Episode 32 – 3D Printing & Physical Education?

In this episode of The PE Geek Podcast, we interview Dr Mike Vasquez an expert in the area of 3D Printing & Sports Technology. Throughout the interview, Mike touches on the implications that 3D printing has for PE Classrooms of the future. We explore everything from adapted physical education, equipment customization and cost reduction. It truly is a glimpse at the not too distant future.

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00:29 Jarrod Robinson: Hello and welcome everyone to another episode of The PE Geek podcast. And as always, thanks heaps for tuning in on today’s episode. We’re actually really fortunate to have our first ever guest on the podcast. And I have been alluding to having some guests appearing in previous episodes, but thought it was an opportune time to introduce to you Mike Vasquez, who is going to talk to us a little bit about the role that he has in the area of 3D printing and the sort of coalition that that has with sports. So, welcome to the show, Mike.

01:02 Mike Vasquez: Thank you. Hi, everyone.

01:04 JR: Thanks for coming along. And I mean, for a little bit of background story for those people that are just tuning in, I, in March, did a blog post about how I had been playing around with 3D printers onsite at my school. And I basically stumbled across the design for a 3D whistle and thought that would be a pretty cool addition to my classroom and printed it out. And it was my first ever sort of experience with 3D printers. And it basically led me to Mike and the sort of things that he is doing. So, do you mind sort of sharing your background and how you are involved in this sort of world?

01:44 MV: Absolutely. So, thanks again for having me on the podcast.

01:48 JR: You are welcome.

01:48 MV: So a little bit about me. I’m actually based in Chicago, not in Australia [chuckle] as the accent, you can hear. So, I’m an engineer by background, but really passionate about sports and combining the two. So, since nearly age, I’ve really… My passion has been in baseball, but I enjoy kind of all sports. And I did my undergrad at MIT where I was fortunate enough to see her or find out that a teammate of mine on the baseball team was involved in this research group called the Sports Innovation Map. And it was… For me it was like a kid in a candy store. It was the place where undergrads, and graduate students, and professors came together to explore and work on problems in sports with athletes, with equipment and things like that. And that was really my first introduction to really think about like, “Hey, there could actually be a career designing baseball bats or designing shoes.” Like I hadn’t thought about that in the past and then it kind of clicked for me. It’s like, “Someone’s gotta be designing the equipment that athletes are using on the field and like how do I become one of those people?”

03:05 JR: Mm-hmm.

03:06 MV: So, really started to focus on doing some internships with sports companies. Actually, doing an internship globally, in the UK, outside of the US at this university in England, about an hour north of London, called [03:23] ____, which is pretty well known for sports. And there, I got my first interaction with Sports Technology Institute. And kind of long story short, decided after MIT to go out there and pursue a PhD. And it was there really that I started to really focus on 3D printing and how it could be applied in sports. And what my project was on was, how can you develop new materials for 3D printing? And the reason that’s important is that 3D printing has been around since the ’80s. So it’s not kind of a new technology. It’s new in the sense that a lot of people that have made… Just have heard about it as for kind of low cost, or desktop, or home printers. That’s a pretty new phenomenon that’s come about in the recent years.

04:22 MV: But the origin of the technology is not too new, but it was really used for prototyping and just creating something that you can put in a meeting, and eventually you’re meeting at a desk, and you can talk about it or just handle… But it wasn’t, the materials and the process wasn’t sophisticated enough to really create an end product that would withstand falling off that desk or being swung like a baseball bat or something like that. So, a lot of sports companies, in particular with… In addition to kind of the typical company, sort of pushing engineering research for like aerospace and medical and things like that, we’re really interested in, “Hey, like this is an awesome technology. Can we make the materials? Or can we develop materials that are even better so that we can take advantage of the design opportunities that it will allow us?” And that, with that kind of in mind, a company called Burton Snowboards, based in the US, I think they are, if not the biggest, one of the biggest snowboarding companies in the world.

