Are you one of the many convinced there are no real frontiers left for golf equipment? Even the hardest-core dreamers believe we’re pretty much maxed-out. With that as a backdrop, the recent announcement by Cobra that it has begun leveraging 3D Metal Jet printing qualifies as a Grade-A big deal. It may very well be the next great revolution in golf equipment manufacturing.

That’s right, manufacturing. 3D printing has been a valuable R&D tool for years, but Cobra is jumping with both feet into golf club manufacturing using HP 3D Metal Jet printers.

And the deeper you dive into the possibilities, the more it becomes clear that this technology has the potential to completely change damn near everything.

Photo Credit: Digital Alloys

Brave New World

“We first started thinking about 3D metal printing maybe eight, ten years ago, thinking it would be 15 to 20 years out,” Mike Yagley, Cobra’s VP of Innovation and AI, tells MyGolfSpy. “Here is it less than a decade later and we’re doing it.”

You’re probably familiar with 3D printing: an actual “printer” connected to a computer that squirts out a three-dimensional object. 3D printing has been used in the golf space for years; first to create plastic mockups and then to create actual prototypes.

There are two problems with 3D printing metal parts, however. It’s very slow and it’s very expensive.

That’s where HP comes in.

‘We’ve been hoping a day would come where we could use it for something besides just prototyping,” says Ryan Roach, Cobra’s Senior Principle Innovation Engineer. “The Metal Jet technology HP is using may not replace all the conventional manufacturing methods we currently use. But it’s a heck of a lot closer than we thought it would be from both a cost and a supply standpoint.”

How close? While details are scant, the first product from Cobra 3D Metal Jet printing will hit the stores this fall.

Photo Credit: Digital Alloys

The Technology

If you want to make a golf club, you have three choices. You can forge it, you can cast it, or you can mill it. All three methods are considered subtractive manufacturing, meaning material is machined away – or subtracted – until you have a finished product. 3D printing is additive manufacturing. Material is added together and fused – layer by layer – under computer control to make a 3D object.

As mentioned earlier, printing metal objects is common. The process, however, has been far too slow and expensive (up to 50 times slower and 10 times the cost of traditional manufacturing) to be anything other than an R&D tool.

“It accelerates the design process, which is a good thing,” says Roach. “But since we have to use traditional methods for production, we can’t take full advantage of all the benefits additive [printing] can bring to the design. It buys us time, but not performance.”

So, in theory, R&D could create a revolutionary – and conforming – design that could help the ball fly farther and straighter and with better sound and feel. A 3D printer could then whip up a prototype. However, if traditional manufacturing can’t actually mass-produce it, the idea dies on the vine.

“Complicated shapes with holes and undercuts can’t be made with traditional manufacturing,” says Roach. “Additive enables designs with voids, channels, and even living hinges that are virtually impossible to make with other methods. And we can do it without adding significant cost to the process.”

Metal Jet printing technology makes it possible. HP first introduced Metal Jet printing, which is adapted from its desktop inkjet printer, just two years ago. The company says it can squirt out production-grade metal parts some 50 times faster and at a significantly lower cost than other 3D metal printing technology.

“If you wanted to invest in a metal printing machine, it might have been a million dollars or more just for one machine,” says Yagley. “The costs have come way down. HP has come up with a way to make 3D metal printing cost-effective for manufacturing.”

Golfer Benefits

The walls between what R&D can invent and what manufacturing can make are clearly tumbling down. That’s cool, but what does it mean for you?

“We can now take full advantage of the design space,” says Roach. “We can place metal only where it’s needed without some unnecessary metal going along for the ride in order to manufacture the part. Manufacturing with Metal Jet means inefficient designs will no longer be tolerated.”

If you think about traditional casting or forging, the limitations are obvious. Intricate designs that could improve face flexibility simply can’t be done. Complicated lightweight lattice structures are virtually impossible. With 3D Metal Jet printing, if you can imagine it, you can make it.

“We can move mass around to lighten up a structure but still make it stiff enough and strong enough,” says Yagley. “We can put the CG right where we want it, and then build the structure around it. It’ll give you the resilience you need, it’ll sound good, it’ll feel good. And we can move mass to where you really need it.”

And it can happen quickly. Cobra, in conjunction with Metal Injection Molding leader Parmatech, started this project just last June. Over that time, Parmatech printed over 3,400 parts in 56 different designs. The very first samples went to Cobra in less than a week.

“If you were to tool that up, it would be a very intricate tool,” says Roach. “It would take a lot of time to make and you may find that you can’t even do it. Here you just change the CAD model, make sure the build parameters are okay, and then you print it.”

This is where things get really interesting.

A Whole New Fitting Ballgame

Just how big of a game-changer is 3D Metal Jet printing? Imagine having a set of clubs designed and manufactured just for you.

“Traditional manufacturing involves a large tooling expense to create many of the same part,” says Roach. “With Metal Jet, it’s possible to make each part unique without adding any expense.”

That’s a whole new level of custom fitting.

“Right now, we make thousands of identical clubheads, and then we to fit them to the golfer using the tools we have,” says Roach. “We adjust loft, lie, change shafts, move weight with a track or whatever. But with Metal Jet, we can give the fitter more freedom to help the golfer figure out what they need, and then make it for them.”

Say you and a buddy go in for a fitting. The fitter may find you need a lower CG more toward the toe while your buddy may need a higher CG in the center. You may want a thinner topline and need a tad more offset with a slightly thicker sole, while your buddy may need less offset and a thinner sole. That info can be turned into two separate CAD files, and your clubs can be custom printed just for you without any added cost to actually produce the head.

“There’s no tooling involved,” says Roach. “So you don’t have to worry about all that expense and time to build your club. We can fit down to a more granular level.”

