String R&D: Turning Wishes into Winners
By Steve Crandall
Vice President, Sales & Marketing
Ashaway Racket Strings
We got pretty good feedback last year when we did a couple of columns on how to make string. But a number of people wanted more: they wanted to know not just how string was made, but how we come up with ideas for new strings - how we determine needs in the marketplace - and then how we turn those ideas into reality. They didn't believe me when I said it was all based on my vision and foresight.
Ashaway's new SuperNick XL Micro has increased linear density resulting in superior durability for an 18 gauge string, while still providing gut-like performance and excellent playability at lower tensions. The new textured surface, like the other standard 17 gauge SuperNick XL products, allows for optimum shotmaking and excellent ball control. The new string has a distinctive bright yellow color with the trademark red and blue SuperNick XL crossing pattern embedded in the string to make it easily recognizable as a member of the Ashaway SNXL family of squash strings.
And actually, the process is rather complex and exacting. It has to be, because while it is expensive to develop a new string, it's even more expensive to develop the wrong new string. That's why we try to keep the process so close to the court: most of our new string ideas come from players and we make sure new designs are thoroughly play-tested before we ever market them.
A good case in point is SuperNick® XL Micro which we introduced last year. After the earlier roll-out of PowerNick® 18 - which was one of the first successful strings to use the new Zyex® fibers - players from all over started asking us to make an 18 gauge SuperNick also. They liked the softer playability of the nylon multifilament core, but now wanted the increased resiliency and ball control afforded by a thinner string as well.
An 18 gauge string is only one tenth of a millimeter thinner than a 17 gauge string. But removing 0.1 mm from a construction as compact and dynamic as SuperNick XL and maintaining the same playing characteristics is easier said than done. It is not just a question of making everything a certain percent smaller. All the component materials have their own physical properties and strength limits, plus the way the structure of the string interacts with the ball also varies with size. So we had to redesign from the ground up.
The big worry was that we would lose durability. We were afraid that the amount of nylon multifilament we could fit in an 18 gauge package would simply not be strong enough. Fortunately, we were able to find a smaller denier of core filament (denier is a unit by which the fineness of yarn is measured) which also provided increased linear density and thus, more cross-sectional strength.
With a smaller core, reducing the jacket structure was not so complicated. Our prototype string passed all our lab's tests and we soon had sets available for play-testing. Many people think the secret of a string's success is measured by some arcane equipment in the lab. The fact is, lab testing is only the first step, and not a very definitive one at that. The only way you can really tell how a string will perform is to put it in a racquet and play with it.
We like to play-test with as many players as possible and under as varied conditions as possible. Thus, over the years, we have built up a network of trusted players in Malaysia, the UK and the US, which affords us the broadest range of climate, environmental conditions, and player styles possible. And the results we got back from our first version of SuperNick XL Micro were... not good. Durability was not up to par.
Could it be, we wondered, that reducing the jacket structure was more complicated than we thought? Back at the drawing board, we realized that by re-engineering the braid just a bit, we could actually add more fibers to the core. This package got good marks from our play testers: good gut-like performance, good resiliency and ball control, excellent playability at lower tensions, and acceptable durability.
But we still weren't done. Another round of prototype strings went out, this time to test the string's appearance characteristics. And I'm happy to say the bright yellow color with the trademark red and blue SuperNick XL crossing pattern was a winner from the start, as is SuperNick XL Micro, which has enjoyed very good success in its young life, garnering a sizeable base of happy users and earning a solid place in our line-up.
This article previously appeared in Squash Magazine.