05:34 MV: And were, in the early 2000s, really exploring the technology. First, with prototyping and then got to the point where they wanted to do some pretty sophisticated functional parts out of 3D-printed materials. So, they partnered with the university to explore that. I was fortunate enough to be the person that… Or one of the people that worked on that specifically and helped them develop a process and ultimately, a new material to use on snowboard-binding parts and snowboard parts. We ended up testing them on the snow and get them onto real athletes and things like that. So, it was really exciting. And then, from there, I’ve worked for about two years now in Chicago. I run my own consulting firm that helps companies of all sorts, not just sports. You better use 3D printing technology, so both in applications and in developing new materials and machines. So it’s called 3D Printing Reports. But still do a lot of stuff in sports.

06:50 MV: And the reason that sports is interesting, from kind of a research and development and even product space for me is that, not many people know this, but it’s actually one of the places where you see a lot of development in new technology, and they’re an early adopter of many of the new materials, the new processes that you would see, alongside kind of defence or aerospace. And the reason for that is that they don’t have the regulations that you would, say, an automotive company might have, or a company that makes airplanes has. So, they’re just making sports equipment. Most of the time, it’s not life and death.

07:36 JR: Yeah.

07:39 MV: The difference between half a second, or a 10th of a second on a race, or a rundown of snowboarding course makes a huge difference. And if they’re able to get that performance by using a different material that no one’s ever used before, they’re gonna do it. And, they also have the cash backing to explore that. So, it’s really unique in the sense that they’re always pushing product out and kind of like fashion, every season, but they’re also really looking at, “What’s the next material? What’s the next process? What’s on the horizon?” So, that’s a really, for me at least, really exciting where you actually get to see things that you’re working on in the lab, or maybe research being applied in products in the next season. So, it’s a little bit of history. Sorry if I went on for too long but…


08:30 JR: That’s good. I mean, it really…

08:32 MV: I’ll stop right there.

08:33 JR: It really paints a picture about, sport is that thing that really does drive a lot of innovation. Believe it or not, that innovation finds its way into our phys-ed classrooms as well. And you talk about equipment design and so forth. Well, those things eventually end up in the hands of students in phys-ed classes. You talk about whether or not a piece of equipment ends up making something easier to use, well, then that obviously translates into a student use as well. And that might actually be the thing that makes it possible for them to learn a skill faster than they had previously learned it. Would that be a fair sort of assumption to make as these progressions sort of happen, things become easier to use and skill could progress as well?

09:19 MV: Absolutely. I think the biggest advantage that 3D printing has over traditional technology is this ability to really make and design highly complex and highly customised objects in a way that is pretty cost-effective. So, comparatively… So, say, we’re making some other plastic piece of equipment. Typically, they’re gonna be made through what’s called “injection moulding.” That’s a process where you have to make this kind of steel or metal mould, and you blow hot plastic into it and then it sets. And then that happens very quickly, and you can make hundreds of thousands of parts but they’re all gonna be the same parts. And that actual equipment to make the part is pretty expensive. With 3D printing, all you need is a computer and a design, and then you can press “print” and you have it, kind of, at your hands after it finishes printing.

10:22 JR: Yes.

10:22 MV: So, that’s really exciting for PE teachers and students to really make the opportunity to make things customised for their own classes to make learning more efficient.

10:38 JR: Yeah. I mean, that’s the thing that really grabs me about this, the whole personalization angle. I mean, in the blog post that I mentioned earlier on that went out in March, I sort of mentioned the whole ability to customise things to suit the student that is there in that particular point in time, and that’s really powerful. I’ve gotten countless examples of students using equipment at our school that doesn’t suit them, and it might only be applicable to half the group in terms of their size and so many other factors. And that, for me, is the thing that really excites me. The other thing that really, that I find fascinating is… And this may be sort of further down the track, but the whole ability to be able to potentially print things onsite that are more complex than what we can sort of do right now is… What I’m thinking in this area is the ability to print things that have multiple different components that sort of make them up, not just one material. Is that something that’s likely to happen down in the future?

11:46 MV: I think it will definitely happen down in the future. I think, at the moment, it’s not quite there yet.