“That’s looking at the future,” adds Yagley. “But we want to walk before we run. There are massive opportunities, but in the near term, we’re looking to make products that give you mechanical and physical properties you can’t get from conventional manufacturing techniques. That’s what we need to do first.”

This is next-level stuff compared to using Artificial Intelligence to design a driver face or an iron. While AI can simulate different designs in ways humans can’t, traditional manufacturing is still the limiting factor.

“AI software defines stuff like it has to be forgeable or it has to be castable,” explains Roach. “That puts limits on it so you can’t get to all the possibilities. But if you take those limits off, then you could design something even better.”

A Return to Domestic Manufacturing?

Since we’re talking about computers, printers, and a bunch of ones and zeroes, could Metal Jet technology bring manufacturing back to the U.S.?

“Yes,” says Yagley. “That’s not pie in the sky. It’s very possible. We’re doing it right now.”

That’s not to say there isn’t still a considerable amount of welding, grinding, buffing, and scoring (aka – handwork) that needs to happen before the parts become a golf club. The day a 3D Metal Jet printer will squirt out a nearly finished golf club head is still a long way off.

“Right now, we’re just talking about fabricating a chunk of metal,” Yagley says. “We can make this chunk of metal, but we need to turn it into a finished product. There’s still a lot of handwork going on. We’ll need to reinvent the process of converting that chunk of metal from what it is into a pretty golf club. There are people working on that.”

Metal Jet printing is an energy-intensive process. You literally have to melt metal powder in the printer itself in order to print out a part. Then that part needs to be put into an oven to bake out the polymer binding agents to turn it into a finished part. Production centers would need to be located where energy is relatively cheap and with easy access to a supply chain. And since Metal Jet printers can print anything, a company might make golf club parts one day, automotive parts another, and medical instruments another.

“Our parts need some post-processing,” adds Yagley. “So, either a current vendor sets up a metal printing shop and converts the printed parts into a finished head, or the parts will need to be shipped elsewhere for finishing. Either way, the process for making parts is changing, and is going to change a lot more in the next several years.”

A Business Sea Change

Raise your hand if you’re old enough to remember Ry Cooder. Rolling Stone magazine ranks Cooder eighth on its list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. In 1979, Cooder released an album called Bop Till You Drop – the very first pop/rock album recorded using digital technology. It wasn’t long before all music was recorded digitally, and ultimately sold and consumed digitally as well.

This fall’s club from Cobra 3D Metal Jet printing is golf’s Bop Till You Drop.

And it’s going to change everything.

“As this technology matures, it’s going to get better and better and faster and faster,” says Roach. “Then you could have more on-demand production. Maybe we won’t have to carry three months’ worth of inventory in a warehouse somewhere.”

Since the process for design and manufacturing is the same, products can get to market faster and far less expensively. Tools for different prototypes and iterations won’t need to be made. “This production method gets the product launched faster,” says Roach. “No tooling is required, and the ability to mix part types within a build enables production flexibility.”

“There’s a business to doing golf,” adds Yagley. “If you’re making something overseas, you don’t want to air ship it here. It would be too expensive, so you put it on a boat. But if you put it on a boat, it may take two months before you see it. There’s a cost to that. There’s an opportunity cost, and a supply chain cost. Even if you paid a little more for the head to be made in the United States, you could have it faster, and there’s a value to that.

“It’s not just ‘how much does a head cost?’ It’s ‘how quickly can you get it? How quickly could you go from a fitting to here’s the head made just for you?’ If the consumer is willing to pay for that, then the whole business makes more sense.”

Near Term, Long Term

Long term, it’s easy to let your imagination run amuck with possibilities. Full set customization, complete design freedom, and end products that are lighter, more forgiving, higher launching, and better feeling make golfers all silly with excitement. But things like affordable domestic manufacturing, lower shipping costs, just-in-time manufacturing, and lower inventory costs make the business types do the Cha-Cha.

“We have concepts we think will make better products,” says Yagley. “If we do that, the businesspeople, the development people – they’ll get to work figuring a way to make more of them, make them less expensively and make them faster.”

I asked Yagley and Roach how long it would be before Cobra 3D Metal Jet printing becomes mainstream. Their replies were both cautious and optimistic.

“If mainstream means launching a product for sale that anyone could buy, well…” says Roach, with an eye towards this fall’s release. “Our expectation is it starts small and gradually increases in our lineup to some point down the road where it reaches critical mass. It’s a many year roadmap to get to that point.”

“As this progresses, you might see one-off things come out that might wind up in a Tour player’s bag,” adds Yagley. “We’re proving the technology and what better way to prove it out than with some of the best players in the world.”

If only Cobra had a guy on staff who’d geek out over something this advanced and be willing to try it.

Hell, he’d probably want to run the machine.

Details on this fall’s Cobra 3D Metal Jet printing project are strictly hush-hush. Based on the imagery provided, it’s pretty clear the new product will include plenty of intricate latticework. And an image from the joint HP-Cobra-Parmatech online presentation shows a latticed-out iron head, but Cobra isn’t talking. I even tried asking if the club or clubs they’re planning will go a long way or a short way.

“It depends on how far you can throw it,” replied Roach.

All the cool stuff – the domestic manufacturing, the custom fit manufactured clubs, all of it – is still down the road. But as with objects in the rearview mirror, the future might be closer than it would appear. Cobra admits it didn’t think it would reach this point as quickly as it did, so who knows?

“Our job is to make an innovative product that’s better in some aspect,” says Yagley. “It could be feel, it could be ball speed, it could be spin or forgiveness – something that makes it better.

“Then we’ll figure out how to make more of them. And a lot of them.”