Wilson unveils the 3D printed “Airless” basketball featuring a stunning see-through hexagonal mesh design

Keeping your eye on the ball has never been easier!

Wilson’s newest airless basketball uses a similar format and technique to the airless car tire concepts we’ve seen before. The design was featured at the NBA Slam Dunk Contest, where Houston Rockets forward KJ Martin literally spun the ball. To everyone’s amazement, the prototype airless basketball responds to stimuli in the same way as the standard inflated basketball. It’s easy to grab, has a surprisingly responsive bounce, and defies convention with its unique aesthetic!

Designer: Wilson Sporting Goods Co.

Developed by Wilson Sporting Goods Co. R&D (basketball) department as an experimental prototype, the Airless Basketball Prototype is a stunning piece of design and engineering that looks, sways and bounces like a basketball, but the physical structure of the ball fundamentally rethought and underlying physics. The ball uses a 3D hexagonal mesh structure, which is highly elastic and allows it to bounce just like a ball under pressure. However, due to its airless nature, it never needs servicing or refilling, unlike traditional basketballs, which lose their bounce when easily deflated.

What’s so impressive about airless basketball, aside from its stunning aesthetic, is that it completely rewrites the rule book. Most basketballs have their characteristic bounce because they are filled with compressed air. Reduce the pressure and the ball just slams to the ground with an unsatisfying smack. Wilson’s redesign defies this notion thanks to its unique structure and elastomeric material. Arrived through multiple design iterations and rigorous testing at the NBA testing facility in Ada, Ohio, the ball deftly balances tradition and innovation, with a futuristic mesh design that still feels relatively familiar in the hand and the same weight as a regular basketball and even has the familiar seams for players to rest their fingers.

The brilliant redesign of the ball came from Wilson’s research and development department, led by Dr. Nadine Lippa, Kevin Krysiak and a team of designers and engineers. As they worked to reinvent basketball, Lippa knew pretty much immediately that such a complex structure could only be achieved through additive 3D printing. After several iterations, the team arrived at the design we see today, with the hexagonal mesh that not only gives the ball its signature bounce, but also creates a grippy texture, similar to the dotted pattern on existing balls.

The team partnered with EOS, a 3D printing solutions company, to help build the functional prototype. The ball was originally a hole of white powder that came to life when the powder was melted into shape with 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 shape with another machine. In a third and final process, black dye was then injected into the model, giving us the final, finished sphere. It is unclear how long the entire process took, although it is known that 3D printing is a relatively slow process. The compromise, however, is a ball that requires far less maintenance and never needs to be pumped or refilled.

Although the ball was only previewed for a handful of seconds in the Slam Dunk Contest, we have yet to see it used in an entire game. Many factors remain undetermined, such as the ball’s lifespan, resistance to damage, how well players can grip it, whether objects can get stuck in the ball’s meshes, how it responds to spin, and what its general aerodynamics are.

Wilson has no plans to make these for retail or professional gaming. This prototype is the result of a long-term experiment to push the boundaries of innovation within the company, testing 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 NBA games anytime soon…though it might debut as an add-on upgrade in NBA Live! EA Sports, make it happen!

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