The Engineer's Notebook Blog

The Engineer's Notebook

The Engineer's Notebook is a shared blog for entries that don't fit into a specific CR4 blog. Topics may range from grammar to physics and could be research or or an individual's thoughts - like you'd jot down in a well-used notebook.

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Rio Olympians Sport High-Tech Sports Apparel

Posted August 11, 2016 12:45 PM by BestInShow
Pathfinder Tags: high-tech uniforms olympics

Without the legions of scientists and engineers who develop new athletic gear, the quadrennial crop of Olympic athletes might not turn in breathtaking, record-setting
performances. New gear also addresses safety and comfort requirements, aiming to protect athletes from injuries and Rio’s less-than-hygienic watery venues. This year’s class of elite athletes benefits from improved equipment and training methods, as I described in my earlier post. Today I’m reporting on some of the latest advances in athletic attire. In case you’re wondering, everything described here has passed the IOC’s muster – not always the easiest feat to accomplish.

Fitting like a second skin

A former Olympic rower, John Strotbeck, described his 1984-era competition shorts as “[made of] cotton and nylon and about as formfitting as a trash bag.” In most
sports, competition garb in 2016 is more likely to be a second skin. Strotbeck now manufactures custom seamless knitted outfits for the US rowers that incorporate water repellency and anti-microbial properties, as well as extreme comfort and lack of seams to chafe. A faculty member at Philadelphia University (formerly the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science) developed the technology that produces these garments. The anti-microbial feature should help protect rowers from the questionable quality of the Rio waters.

Swimwear, cyclists’ unitards, and gymnastics leotards aren’t seamless, but, like the rowers’ garb, are sized individually for each athlete. Advances in 3D imaging make it easier for pattern-cutters to achieve a flawless fit. Within the same sport, different athletes have different builds. Accommodating each athlete’s body type and preferences while keeping the design consistent across wearers is easier using custom-fit software. This also reduces the number of prototypes fitters have to produce to arrive at a finished garment.

3D printers for track and field

Both Nike and New Balance have put 3D printing technology to use in designs for track and field athletes. New Balance customized a track shoe fit for US sprinter Trayvon Bromell, using iterative versions to achieve the fit and performance the athlete required. This application of 3D printing sounds pretty ho-hum compared to Nike’s AeroBlades technology. Nike manufactures AeroBlades from adhesive tape with silicon-based spikes that runners will wear on various parts of their bodies to help cut wind resistance. The 3D printer builds the spikes in different shapes and densities depending on the body location where a specific tape gets stuck (see pictures here). Nike used wind tunnels for extensive prototype testing. Nike introduced this technology for sprinters in the 2012 London games. This year AeroBlades makes its debut in longer races.

Keeping their cool

Given the rigors of Rio’s sultry climate, protecting athletes from heat buildup is a critical safety factor. The latest wicking fabric from Nike, used in basketball, track and field, and soccer, are much more breathable than prior editions. UnderArmor is using technology borrowed from the space program to fashion uniforms for the Canadian rugby and Swiss beach volleyball teams. The skin-facing side of the fabric has crystal-pattern sheets to help absorb body heat.

Another Nike advance is a breathable, adhesive race bib. Ever since athletes started wearing numbers in competitions, they’ve had to pin on their numbers. This is not an optimal aerodynamic situation. As one athlete described it, “We spent all this time developing aerodynamic elements to a uniform, and then we would pin our bibs on with safety pins that were invented in 1849."

At bottom

Athletes depend on footwear for safety and for improved performance. One problem with which most of us can identify is the discomfort of blisters. For an Olympian, a
blister is more than an annoyance, though. Brooks manufactures running shoes with fabric that eliminates seams. The shoes also have rubber rings on the soles, which provide traction and also help return energy to the runner.

A particularly fascinating Nike innovation is the HyperAdapt shoe, which is self-lacing and self-fitting. This shoe has a sensor in the heel that, when it detects that the athlete has donned the shoe, triggers the shoelaces to tighten. A system of cables driven by a tiny motor makes this happen. I wonder if the advantage of a custom fit justifies the weight of the motor and cables?

And then there’s the bling

Much has been made of the increased number of crystals on women’s gymnastics competition costumes. (See this slide show in the New York Times for an enlightening history of gymnastic
costumes .) In 2012, the US gold-medal winner Gabby Douglas wore 1,188 Swarovski crystals; this year, some of the US team’s competition leotards have nearly 5,000. The designers say that the weight of these crystals doesn’t weigh down the competitors … but just in case, Swarovski is developing a new crystal that’s 50 percent lighter than the current product. Just in case the weight of crystals does make a difference on the balance beam.


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