Engineering a Better Surfboard
Michael Alba posted on July 05, 2018 |
Stu Bowen, founder of Lamina Flow. (Image courtesy of Lamina Flow.)
Stu Bowen, founder of Lamina Flow. (Image courtesy of Lamina Flow.)

Stu Bowen sat on a beach in Western Australia, taking in the sights and sounds of surfers enjoying the day. A long-time surfer himself, Bowen’s love for the sport was rivaled only by another great passion: environmentalism. On that particular day, Bowen’s two passions would collide in a most fortuitous way.

“It frustrated me to the point of action,” Bowen recalled. “I had to sit down and say ‘there's got to be a better way.’”

Bowen was frustrated by the excessive number of surfboards he saw snapping in half. If you’re not a surfer, you might be surprised to learn just how short-lived surfboards are. The life expectancy of a high-performance short board—the average board for most people—is only six to 12 months. If you’re a pro surfer pushing your board to the limit, you’ll be lucky to get 20 surfs out of it.

Of course, this would be frustrating to a surfer, who might spend $1,000 on a board only to have it break six months later. But Bowen’s frustration with this problem goes deeper. As a professional environmentalist for over a decade, Bowen’s concern is the environmental impact of all those discarded boards. As he explains, about a million surfboards—the volume of 15 Olympic swimming pools—are thrown out every year. The board materials, petrochemicals turned into foam and resins, make the situation even worse.

“Their destiny is to be toxic waste in landfills,” Bowen said. “For me, it's the white elephant in the room of surfing. Surfing's perceived as this idyllic fit and healthy lifestyle. But the cornerstone of the surf industry is the surfboard, and it's highly toxic and inefficient.”

Reengineering the Surfboard

Stu Bowen working on a surfboard prototype. (Image courtesy of Lamina Flow.)
Stu Bowen working on a surfboard prototype. (Image courtesy of Lamina Flow.)

Before we get into Bowen’s solution to surfing’s white elephant, we must first understand the status quo of surfboard construction. The first thing to acknowledge is that the design and construction of surfboards is primarily a process of trial and error. Experienced craftsmen—called shapers—start with an off-the-shelf blank made from polyurethane foam. This blank has a wooden piece called a stringer running down the middle for added strength.

A wooden stringer. (Image courtesy of SurfScience.)
A wooden stringer. (Image courtesy of SurfScience.)

Shapers take this blank and, relying entirely on their years of experience, shape it into the form of a surfboard. The board is then coated in a fiberglass skin and coated in resin.

According to Bowen, the stringer—often made from balsa wood—is the weakest link in the entire surfboard manufacturing process.

“From an engineering perspective, wood has huge variables,” Bowen said. “Each piece of wood is different. It could be coming from a different place on the planet. It could be milled in a different way, cured in a different way, and therefore the mechanical properties of each piece of wood vary—particularly when they're only a thin piece of wood inside a foam core.”

A recent trend in surfboard construction is to put carbon on the outside of the board. Unfortunately, Bowen claims, this approach can actually be a detriment to the surfboard.

“The problem is when you put carbon in places it doesn't want to be under forces it doesn't like,” Bowen explained. “Carbon is typically good in a tensile situation, and it doesn't like compression or shear very much. The deck where the surfer stands is under compression, both from the surfer pushing down on the board as well as the board flexing like a beam. So carbon doesn't like to be in that place. That stiffness of the carbon will actually create a faster delam [de-lamination]. And as we know, a delam is the start of a catastrophic fail in a composite.”

To tackle these problems and build a better surfboard, Bowen would need to return to first principles.

“What we're trying to do is reengineer the board from the inside out,” he said.

Lamina Flow

Stu Bowen designing a Lamina surfboard in Fusion 360. (Image courtesy of Lamina Flow.)
Stu Bowen designing a Lamina surfboard in Fusion 360. (Image courtesy of Lamina Flow.)

Bowen’s quest to reengineer the surfboard would lead him to start his own company, Lamina Flow. Lamina is taking an approach to surfboard design that can be readily surmised from its name: instead of a wooden stringer, Bowen’s company is designing a core made from a series of stacked layers, aka laminas.

“I've been inspired by skis and snowboards, the bow and arrow, and leaf springs,” Bowen explained. “They're designed to bend and flex repetitively for the duration of their lives. In direct contrast, the wooden stringer surfboards have a very short lifespan because they're engineered incorrectly.”

A leaf spring made up of stacked layers of different lengths. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia user NordhornerII.)
A leaf spring made up of stacked layers of different lengths. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia user NordhornerII.)

Drawing on this inspiration, Lamina’s surfboards are constructed from a stack of bonded laminas. Not only does this give the boards a longer lifespan, but it also provides an opportunity to optimize the board from solid engineering ground.

“We don't want the boards to be rigid and stiff. We actually want the boards to be dynamic in how they bend. So, we've looked at this layered system that allows us to optimize our stiffness. I'm looking less at flex and more at variable stiffness. I've actually built in graduated flex pattern. So the board is the most stiff in the middle, and it becomes more flexible towards the tail and the nose. So the whole unit works as one,” Bowen said.

But Bowen would need a helping hand to realize his vision, and that hand belonged to Taylor Stein, a technology evangelist at Autodesk. Not only did Stein set up Bowen with Autodesk's CAD/CAM product development software Fusion 360 to design and simulate his vision, Stein also assisted with fabricating board prototypes from Autodesk’s Pier 9 Workshop in San Francisco.

Taylor Stein working on a board prototype. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)
Taylor Stein working on a board prototype. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

Bowen, who admits he’s mechanically minded but not classically trained as an engineer, credits Autodesk with helping him to get his vision off the ground.

“I think the beauty of Fusion 360 is that it's quite intuitive,” Bowen said. “If you have some basic computer skills, and some basic math understanding—and a bit of idea and innovation—you can make it and optimize it. And it almost extracts the goodness out of you, if that makes sense.”

The Next Wave of Surfboards

(Image courtesy of Lamina Flow.)
(Image courtesy of Lamina Flow.)

Today, Lamina Flow is working with several experienced shapers to make the best boards possible with their new construction process. The company is also producing customized boards for some of the world’s best surfers, optimized for their weight and other individual factors. Eventually, Lamina will follow the same practice for models that can be sold to the general public.

As far as Bowen’s initial motivation of environmentalism, he’s hoping to construct boards out of eco-friendly materials like bio-foams, bio-resins and bio-fibers. But in his view, the biggest impact on the environment will be the new method of constructing boards that will not only increase their longevity, but also permit manufacturers more flexibility in their choice of materials. And with the popularity of surfing on the rise, Bowen’s timing couldn’t be better.

“There's a real opportunity to get our engineering right,” he said. “Not only for performance but for sustainability as well. This project started as an environmental project, but it was heavily focused on making the boards perform better. And I found a correlation between the two.”

Reflecting on his years of environmentalism and his design experience with Lamina Flow, Bowen is optimistic about the opportunities to forge a better planet.

“If we don't have a healthy planet, we don't have a healthy economy,” Bowen said. “I see business as a real power in providing solutions for the public to actively participate in the solutions moving forward. And with companies like Autodesk really pushing the boundaries of advanced software, the line between design and software is becoming merged—which means you can do a lot of design, a lot of development, without having to deploy messy or toxic materials the way we used to in the trial-and-error approach.”

To learn more about Lamina, visit the Lamina website or read this Autodesk blog post. To learn more about Fusion 360, read the recent engineering.com research report The Best CAD System for the Modern Engineer.


Autodesk has sponsored this post. They have had no editorial input to this post. All opinions are mine. —Michael Alba


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