Keeping your eye on the ball never got easier!
Using a format and technique similar to those airless car tire concepts we’ve seen before, Wilson’s latest airless basketball employs a similar see-through 3D-printed mesh to create a ball that bounces just like a basketball… but looks like nothing any basketball you’ve ever seen before. The design was unveiled at the NBA Slam Dunk Contest, with Houston Rockets forward KJ Martin taking the ball for a literal spin. Quite to everyone’s amazement, the Airless Basketball prototype responds to stimulus exactly like the standard inflated basketball. It’s easy to grip, has a surprisingly responsive bounce, and defies convention with its unique aesthetic!
Designer: Wilson Sporting Goods Co.
Created as an experimental prototype by Wilson Sporting Goods Co.’s R&D (Basketball) division, the Airless Basketball prototype is a stunning piece of design and engineering that looks, weighs, and bounces just like a basketball, but fundamentally rethinks the ball’s physical structure and underlying physics. The ball employs a 3D hexagonal mesh structure that’s highly elastic, enabling it to bounce just like a pressurized ball. However, its airless nature means it never needs maintaining or refilling, unlike standard basketballs that lose their bounce when they deflate mildly.
What’s so impressive about the Airless Basketball, apart from its jaw-dropping aesthetic, is that it completely rewrites the rulebook. Most basketballs have their signature bounce because they’re filled with pressurized air. Reduce the pressure and the ball just flops onto the floor with a dissatisfying thud. Wilson’s redesign goes against that notion, thanks to its unique structure and elastomeric material. Arrived through multiple design iterations and rigorous testing at the NBA test facility in Ada, Ohio, the ball cleverly balances tradition and innovation, with a futuristic mesh design that still feels relatively familiar in the hand, having the same weight as a regulation basketball and even the familiar seams for players to rest their fingers in.
The ball’s brilliant redesign comes from Wilson’s R&D division, led by Dr. Nadine Lippa, Kevin Krysiak, and a team of designers and engineers. As they worked on ‘reinventing the basketball’, Lippa knew pretty much instantly that such a complex structure could only be achieved through additive 3D printing. Having gone through multiple iterations, the team arrived at the design we see today, featuring the hexagonal mesh that not only gives the ball its signature bounce but also creates a grippy texture, much like the dotted pattern found on existing balls.
The team partnered with EOS, a 3D-printing solutions company, to help build the functional prototype. The ball started out as a pit of white powder, coming to life as the powder was melted into shape using a laser in a process commonly known as SLS or selective laser sintering. After the print was complete, the team dusted off the excess powder, before ‘sealing’ the design into its shape using yet another machine. Black dye was then injected into the model in a third and final process, giving us the final, finished ball. It’s unclear how long the entire process took, although 3D printing is known to be a relatively slower process. The trade-off, however, is a ball that requires much less upkeep and doesn’t ever need pumping or refilling.
Although the ball was just previewed for merely a handful of seconds at the Slam Dunk Contest, we’re yet to see it be used in an entire match. A lot of factors remain undetermined, like the ball’s lifespan, resistance to damage, how well players can grip it, whether objects can get stuck inside the ball’s mesh, how it reacts to spin, and what its overall aerodynamics are.
Wilson isn’t planning on manufacturing these for retail or for professional games. This prototype is the result of a long-term experiment to push the boundaries of innovation at the company and test out new materials and structures. Basketballers can be an incredibly superstitious bunch, and notoriously resistant to major change, so don’t expect to see this in any NBA games soon… although maybe it could debut as an add-on upgrade in NBA Live! EA Sports, make it happen!