11:52 JR: Yeah.

11:52 MV: Actually, printing in multiple materials is still fairly challenging if you want anything that is pretty robust that would probably withstand the [chuckle] tumble of kids in using it, but I think it will happen as materials and machines mixture. It’s one of those technologies that it kind of stagnated for those kind of 15, 20 years just doing prototyping, but when all these new machines came out, there’s a big drive for innovation and push that people see the potential and want to take advantage. It’s just gonna take a little bit of time for the research to catch up and getting that into kind of mass production and things like that. But going back to kind of the customised aspect of it, I’ve worked on a few projects where, kind of, as you were talking about, thinking about PE classes with kids of all different sizes and everyone’s growing at different rates and things like that. So even equipment that’s designed for kids may not optimally fit them.

13:08 MV: Some kids could be bigger. Some kids could be smaller. It made me think of this project I worked on or was familiar with at Sports Technology Institute was working with Parallel [13:21] ____ decathletes. And this may be kind of the extreme of where you need something highly customised just due to the way someone’s kind of built and what their skeletal structure is, or from an injury. But this is already going on with those athletes where we made customised wheelchair or kind of wheelchair basketball frames for them. And even for some tennis athletes that had some issues with grips, they couldn’t get their full hand around the tennis racket because of an injury they had sustained. They were just duct-taping their hand to the rackets so they can hold onto it. So that wasn’t very efficient and obviously painful at the end.

14:10 JR: Yeah, definitely.

14:11 MV: But with 3D printing, you’re able to create products through design by scanning the hand and scanning the racket, and you have kind of this digital shape where you can mould a grip or make a grip that you can print, and have it ready to go for that athlete makes it so much easier for them to participate. Not only enjoy the sport, but perform at a level that they’re happy with.

14:38 JR: Yeah, I mean, that in itself is another reason why it has massive implication for phys-ed in the future, with adapted physical education being something that is a whole other area in PE, and sort of working with people who have disabilities and supporting them. I mean, it’s always a challenge. And 3D printing sounds like it has an ability to sort of address that in many ways. That’s really exciting from PE teachers’ perspectives. The other thing that I wanted to touch on is cost saving is, I mean, is it likely that eventually, as sort of the demand increases and innovation sort of pushes things forward, that things could become more affordable to print and produce because of the 3D printers?

15:26 MV: Yeah. That’s definitely a track that it’s progressing toward the school… Not quite there yet, but I think in certain cases, I could imagine, specific to PE would be times when you have to make replacement parts rather than… Things break all the time whether you’re in a manufacturing floor or in the classroom and it’s time-consuming and costly to reorder stuff, and you end up having to repair it, either to not optimal way, but in this case, the nice thing about 3D printing is, as long as you have a 3D design, you can print it. So, in theory, if a piece of equipment, or at least a one piece of equipment breaks, you just need one, you don’t need a whole classroom set of 30 or 40, that’s a perfect application of 3D printing where you’re just looking to fill one or two at a time. It’s a really nice option to have. And as long as the materials match up and things like that. But I think that’s really exciting. And it’s one of those things where at least in the US, schools tend to be kind of strapped for funds in some cases, so it can be a much more cost efficient way rather than buying kind of full replacements that you could kind of replace things one at a time in a little bit cheaper way.

16:56 JR: Yeah, I mean, that definitely appeals to me. I mean, as I mentioned, my first 3D printing sort of experience was just the other day. We’ve only just got a 3D printer at our school, one of the desktops sort of variety. And the total cost for the whistle that I ended up… Actually, using in class the very next period was 33¢. And I mean, I couldn’t buy a whistle for that amount and it sort of does, definitely put a tick in the box towards that cost saving factor. And the fact that I could actually customise my whistle with my own logo on it, which is what I eventually did, was really exciting and I’ve actually seen a whole host of PE teachers since then, printing these whistles, which is really sort of tokenistic.

