New Equipment Designs Come From Player Input
By Steve Crandall
Vice President, Sales & Marketing
Ashaway Racket Strings
Ideas for new sporting equipment come from different sources. Some ideas come from new technologies. For example, soon after Du Pont perfected its Kevlar® aramid fiber, research and development (R&D) departments at sporting goods companies began looking for ways to use it; the result was stiff and durable racquet strings, lightweight canoes, and other new products. Some ideas come from stylists. With all the hype about sneaker "technology," I suspect that a lot of sports shoes are pure show. And sometimes, the best ideas for new products come from the sport's own participants.
That was the case recently, when a number of highly ranked badminton players in Southeast Asia began asking the local Ashaway distributor for new, very thin string with superior stiffness. Our distributor passed these requests along to us, and added his own suggestion that the string be visually distinctive as well.
Most of these players were using thin, 21-Micro gauge strings, but couldn't find the level of control they desired. A few liked the stiffness and control of even thinner 22-gauge strings, but were dissatisfied with their poor durability. Could we combine the best characteristics of both, and leave out the liabilities? We gave the challenge to textile engineer Peter Burns, head of our R&D department.
Peter began by analyzing the structures of our Flex 21® MICRO and MicroLegend™ strings, and set about to design a string that would be slightly stiffer at equal tension. He specified a different number and thickness of nylon filaments in the core, and changed the number of twists given to each filament as they're twisted together. Then he modified the number of filaments in the outer jacket or wear layer accordingly, so as to produce the same overall 21-Micro thickness. He also developed a special braiding pattern for the jacket, using four different colors to produce a jazzy "plaid" appearance.
We use special instruments to test new designs for tensile strength, loop strength, knot strength, and elongation. Through experience, we know that any string that falls below certain minimum values for each of these tests won't hold up in use. The new string was well above these values, so it qualified for the next stage of testing. "We've never found any lab tests that allow us to predict playability," said Peter. "For that, we do play testing."
We produced a few thousand feet of the prototype string, and provided samples to our distributor, to send to his network of play-testers. Every tester fills out a questionnaire, in which they rate the string as better, worse, or about the same as his or her usual string for power, control, durability, ease of stringing, etc. The player also reports how long the string lasted and, if it broke, describes exactly where in the racquet the break occurred. Then we compile the questionnaires, analyze the results and, if necessary, modify the design accordingly. Then we run through the whole testing process again.
In this case, we went through three sets of changes. Each time, the changes were subtle, but we were determined to provide precisely the kind of playability that these top-ranked players were seeking. In the end, the new string was judged a complete success by most of the play testers, so we put it into production and rolled it out on the market.
We rely heavily on our customers to tell us what they need to play a better game. In this case, our distributor was our eyes and ears. He played a key role in analyzing play-tester responses, and in making recommendations that were incorporated into the final product. From early indications, it looks like a success. In January, Jyri Aalto won the Finnish National Championship in Men's Singles using Ashaway's new 21-Micro gauge MicroPower™ string in a Victor racquet.
This article previously appeared in USA Badminton.