You’ve probably heard of “reinventing the wheel,” but what about reinventing the ball? That’s what engineers at Wilson are up to with a new airless basketball prototype. The team leveraged additive manufacturing technology to make a new kind of basketball from a loose hexagonal lattice. You can’t buy one, but Wilson plans to work toward making it more than a prototype.
The airless prototype has the same size and shape as a traditional basketball, with eight lobe-like panels covering the surface. Instead of a solid leather skin, the prototype ball is hollow with large hexagonal holes. So, calling it “airless” is a bit of a misnomer — there’s plenty of air in the ball, but it doesn’t stay there. The ball bounces because of the structure’s elastic support, not a pressurized bladder inside.
Wilson started by designing the ball in a virtual environment. Then, it partnered with a 3D printing firm called EOS to create the airless prototype. Most 3D printing involves putting down layers of melted plastic with an extruder nozzle, but EOS has a unique system that has already found use in medical devices and aerospace. It uses a resin powder that solidifies when hit with a laser. Like a 3D printer, the EOS technique builds the ball layer by layer by etching the structure into the powder.
The finished structure can be dyed any color, but Wilson opted to go with an understated black for the prototype. The company says the prototype has been designed to replicate the properties of a standard basketball without the air. That means it should weigh the same with an identical rebound when bounced. However, Wilson doesn’t mention how putting holes all over the surface of the ball might affect aerodynamics. There is surprisingly little bouncing (zero) in the video above. The commercial-style video below does show a little more action.
The ball debuted at the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest this past weekend. As this is just a prototype, Wilson won’t sell you an airless basketball yet. You can, however, sign up for Wilson’s mailing list to be made aware of any airless ball innovations. The NBA, which is helping to test the ball, has no plans to switch to an airless design, but you never know what the future will bring.
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