An athlete plays basketball in his bespoke wheelchair

Wheelchair basketball players are now able to enjoy 3D printed seats courtesy of Loughborough University's Sports Technology Institute and UK Sport. The seats are individually molded to each player's body, allowing them greater freedom of movement and offering better support where it's needed most.

The assembled custom wheelchair"Within any wheelchair basketball team, both the nature and the extent of the players' physical abilities vary considerably," said project leader Dr. Gavin Williams. "Traditionally players have had a very limited choice of seat designs and a tailor-made approach was not possible. The new seats, which include part of the backrests, are made specifically to accommodate each individual's needs."

The custom seatThe engineers behind the seats used 3D scanning technology to capture everything about the way the players sat in their chairs. Then they used 3D printers to bring those scans to life. The resulting seats are so customized they take into account the player's size, shape and even the nature of their disabilities. Players with spinal cord injuries for example, received seats with extra support around their lower backs.

After the new seats were delivered the players underwent a series of speed, acceleration and maneuverability tests. Across the board the players were able to move faster and easier than they could in their old-fashioned, non-customized seats.

"The sprint tests, for instance, showed that the new seats enabled the athletes to shave tenths of a second off their best times," says Dr Williams. "That represents a huge improvement in a player's ability to reach the ball and move around the court."

A total of eight athletes were offered the customized seats in last year's Paralympics and more are expected to benefit this year. Dr. Williams is hopeful that the technology will go main stream sooner rather than later.

"The advances we've made also have the potential to feed into improved seat design for wheelchair users in general," says Dr Williams. "In particular, bespoke seats could reduce the problems with pressure sores currently experienced by a great number of wheelchair users."