How many times has a game of basketball been thwarted by a ball that was too flat to bounce? An air pump with a properly sized needle isn’t something most people carry around with them all the time, so Wilson has been working to redesign the basketball with a prototype that’s covered in an intricate pattern of holes but never goes flat.
Although calling the basketball “airless” is a bit of a misnomer given air is still able to pass right through it, it’s the most common term that’s been used to describe this technology that replaces the need for pressurized bladders in objects designed to bounce or absorb impacts.
Before Wilson brought the technology to the court, companies like Bridgestone have been working to create airless tires for vehicles, which first debuted 12 years ago at the 2011 Tokyo Motor Show on a tiny single-seater vehicle. Instead of needing to be constantly pumped full of air to provide a comfortable ride for passengers, Bridgestone’s airless tires use a series of plastic resin spokes that can deform to absorb impacts but still allow a wheel to maintain its shape so it can roll.
It’s been a slow rollout for Bridgestone’s airless tires, however, which have mostly been used on ATVs, some military vehicles, and bikes, so far. Although the technology is promising, making airless tires that are safe and suitable for all kinds of terrain and weather—including snow—has been challenging. Basketballs, by comparison, don’t need to support a sedan full of people cruising down the road at 80MPH, and balling in the snow is never a necessity.
Wilson partnered with a company called EOS which specializes in the use of 3D printing for industrial uses including medical and aerospace applications, to manufacture the unorthodox basketball design that’s covered in a pattern of open hexagons instead of sealed leather panels.
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EOS relied on additive 3D printing technology which, instead of building up layers of extruded melted plastic, uses a powdered resin that’s hardened by a laser to create ultra-thin stacked layers with even more detail. The result is a completely hollow basketball that nearly matches the “performance specifications of a regulation basketball, including its weight, size and rebound (bounce).” The 3D-printed ball can even be dyed in various colors, with the prototype being made all-black for its debut during the 2023 NBA All-Star Game festivities this past weekend.
The NBA currently doesn’t have any plans to switch to Wilson’s 3D-printed airless basketball design, but that doesn’t mean it’s a failure. Wilson plans to continue to develop and improve its design. And even if it never finds its way into the NBA, it could still help make the game more accessible on playground courts across the country where pick-up games will never have to be canceled because no one can find a pump to fix a flat ball.