17:43 JR: But this definitely points towards that sort of future stuff. What I also wanted to talk about was this whole levelling of bringing down the capacity that students need or everyone needs to be able to design some of these sort of things that can be printed. Many years ago, I’m assuming, there was sort of more sophisticated tools that you needed software-wise and some sort of training. But the other day, I had my students download Tinkercad, which is an in-browser, sort of 3D modelling tool and they were able to instantly design and print very simple things. But that’s obviously progressing as well.

18:27 MV: Yes, absolutely. There are a lot of free and simplified 3D design or CAD design software platforms out on the market and some of them are open source and there’s lots of communities around that are interested in the technology that kind of have developed tutorials and things like that.

18:52 JR: See, that’s exciting for education too, outside of just PE. I know that our school has a limited budget for software, and the ability to get access to open source, or stuff that runs in a browser, and be able to experiment and use this stuff is sort of really appealing. And that remix culture that exists in 3D printing, is that just gonna continue?

19:14 MV: Yeah, I think so. I think there is gonna be… There already is kind of the maker and hacker culture that’s existing and people are really exciting. And outside of even 3D printing, there’s a lot of work going on in creating some kind of… There are spaces even in Chicago that are called “Makerspaces” where it’s kind of a band of people that are really interested in making physical products. So, they kind of come together to get a warehouse and they have different machines, 3D printers, 3D scanners, sewing machines. Everything you can imagine. And they kind of donate it in a very communal way that people want to work on the projects or their hobbies and can build stuff. So, I think that mentality is permeating through the US and I’ve done some work in the UK on that same thing, and I imagine still going on in Australia as well and around the globe, that this idea that these manufacturing tools are becoming way more accessible to the masses, and not just stuck behind the doors of Ford or GE or something like that.

20:32 MV: They’re available and people just take, whether you’re 10 years old or 30 years old or 60 years old, I tend to see in people that are kind of building these things, there’s a lot of pride that goes into, “Hey, I made this. This is something that I designed, I printed or I built or I carved.” But there’s a lot of pride there and it gives people a different understanding and appreciation and even interest in how something, even like a piece of sports equipment is made. I mean, I’ve literally had to hand make baseball bats when I worked for a baseball equipment manufacturer and it gave me a completely new understanding of how they’re actually made.

21:22 MV: So, I could see that being an interesting way to teach sports or teach PE where you’re not only giving people the rules and kind of letting them, kind of experiment with the games and their athletic ability, but saying like, “Hey, this is how the first baseball bat or cricket bat was developed.” Then they can actually go out and do it to see how easy or difficult that may be. So I think it just gives people a new perspective, a little bit more context of where they’re coming from, and with, at least the equipment side of things.

22:02 JR: I mean, and there is a really big… That, what you’ve just sort of mentioned, it hits onto my… Probably one of the most exciting points for me is that whole ability for students to inquire… Be really inquisitive into the process of design and how that really impacts the performance. If you’re teaching anything from a teacher perspective, like biomechanics and, I mean, even sort of functional anatomy type concepts, and they can really get a hands-on sort of experience of designing something and seeing how it impacts on the potential performance. I mean, in a school context, that really sort of brings together other subject areas. So, it could be these sort of collaborative projects for people in design and tech classes, working together to build things for PE. I mean, that’s really exciting and I know that there’s some people that are doing some really exciting stuff in schools at the moment and I only expect that it’s probably likely to continue. Is school sort of like a growing area for 3D design and sort of 3D printing, do you think?

23:00 MV: Yeah, I’ve talked to, or I’ve seen a lot of printers go up in schools and at least the tools for designing being taught. It’s one of those things where it brings a level of excitement to people or gets people excited if you get a 3D printer into the school or the classroom. Like you were saying, it really hits a wide variety of topics, from science and engineering, to design and art, to PE. So, it has the ability to bring this kind of cross-collaboration or cross kind of discipline education together. And that’s happening in companies too, it’s just not in schools where a lot of companies don’t function like that, it’s kind of very siloed off where you have the design team, you have the business team, you have the engineering team, you have the manufacturing team, all kind of working in silos.

