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Artificial intelligence meets power

A German start-up and Oerlikon AM help athletes attain optimal training results

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By Gerhard Waldherr

It has the same size and appearance as a rubber eraser: A black housing with a lightly roughened surface in which a small orange V is embossed. The Vmaxpro has a sleek exterior. What actually makes this small device exceptional, however, are its inner workings, which could soon take the arena of popular sports by storm. The fact that it also has a story to tell about additive manufacturing makes it just that much more intriguing.

Location: Magdeburg, Lorenzweg 43. The office of Blaumann & Meyer – Sports Technology UG can be found on the second floor of a yellow Art Nouveau villa. Marcel Blaumann, an athletic young man who talks about his product with enthusiasm, is waiting. From the electronics to the design and even the associated app, everything is the result of his own development work, he says. And, naturally, he wants to provide his visitor with a demonstration of how it works.

Blaumann fetches a barbell and places it on the floor. The Vmaxpro sticks to the bar magnetically. Blaumann starts the app on his smartphone. He selects the category of “muscle building” and “deadlift” as the exercise.

The app, your friend and trainer

What happens next is fascinating. Artificial intelligence meets power. The app says: 55 kg, three repetitions to warm up. Blaumann lifts the barbell three times. The system reports the speed of motion in seconds per meter. The smartphone instantly displays the maximum weight in dependence on your personal day’s form (196 kg) as well as the optimal weight (142 kg) for the training session. The next instructions: five to six repetitions at 142 kg. In addition, a graphic shows the primary stimulus that will be applied to the muscles.

Marcel Baumann, CEO, Blaumann & Meyer – Sports Technology UG

“The system,” explains Blaumann, “interprets all the available data: the lifting speed, previous training performance, general sports science findings as well as my personal form today. It uses this to calculate the optimal strength training session for my individual training objective.”

He studied mechatronics in Mannheim and subsequently worked for ABB, an energy and technology firm with headquarters in Zurich. In his free time, he engages in mixed martial arts, which also entails strength training. “The danger in strength training,” says Blaumann, “is overdoing it, which leads to injury. Doing an exercise with too much weight increases the risk of injury. Using too little weight doesn’t bring results. The question of how to optimize strength training has always been on my mind.”

Algorithms to make you strong

That question was also a factor in his second course of studies, Sports and Technology, in Magdeburg. Blaumann knows: “Speed is the key. In weight lifting, for example, an athlete knows that if he can achieve a certain speed, he’ll manage the weight.” There are devices available that measure speed during strength training, but they are extremely expensive and are therefore used only in professional sports. They also record and analyze the motion of the barbell. “Eighty percent of what an athlete does right or wrong can be recognized based on the motion of the barbell.”

Blaumann is convinced that everyone who engages in strength training needs that information. “There are huge numbers of ambitious recreational athletes who go to the gym and lift weights but are ultimately frustrated when they don’t reach their goals.” Because they are training wrong. Because they aren’t being instructed or monitored and hardly anyone can afford a personal trainer. And that is where the idea for the Vmaxpro was conceived. During an internship at the Olympic Training Center in Magdeburg, he met the sports medicine scientist Dr. Guido Meyer, who was immediately fascinated. The idea of starting a company was proposed.

This is the point at which Oerlikon came into play. Blaumann had put together the electronics and developed the software; there was even a design for the housing already. But he had no idea how to get it made. An injection mold costs considerably more than 10,000 Euros. Too expensive. Initial trials with a 3D printer found via the Internet proved unsatisfactory. The electronics package was still too large. The shape didn’t fit. The usual problems a start-up faces. Blaumann needed professional support, so he consulted with professors and fellow students. Ultimately, one said: “Why don’t you go to citim?”

Located in Barleben near Magdeburg, citim was established in 1996 as a spin-off of the University of Magdeburg and is one of Europe’s additive manufacturing protagonists. The first laser sintering system (plastics) was installed in 2004 and the first laser beam melting system (metal) in 2009. Currently, the company has more than 20 printers for metal and ten for plastics. Since 2017, citim has been part of the Oerlikon Group.

Win-win for Oerlikon and customer

“We are always happy to get inquiries like the one from Blaumann & Meyer,” says Nils Raschke, Project Manager AM Polymers at Oerlikon. Especially because the challenge with the Vmaxpro did not involve metal powder, but rather polymers and the requirement of achieving a surface quality that was suitable for series production. “With projects like this,” says Raschke, “we can improve our ‘out of the box’ production skills. All our customers benefit from this learning effect.” What’s more, Oerlikon AM is naturally interested in promoting the theme of additive manufacturing, especially in Magdeburg as a center of technology.

A little later, the scene has changed to the Oerlikon AM production shop. There is humming and whistling and hissing, as 3D printers, CNC machines and printed parts are everywhere. Raschke opens the door to a separate area with glass walls. There stands the M2 from the California company Carbon, with which the Vmaxpro is printed. It is a futuristic looking white cylinder. At the top is a semi-circular pane with a golden shimmer. The Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP) process used for printing here was developed by Carbon. With it, objects are fabricated from a liquid synthetic resin using UV light.

A glance through the pane reveals a product taking shape not layer by layer, but slowly as a single piece. It looks as if an object were being pulled out of a thick, black soup. The part is subsequently cleaned in what is known as a washer. Afterward, it is hardened in an oven at from 120 to 210 degrees Celsius for eight to twelve hours, depending on the plastic used. In contrast to laser sintering, the end product has a fine surface texture that looks as if it were the result of injection molding.

And the best part: A housing for the Vmaxpro, which consists of three parts, costs Blaumann & Meyer significantly less for a series of 1,000 pieces than it would using injection molding. It’s also possible to incorporate modifications later on quickly and cost effectively.

Headlines worldwide

Carbon and its CLIP technology recently attracted international attention as Adidas presented its first polymer soles fabricated by means of 3D printing. They are the foundation for a custom sports shoe adapted perfectly to the foot of any athlete. In addition, Ridell, a manufacturer of helmets for football players, is now working with this 3D process for padding. Experts are already talking about a new trend in the sporting goods industry that will permit more creativity and change not only what, but also how, products are manufactured in the future.

One could say that also holds true for Blaumann and his Vmaxpro, which is already in use at almost all Olympic Training Centers in Germany for all Olympic disciplines and all team sports. “The feedback is thoroughly positive.” Blaumann’s real objective, though, goes beyond professionals and Olympic athletes. He wants to conquer the whole range of popular sports. He recently sold 250 of his measuring instruments by means of crowd funding. That has secured the continuation of the business for the time being. But to market his product on a large scale, he needs an investor. Blaumann says: “Then we could really get moving.” The 3D printers at Oerlikon AM in Barleben are ready to go in any case.

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