered resin that is hardened first and then cut into intricate, hexagonal holes using a laser.
The ball then underwent “rigorous testing” at Wilson’s NBA test facility in Ada, Ohio before hitting the court Saturday, Lippa said.
Martin told Forbes that despite a change in its physical appearance, the prototype ball still holds up to its traditional counterpart on the court – and he proved that Saturday when he nailed a slam dunk with it.
While Martin proved during Saturday night’s game that the ball is playable, “there’s still work to do before it’s ready for courts around the world,” Wilson stated on its website.