'The Bionic is not an innovation – it's a breakthrough'
A 3D printed gunstock improves the performance of biathletes and opens up new opportunities for a business with a long tradition, says Anschütz manager Benjamin Wirthgen.
Anschütz is a company with a tradition going back five generations. The company dominates the market for biathlon rifles. How does innovation come about in such an environment?
Development is going on all the time – after all, we are talking about a competitive high-performance sport. The waxes used for the skis are optimised, training methods are optimised. And constant improvements are being made to the rifles too. The performance of the rifle in competition plays a key role, but ergonomics is also very important in order to prevent injuries to the joints or postural defects. This is an area where we are once again a pioneer: with the first 3D printed stock for a biathlon rifle – created in collaboration with umlaut – we are able to tailor the stock to the individual athlete to a much greater extent.
Why is it that today's biathletes almost exclusively use Anschütz rifles?
In the mid-nineteen seventies, our Managing Director Dieter Anschütz sparked a little revolution by advocating the use of the Olympic 5.6-millimetre small calibre cartridge for the biathlon. Up until then, only large calibre cartridges had been used, shooting from a distance of 100 or 200 metres. This step meant a reduction in ammunition costs, but much more importantly – biathlon became significantly more accessible for the public, as the audience could come much closer to the athletes and get a good view of what was happening. Competitions such as the World Cup in Oberhof, where it is often foggy, would be unthinkable with a shooting distance of 100 metres. You simply wouldn't be able to see anything.
So you have been involved as a supplier right from the start?
Yes, but our success is also in part owed to a technical innovation. In the nineteen eighties, the company collaborated with gunsmith Peter Fortner from Rosenheim to develop a rifle with a new lock. Instead of repeating by means of a lever, athletes can use their thumb for quick and simple locking, and their index finger to reopen again. Anyone who has watched a biathlon event will be familiar with this hand movement. The development gave athletes a major advantage in terms of time and today it still gives us an edge over our competitors. At the last Winter Olympics, all the medals were won by athletes who were using Anschütz rifles.
Have there been any further developments to the product since the nineteen eighties?
In terms of the smaller details, a number of changes have been made: updated sights, optimisation of the lock action, options to adjust the stock, and more besides. One thing that has always been difficult for us as an industrial enterprise was the idea of being able to customise our rifles to suit individual requirements, in particular the gunstock. The Bionic stock opens up a whole new way of doing things for us. Using scanned handprints, we print it as an industry-standard series that meets demanding environmental and stress requirements. This is not an innovation, it's a breakthrough.
How did the collaboration with umlaut come about?
umlaut approached us with a prototype. This was the result of a Rookie Challenge, a concept whereby a group of young and talented individuals work together on a specific task. I think it's a pretty cool story in itself. The projects are accompanied by umlaut specialists, so we knew that the idea was backed up by engineering expertise. So we said: we'll take a risk and try it. We then worked together to put the product through the further stages of development until it was ready for series production and agreed on a risk-sharing model for manufacturing. That means we are also now partners in business.
What advantages does the "Bionic" give athletes?
The type of plastic we are using is new in the sport. We therefore put it through intensive testing, with breaking tests and function tests at a temperature of minus 30 degrees Celsius. I can tell you that this material really only has advantages. In terms of design, the Bionic is lightweight yet at the same time has optimised force absorption. The level of precision is likewise higher because we have developed a new bedding procedure for the neuralgic connection between the stock and the grip. This makes a difference of around one millimetre in shooting results on the test stand. I was supposed to be going to Tokyo this summer, to the Summer Olympic Games. The riflemen and women there require an even higher level of precision. Here too, I can see technology helping us in the future.