On course for victory

To stay ahead, athletes rely on increasingly high-tech equipment. Patrick Murphy looks at a university course that helps put the science into sport

Tradition was once important in sport. Sports equipment makers stuck to trusted designs, and craftsmen made products by hand. Ex-professionals were more likely to be at the drawing board than qualified engineers.

But not anymore. Sports stars are demanding the very best to boost their performance and only properly trained engineers can provide this.

Roy Jones, a one-time apprentice with Lucas aerospace, has worked with the sports industry since the mid 1980s. As the recently appointed professor of sports technology at Loughborough University, he is about to launch the UK’s first undergraduate course in the discipline.

`It’s a product design course with everything that goes with it. It will include biomechanics, materials, procurement, patents, regulations, marketing and a final year design project,’ he says.

The university has the largest engineering faculty outside London. It has a strong sporting tradition and a large physical education faculty. Jones says this provides a good foundation for his course, as a third of its content – that dealing with the athlete and the human aspects of sports technology – will be taught by the sports science department. It is a combination which he hopes can help reverse the decline in student numbers studying engineering.

`Our manufacturing engineering department takes 90 students a year with an average of 20 Ucas points – a B and two Cs at A-Level. To get 90 takers we make around 700 offers,’ says Jones.

By comparison, Loughborough’s physical education department has an entrance requirement of 26 points. It attracts 2,000 suitable applicants for 150 places. `Students studying physical education don’t need maths or physics,’ Jones says. `But 20% of applicants have acceptable qualifications for engineering. We’ve analysed the profile of students on the sports-related courses and 38% said they would consider applying for a sport-related engineering course. We also did market research on companies in the business, and 30% said they would support the course.’

The course, which will have its first intake in autumn next year, will take 30 students. Jones says there will be an emphasis on awareness of the regulations covering sports equipment `down to the dimple pattern on golf balls’.

Knowledge of such regulations is vital to designers, as failure to win approval for a new product could cost hundreds of millions of pounds in lost sales.

The same applies to intellectual property rights. Using the example of dimple patterns again, these are heavily patented. `If someone takes you to court over a pattern, sales are suspended while the case is processed. But that’s not all. If your ball isn’t included in the register of approved balls published by the Royal & Ancient then it won’t sell,’ says Jones.

Research will form an important part of Jones’s work. As he points out, sport these days is a high-tech business. Sports technology stretches engineering to its limits as the difference between success and failure has narrowed, and the extra millisecond or centimetre that well-designed equipment can deliver becomes more crucial.

Sports shoes now use advanced materials, such as DuPont’s Zytel glass-reinforced toughened nylon, to form rigid, lightweight moulded souls. In the case of cycling shoes, rigid soles are needed to focus the force generated by the cyclist onto the pedal. Energy spent in twisting and bending is energy wasted.

In golf, the impact between club and ball lasts a fraction of a second, but is crucial to the golfer’s success. Jones has been working on a simulator for predicting how balls coated with different polymers deform during the brief impact.

`Measurement on this time scale is very difficult,’ he says. `The properties of the ball’s polymer coating are strain-rate sensitive. We went to high-tech aerospace and military firms to see if they had equipment to help us test this, but none did. So we ended up modelling the impact ourselves using the university optics department’s lasers.’

Loughborough has won £2.9m of funding for sports engineering research in the past five years, including £1.65m for specific engineering, £575,000 for sports science and £690,000 for dynamic and optical instrumentation. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has recently awarded the college £505,000 to help establish the sports engineering, simulation, analysis, methodology and evolution laboratory.

Jones’s students will use these facilities for their final-year projects. These may include the study of metal-matrix composites for golf clubs and their effect on the bounciness of club and ball; a golf robot which can vary its pressure on the club or keep it constant, allowing the effect of grip to be studied; computer-based shuttlecock design; football testing; and an automated design system for racquet string patterns.

Companies helping fund sports research at the university include CAD/CAM company Delcam International, the International Tennis Federation, Tretorn Sports and Callaway Golf. Jones’s professorship is sponsored by Dunlop Slazenger.

Jones admits not all his students will stay in the sports business, or even in the UK, but believes they can contribute to both the physical and economic health of the nation. `Sport is big business. But, more importantly, if we can help people stay fitter they will live longer and be healthier. And a healthy nation costs a lot less than an unhealthy one.’