At Adidas’s Innovation Team Dr Tim Lucas brings an engineering approach to sport, producing trainers that adapt to the wearer and footballs that know when they cross the line.
You’ve probably seen the ads: sports shoe as hi-tech extension to the foot, imbuing its wearer with the silky skills of Zidane and the endurance of a Masai tribesman. You’ve possibly snorted in disdain at the impressive-sounding pseudo-technology tag-lines. And you may even have scoffed at the notion that this is anything other than brand marketing at its most audacious. After all, how difficult is it to design a shoe?
But while running shoes may be one of the most heavily marketed lifestyle products on the planet, developments in materials science and simulation technology, coupled with improving knowledge in biomechanics, have seen sportswear design become more and more of a credible engineering pursuit. According to Dr Tim Lucas, senior mechanical engineer at Adidas’s Innovation Team (AIT), sports engineering is as exacting and interesting as any other field of engineering.
Based in Adidas’s birthplace of Herzogenaurach, a small town outside Nuremberg in Germany, AIT is the company’s R&D department. It’s here that a small team of engineers, designers and brand experts regularly put their heads together and develop the running shoes of the future. The department employs 50 people across three distinct teams involved in design, biomechanics, and, Lucas’s own area of expertise, mechanical engineering. For each separate project a dedicated group, which will stay together for the whole development cycle of a single product, is cherry picked from these teams. All this work takes place in a climate that is as highly secure and secretive about its work as any self-respecting R&D department should be. ‘We do the simulation, testing and all the classic mechanical engineering stuff,’ said Lucas.
It has not always been so. When Liverpudlian Lucas joined AIT in 2000, there was little evidence of the modern computer-based techniques that were already dominant in other areas of engineering. Since then, to Lucas’s credit, 3D CAD and Finite Element Analysis (FEA) simulation have become key tools in the development process. ‘We simulate every element, for every category of shoe, for every size — optimising the structural performance,’ he said.
Another critical area of expertise is materials research. Running shoe materials are subjected to stresses and strains that are fairly atypical; ‘Fifty per cent deformation is what you want from these structures, and that’s quite a lot! And we’re putting service strains on the plastics of 200 per cent.’ In addition, the material in a shoe’s mid-sole, usually foam, is pretty complicated to model and simulate. ‘Foam is a heterogeneous structure: its density changes depending on its position. At the outside you have a skin and as you move inside the density and stiffness drop — rather like an onion, each layer has a different density and stiffness,’ explained Lucas.
AIT’s increasing adoption of advanced engineering techniques has seen a rash of hi-tech products hit the shelves over the past couple of years. The most recent of these, and possibly the first shoe in history to come packaged with an instruction manual is the Adidas 1, which went on sale last month. Using a heel-mounted sensor, a 20MHz processor and a motorised cable system, this trainer automatically adjusts the cushioning according to a runner’s size, pace and terrain. Other recent innovations include the ground control system, a concept that uses a spherical bearing in the heel to reduce knee ‘moments’ and pronation (aka twisted ankle).
Then, earlier this year, the company launched Hyperride, the first ever running shoe to have a mid-sole made from injected plastic structural elements rather than foam. This innovation, said Lucas, improves cushioning and delivers a ‘more responsive ride’.
Yet despite the effort that goes into making shoes that are suitable for everything from fell-running to free-running (the new craze for leaping between buildings), more than half the shoes sold by Adidas are bought as fashion items and not used for sporting purposes.
‘We’re doing R&D in a company that’s heavily marketing driven,’ admitted Lucas. ‘Hyperride is marketed as a lifestyle product but was designed by our group as a running shoe. We put a lot of effort into it being a running shoe, but at the end of the day they decided to place it as a lifestyle shoe.’
So is it really worth investing so much time and effort on a product that’s more likely to be worn down the pub than on the running track?
Whether it is or it isn’t, all of Lucas’s shoes begin life as engineering concepts. ‘My preference is to do the engineering, get something working, understand the boundary conditions and then bring in the designer.’
But the process doesn’t stop there. Once the AIT designers have had their say, the group must then sell the idea to ‘inline’, the people who make the shoe for the public. Here a team of heavily marketing-focused designers inevitably wants to make all kinds of aesthetic changes and Lucas’s group is called upon to provide technical assistance to this new set of changes.
But while sports shoes are the dominant area of research, they are not the only projects that AIT is involved in. Away from the track Lucas’s team works alongside engineers from Loughborough University on football design. In fact, Lucas was responsible for the development of next summer’s World Cup ball: ‘I can’t imagine any other sports product that, for its price, has so much engineering in it — we funded about four PhD students,’ he said.
While the appearance and much of the ball’s design is still under wraps, Lucas said that not only will its surface look radically different but it will also represent a major improvement in football design. He explained that the interior is a carcass structure (or load-bearing network) made from 12 pentagonal panels of fabric that fold up to form a sphere. This structure, he said, has led to big improvements in stiffness distribution, so that the ball behaves consistently wherever it is struck.
In the development of the new ball the team examined the flight path of a variety of existing balls by placing them precisely on a tee, in different positions (valve up, valve down, and so on). They then used a robot kicking leg linked up to a set of cameras to analyse the effect that different ball positions had on the flight path. ‘The robot leg’s much more reliable than a player — and will go on for hours on end without complaining,’ joked Lucas.
The team realised that the deformation of the ball varied according to which area of it was struck, and that this had a big impact on the flight path. Lucas said that these inconsistencies have been ironed out in the World Cup ball.
Lucas was also involved in the development of Fifa’s new intelligent ball. Due to be trialled at this summer’s under-17s world championship in Peru, the ball is equipped with a centrally mounted microchip that will provide referees with the precise X,Y,Z co-ordinates of the ball — hopefully spelling an end to goal-line disputes. AIT used its materials expertise to develop the suspension system for the chip.
In terms of future projects, Lucas said that the team is moving towards ‘bigger innovations that can only be done if you take an engineering approach’ — although, unsurprisingly, for a company that is fiercely protective of its brand, these developments are confidential. He did hint, however, that there will be a greater emphasis on the types of structural elements seen in the Hyperride, and that the technology from the Adidas 1 may well find new applications.
Last month Lucas took a dose of his own medicine and competed in the London Marathon. Comfortingly, despite being Adidas’s engineering supremo, he elected to run not in a pair of prototypes or even in some of his company’s structural shoes, but in a pair of well-worn favourites. No prizes for guessing the brand.