Players Have A Big Say In New Products
By Steve Crandall
Vice President, Sales & Marketing
Ashaway Racket Strings
Where does new sports equipment come from? (No, it's not the stork.) Here's the story of how a new racquetball string entered the world.
We used to manufacture a string with a very particular focus: extreme durability and superior control for chronic string breakers. The string possessed these qualities by virtue of its construction, which consisted mainly of:
This very stiff string was not designed to be a mass-market seller. With little elasticity or power, it was a niche product for really powerful players.
- A core of aramid fiber, which provided great strength, stiffness, and tension-holding ability.
- An outer jacket of highly abrasion-resistant nylon monofilaments with an unusual oval cross-section; when four of these fibers were twisted around the core, they gave the string a unique, square cross-section, which would bite deeply into the surface of the ball.
But then the company that manufactured the oval fibers stopped making them. We announced that we would have to discontinue the string.
Usually, such an announcement is received without much comment, because there are lots of competing strings on the market. But this string had such a specific focus that the players who used it had nowhere to turn. We began hearing from distributors and retailers, who were hearing from their customers, who were urging that a string of this description had to be produced.
So we asked Peter Burns, head of our Research & Development department, to come up with a new, stiff, durable string with good "bite" and extreme resistance to breakage and creep. Peter started by placing two round nylon monofilaments side by side, which nearly replicated the cross-section of the oval fibers. He braided four pairs of the round monofilaments together in a kind of basket-weave fashion, to build up the same total weight of nylon as in the old jacket. Because it was no longer possible to build up a square cross-section, the braid was given a "nubby" texture, which would have a similar gripping effect.
Peter had also been investigating a fiber from Hoechst Celanese, called Vectran®, for possible use as a core material. Vectran exhibits excellent tensile strength, abrasion resistance, and low creep, and has a vibration-damping effect in some applications. "We're always testing new materials that seem to hold promise for racquet string," said Peter. "We didn't know if it would be a good aramid replacement, but it was worth trying."
When the prototype string was ready, it was tested on a special instrument to measure tensile strength and knot strength. Through experience, we know that any string that falls below certain minimum values won't hold up in use, and the new string was well above these values. But that's about it for lab 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 string, and provided samples to our network of play-testers. We usually start with high-level players, because they have greater opportunities to test new strings, and will uncover weaknesses sooner than less skilled players. If they like it, we send samples to players of all skill levels, all around the country.
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 and analyze the results. If any serious shortcomings appear, it's back to R&D to see if they can be fixed. In this case, we got it right the first time; the new design proved itself equal to the old one in durability, control, and tension holding, while power was actually increased. We managed to retain all of the old design's advantages, and eliminate its one serious limitation.
So now we're about to put the new string into production. Maybe the players who liked the old model will love it, or maybe we missed some subtle characteristic that makes all the difference in the world to them. Maybe a competitor will introduce a new string for the same niche in the meantime, or maybe we've got a winner on our hands. The product started with consumer demand; technology played a big role in making it happen; but the consumer still has the final say.
This article previously appeared in Racquetball Magazine.