23:58 MV: But, because 3D printing is unique in the sense that it can do a lot of manufacturing fairly quickly, in terms of kind of condensing the timeline for how a part is built. Like it’s forcing these groups that otherwise may not have worked together as closely, really together. So, I think in schools, it’s very, very similar and it’ll be exciting to see how that grows. And kind of developing, like I was never exposed to 3D printing when I was in grade school at all. But it’ll be exciting to see some of the kids growing up now who have this exposure and probably, after a few practices, can be a better designer than me on some of these software tools like, what happens to them as they start to go into college and go into the professional world where it’s like expected that you have a 3D printing machine to use? So, it just opens the door, kind of kicks the door open to see what’s gonna happen in the future.

25:13 JR: Yeah, that’s without a doubt. Well, I mean, really thank you for your time today. And just to finish off, is there anything that you’re excited about in terms of things that maybe you’re working on, or even outside of the 3D printing space and that sort of sport and technology area that may have some implications for people in schools or just in sport in general?

25:35 MV: Yeah, I mean, I think from my perspective, there’s a lot going on. I think, in addition to 3D printing, sports wearables is a really exciting space. I’m doing some work there to bring the idea of sensors to equipments so that people can see how fast they’re swinging or how fast they’re throwing a ball, or things like that. So, that’s, at the moment, really being used for top level athletes.

26:08 JR: Yeah.

26:08 MV: But I think there is just as much opportunity at the lower ages as well, because it’s a different mentality. It may not necessarily be for measuring performance which is interesting, but it’s also one of those things where it’s kind of a platform to create community and create competition if you’re able to share your statistics with someone else in your city or in your state or in your country, so, even compare to those, so I would keep an eye out in the sports wearable space.

26:41 JR: Yeah, definitely. I mean, that… You can see that there’s so many devices that are starting to appear in that general setting. And I’m really excited to see where that wearable stuff sort of heads out, but it seems like it’s just the tip of the iceberg in what’s possible. And, yeah, I’m really excited by that.

27:00 MV: Definitely.

27:02 JR: Well, yeah, thank you heaps for, yeah, deciding to come onto the podcast today and sharing everything you know about 3D printing and the sort of implications in the physical education space. And where can people find out more about you if they want to do so?

27:17 MV: Sure. My website is called 3Dprintingreports, with an “S”.com. And it has a little bit about the work I do, and some ideas about the sports specific work that I’ve done as well. And you can also follow me on Twitter. I have two Twitter accounts. One also… One is for the 3D printing specific stuff, @3DReports. And then I also do a podcast on sports technology. I’ve been doing that for a few years. So this is almost kind of a cross pollination of podcasts here.

27:56 JR: It is.

27:56 MV: So, that’s called the sports… It’s called www.sportstechnologypodcast.com. Twitter, on that is @sportstechpod, for that.

28:08 JR: Yeah. Well, I mean, the links and everything to the show will be at thepegeek.com. And you can be able to go there and find all those links that have been mentioned in today’s episode. I just wanna thank you again for taking the time really early morning for you as well, which is really appreciated. But I, yeah, I definitely know that everyone listening has got a lot out of it, so thanks a lot!

28:29 MV: Absolutely. Thank you for having me up.

28:31 JR: Bye, mate.

28:32 MV: Thanks.

28:34 JR: All right. I really hope you enjoyed today’s episode with Mike Vasquez, and the sort of implications that 3D printing has surrounding the physical education classrooms of the future. Now, if you’d like to get any of the notes and resources mentioned in today’s episode, then you can head over to the thepegeek.com/32 and you’ll be able to find them all there as well as social media links to Mike and his podcast. On the next episode, number 33, we’re gonna be diving into different tools that you can use to support the sort of efficiency related to tracking student attendance, tracking behaviour, and sort of communicating these things to your administration, and also parents. There’s a number of tools that I’m using and have played with and built myself to support this particular function, and I’m really excited to dedicate an entire episode to them. Until next time, if you have any questions, you know where to get me at [email protected], or you can leave a voicemail at thepegeek.com/voicemail. All right. See you later.



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