U.S. lugers Justin Krewson and Andrew Sherk made their Olympic debut Wednesday in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in a custom ride made with the help of 3-D printers in Minnesota.

Eden Prairie-based Stratasys Ltd. customized the sled Krewson and Sherk used in the doubles luge competition.

While the pair didn’t take home any medals, the technology is seen as a competitive improvement in aerodynamics and the time it takes to build and test the sleds.

Stratasys is a leading maker of 3-D printers used in factory and office settings. Its industrial customers include automotive, aerospace and sporting goods producers.

Aerodynamic challenges that are found in aerospace are similar to those for racing sleds that travel along ice tracks at speeds greater than 85 miles per hour, the company said.

“The requirements for aerospace and the luge team are almost parallel, identical because they want to be as efficient and aerodynamically optimized as possible,” David Dahl, an applications engineer for Stratasys, said in an interview. “So a little bit of drag here or a little bit of friction there and you could lose the race.”

The company has been working with the U.S. luge team for a little less than two years brainstorming ideas for how to improve sleds, Dahl said. Digital scans of the athletes’ bodies were used for the 3-D printing of the “tools,” or molds, for the complex front part of the sled called the “doubles tower,” where the riders’ legs are positioned. The tools were also used for the body of the sled, he said.

Stratasys began printing the tools from composite materials around the end of last summer. The team then used them to produce the sled. Whereas normally a tool could take six to eight weeks to make, the 3-D printers took less than two weeks to produce them, Dahl said.

The sled was supposed to be just a prototype, but Krewson and Sherk liked it so much that they decided to use it during the Olympics, Dahl said.

“Our riders depend on comfortable, aerodynamic sled designs to win races,” Jon Owen, USA Luge’s technical programs manager, said in a statement. “In teaming with Stratasys, we’ve become much more competitive on the world stage — continuously adjusting designs and running them on the track much faster than traditional processes.”

Dahl said people shouldn’t be surprised to see wider applications of 3-D printing down the road.

“As this engagement continues to grow, we are going to start including more athletes and we are not going to just print the tools and the molds, we want to start printing sections of the sleds,” he said.


Twitter: @nicolenorfleet