Inside Extreme Scale Tech|Friday, December 26, 2014
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Riding the Customization Wave 

If you pick almost any piece of sporting equipment, be it a golf club or a pair of skis, chances are high that CAD tools were behind its design. This way, sporting equipment manufacturers can ensure that each model delivers the precise aerodynamic properties that champions look for.

We’ve already seen the market begin its metamorphosis into one that is focused on customization, and nowhere is there a higher demand for this than for athletic equipment.

For surfers, custom boards have been the name of the game for decades. Even mass-produced boards are finished by hand, because the unique curves of a surfboard are too complex for most machines to handle. The result is that each board a slightly unique touch.

And while that one-of-a-kind feel might be nice to some, what happens when that board turns out to be your “magic board”—the board that synchronizes perfectly with you, and performs exactly how you like? Until Firewire Surfboards came along, you would have been out of luck.

We recently spoke with Bruce Pettibone, co-founder of ShapeLogic, the company that brought together the Firewire vision with NX software to bring the precision of CAM to the world of surfing.

“I’m a lifelong surfer, and I’ve been a user of NX for 20+ years,” explained Pettibone. “It was at one of the seminars at PLM World about seven years ago on the capability of updating a CAD model live over the Web—that was the lightbulb moment for me. I had been wanted to create something for the Web for about 20 years, but when I found out that you could update a parametric model live over the Web, I just knew that I had to do this for surfboards.”

“The Firewire Custom Board System is the first system of its kind that allows customers to modify CAD models live over the web,” said Pettibone. “And in the case of surfboards, stock surfboards are made to a certain length, thickness and set of widths, but often don’t fit a particular surfer’s exact specifications. So now experienced surfers who know their specs can dial in their exact specs to hit the volume of surfboard that they want.”

Firewire was the first surfboard company that based their designs on CAD and CAM, but with their previous PLM tool, they didn’t have a way to easily convert their models to meet custom specifications. To reach the market-at-large, the company needed an easy-to-use tool that could automate the design process and feed directly into Firewire’s CNC machines.

The result was an online tool called ShapeLogic Design-To-Order Live that brought CAD and CAM tools to the user through the Web. “If you could go online, custom design your own board, visualize it from every angle, and all without the fear of creating something that would not work, that would be the Holy Grail of the individual surfer’s relationship to his or her equipment,” says Firewire Surfboards CEO Mark Price.

The customer works directly with the CAD tool, so they are not only feeding the exact board specifications, they can actually see in real-time what form those changes will take, and how that affects the ever-important measure of a board’s volume relative to its user.

Unlike regular boards, which use polyurethane resin and polyurethane foam, Firewire uses EPS (expanded polystyrene) foam and epoxy resins, as well as aerospace composites found on their deck skins. The result is that your custom board will be durable enough to last you even longer, on top of being as light or lighter than standard polyurethane boards. This means that the board will handle more easily and precisely, while getting even more air during aerial maneuvers.

But its the matter of what to do when it is time for a new board that’s so important to the Firewire business model. Say the board you ordered did turn out to be perfect for you. When it comes time to order a new one, Firewire can go back through their records, find the exact program used to machine your existing board, and fashion another that is identical to it, effectively allowing that board’s magic to endure as long as you’d like.

For the time being, however, Firewire is catering uniquely to the niche of surfers who would know the specifications they are seeking without having to consult an expert. Pettibone said that consultation services are a possibility for the future, but for the time being Firewire’s user forums help to fill that role.

Regardless of the industry, the trend of customization offers consumers a unique opportunity to become more informed about the products they are commissioning. In the case of Firewire, informational videos and webinars from the team’s head shaper could not only lend a hand to the less experienced surfers in the bunch, but they effect it would have on the community as a whole would be to make a substantial number of surfers experts on board design and specifications.

According to Pettibone, the role of CAD and CAM tools is only expected to grow, particularly as far as sporting equipment is concerned. But customization is by no means expected to take over the entire market. While Firewire is currently the number two high-performance surfboard maker, Pettibone said their sites aren’t set on their competitor, Channel Islands Surfboards. The reason? Channel Islands supplies handmade boards that sport traditional materials, which means they cater to customers with different needs.

And ultimately, this is good news for the industry. Because like these various surfboards, there will always be a market for goods produced through high-volume methods, even while SMMs that focus on manufacturing custom designs gain momentum, just as Firewire is doing.

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