Match fit

Sports equipment manufacturers are constantly striving to push the performance envelope, just like the athletes who use their products. Anna Richardson looks at the processes involved, from intensive testing to analysis of user feedback

Whether you’re kicking a football with your perfectly engineered boot or absorbing the might of Rafael Nadal’s forehand through a tennis racquet, in sport the performance of your equipment could make the difference between winning or second best. And the design process can be a long one, from the initial market research through intensive prototyping to final finishes and textures. ‘Prototypes are vital for development in sports,’ says Ian Savage, research and development engineer for Gilbert Rugby. ‘They allow you to consider a variety of issues, from cost implications to player touch and feel, and can also be a strong tool in reaching a product launch deadline.’

Gilbert fits ball development into a four-year cycle to deliver a new ball around 12 months before a rugby world cup. The design process is divided into three stages. Stage one is theoretical work, using highspeed video capture and computational fluid dynamics to create a virtual world where a variety of modifications can be made quickly; stage two is prototyping manufacture and testing using a kicking machine. ‘This stage allows us to test different prototypes in exactly the same way, without any human error,’ explains Savage. ‘This usually leads to re-prototyping and then stage three, which involves using top players and coaches to get feedback on performance of the prototypes. Whatever the theory may suggest, the ball must perform on the pitch.’

With football boots, performance on the pitch is also key, as is player feedback, both from amateurs and professionals. Adidas got through more than 300 pairs of wear-test shoes during the design of its new F50i boot, which was worn by Lionel Messi in last week’s Champion’s League final and launches in the UK on 1 July.

Football is a contact sport, and with its insistence on quality of materials and construction, Adidas needs to test durability at regular intervals. Boots such as the Predator, which is about delivering power, swerve and control, are put through their paces with a mechanical kicking machine. But it’s not just the wear and tear that’s tested. ‘The aesthetics and the finish of the materials are equally important,’ says Jay Lee, Adidas senior designer, football. ‘You need to understand what the material looks like from the early stages – we even try to design [material] textures.’

Prototypes are key in gauging consumer reaction. The Adidas design process follows an extensive period of market research, and needs to take the temperature of consumer reaction at every step. The F50i is the first to use the flashy new SprintSkin material, which allows the boot to be made of a single layer, fitting the player like a second skin, and a thermo-bonded lace cover. It’s aimed at the equally flashy, faster player, who wants to show off on the pitch, and so generating a ‘wow factor’ was important during the design stages.

‘The material is loud,’ says Aubrey Dolan, Adidas product manager of football footwear. ‘We want [consumers] to be blown away and to experience that wow effect.’

In the final stages of design, football boot prototypes – often black versions to keep design details under wraps – are then used by professional players. ‘If you ask Zinedine Zidane whether the shoe is perfect, he has to say “yes”,’ says Dolan.

Richard Palmer, chief executive of D3o, agrees that player and user feedback is important and says there’s a fine balance between player and laboratory testing. Through the evolution of its unique polymer material, D3o contributes to the design of sporting kit, such as the new Youtek tennis racquet range from Head.

‘In some cases, people can perceive things that are not always very easy to measure,’ says Palmer. ‘There is a mixture of trying to extract real quantitative data from subjective tests and linking that to the laboratory. If you were to play tennis with boxing gloves on, you would be totally disengaged. You need to have some physical feedback in order to understand what’s going on.’

Seymour Powell co-founder Dick Powell discovered that feedback was slightly more difficult to obtain when he took on the challenge of reinventing horse saddle design. ‘The horse can’t talk to you,’ he says. ‘Sometimes a horse that is deemed to be difficult has no other way of expressing its discomfort. Comfort for the rider was low on our agenda. It was all about avoiding injury to the horse.’

It took more than two years and in excess of 15 prototypes to bring the Quantum AMS saddle to market, from the proof of principle prototypes to complex foam versions, which were then tested by professional three-day event riders. ‘It is an empirical process,’ Powell explains. ‘With sports equipment that’s the only way. You have to get people who really understand the field.’

He says that the development of the saddle was a ‘labour of love’. ‘We were trying to create a saddle that was better for the horse, which forced a complete abandonment of known saddle thinking,’ adds Powell.

But not all equipment design tries to reinvent the wheel. In rugby, the size and weight of the balls are determined by fixed parameters, so design has to look at the materials used and how they are made, says Savage. Improvements can be made on the outer surface, the inner laminations and the bladder.

Gilbert recently designed a new pimple pattern to apply to the outer surface rubber, for example, using etched steel mould plates. ‘These changes have an aerodynamic effect on the ball, which greatly affects performance,’ says Savage. From materials innovation to satisfying the trend-conscious football kid and the density of a surface pimple, design processes have a lot to test in the world of sports.

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