Basketball was invented in 1891, and aside from switching to the now-iconic orange ball around the 1950s (and ditching an OG version with laces, akin to a football), not a whole lot has changed about the ball in the past several decades.
At least, not until now.
Sports equipment company Wilson has cranked up work at its R&D division in partnership with industrial 3D printing firm EOS; to come up with a new basketball that could actually be a game changer because this basketball can never go flat.
Dubbed the Wilson Airless Prototype;, the new basketball is crafted with some clever 3D-printing techniques and is essentially an open, evenly-supported 3D printed concept that is “air-less,” at least in the sense that it doesn’t require any air to be pumped into it. The entire ball is open, assembled with a lattice of tiny, hexagonal gaps all the way around. Instead of leather or rubber panels, the design is broken into the familiar lobe-esque design of a traditional ball, just with the open hexagonal shapes all the way around.
The prototype made a hyped debut at the recent NBA All-Star Weekend, with Wilson showing off the concept as part of the festivities. The Airless can be painted any color, though the design they went with at All-Star Weekend was all black (which admittedly did look cool). It even got a bit of real-world action, as the Houston Rockets’ KJ Martin used the prototype; during one of his attempts at the Slam Dunk Contest. Martin conceded the design took some getting used to, and the grip is a bit different than a traditional leather ball, but it still dunked and handled like what a pro would expect from a basketball all the same.
Wilson notes the Airless is fully playable, and “nearly” fits the performance specifications of a regulation NBA ball, from the size, weight and most importantly bounce. With no way to control bounce by inflating or deflating the ball, the pressure was on to get it just right in the design so it’d always feel right in use dribbling and shooting, since there’s no way to change it.
“Once I actually saw the ball in person, it was crazy,” Martin told Forbes;. “I didn’t expect a basketball with holes to bounce and feel like a normal leather basketball.”
So how did they make it? The ball is manufactured with a laser sintered powder of a proprietary custom elastomeric material. Wilson’s Innovation Manager Nadine Lippa said figuring out the exact manufacturing materials to tie it all together was by far the hardest part of the R&D process, as earlier prototypes would fail under use and stress, or simply not bounce at all. Which is, of course, the most important thing a basketball needs to do.
“The materials with high energy return were often not durable enough for our application,” Lippa explained. “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.”
But they apparently have figured it out now, though don’t expect to see the Airless pop up on the shelf anytime soon at your local sporting goods shop. The prototype is still just that, a prototype, and they have a long way to go until it’s a locked design they’re ready to mass produce and put out into the wild. But debuting the design to the world and putting it through its paces on an NBA court, even if it was just for an exhibition dunk, is a huge first step.
Beyond the fact that it’s just cool, a basketball that doesn’t require any pumps or maintenance could be a huge development to make the sport more accessible. As any kid who has gone to shoot in the driveway only to find their ball flat with no pump in sight (or arguably worse, a pump with a bent or broken needle) can attest, it does take a bit of effort to keep a functional basketball at the right level for use. Just like car tires, a basketball can lose air when the temperature fluctuates, which can make it harder to just pick up and play. But a ball that can never go flat? That solves the pump problem, and means it’ll just work. Even if it’s been in the garage for six months.
This isn’t the first time companies have tinkered with 3D printing tech to solve the air pump problem, as Gizmodo; notes the tire company Bridgestone debuted an air-free tire concept back in 2011, showing it off on a single-rider scooter; concept. That design used plastic resin spokes designed to absorb shocks. There was some buzz; in 2013 that it might get beyond the concept phase, but there hasn’t been much news the past few years on the tech going wide.
Perhaps Wilson’s basketball breakthrough could have further implications for other sports and use cases (a soccer ball that never goes flat could be huge, too, considering the sport’s global popularity), but for now, they’re trying to get the basketball to be a slam dunk.
Trent Moore is a recovering print journalist, and freelance editor and writer with bylines at lots of places. He likes to find the sweet spot where pop culture crosses over with everything else. Follow him at @trentlmoore on Twitter.