Surf's Up on Custom Board Design

DN Staff

June 13, 2011

4 Min Read
Surf's Up on Custom Board Design

What do you get when you marry 30 years of 3-D CADexperience with a passion for surfing? If you're Bruce Pettibone, a founder of SiemensPLM Software technology partner ShapeLogic,you come up with a patent-pending online customization solution built around NXthat's being deployed to sell custom-designed, high-end surfboards.

The boards come from Firewire Surfboards, a 5-year-oldcompany that made a name for itself in surfing circles by leveraging high-techmaterials like expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam, aerospace composites, epoxyresins, carbon rod suspensions and bamboo decks never used before in thebusiness. The application of those state-of-the-art materials enabled FirewireSurfboards to produce boards that were lighter, stronger and more responsivethan the traditional polyurethane foam mass-produced offerings, making themappealing to the high-end surfing audience.

The problem was while Firewire wanted to offer custom designcapabilities on top of its use of unique materials, the design approach put anundue strain on its engineering staff. They couldn't keep pace with thehours-long effort required to fine-tune the CAD model for each individualcustom design to maintain the precision required by Firewire's CNC (computernumerically controlled) machine-driven manufacturing operation. As a result,Firewire was building custom boards for its international team of surfers, butwas hamstrung to offer the same capabilities for the general marketplace.

"The idea of offering customized surfboards to the averagesurfer created a massive bottleneck in the business with CAD developers," saysMark Price, CEO of Firewire Surfboards. "We couldn't afford enough CAD guys tobuild the custom files."

In addition to automating the behind-the-scenes CADdevelopment, Firewire wanted its system to ensure reuse and replication.Specifically, the development process had to allow for the exact reproductionof the custom-designed board so customers could replace it with the same modelat a later date or make slight modifications to the design when making theirnext board purchase. "Just like when you like a particular tennisracket or snowboard, you can buy another at any point in time, we wanted tobring that degree of sophistication and precision to (custom) surfboardmaking," Price says.

Customer-Driven Customization

Enter Pettibone, an engineer with a background in designingcustom golf clubs. Tapping his acumen around pushing 3-D CAD to tackle complexsurface shapes, and his knowledge and interest in surfing, Pettibone begandeveloping highly parametric and flexible models of Firewire's base surfboardmodels in SiemensPLM Software's NX - a challenge in its ownright. Typically, much custom finishing of high-end board design is handled byseasoned craftsman who painstakingly detail each unit by hand. "Surfboards havelong, flowing curves that are not that easy to subtly model in a CAD system,"Pettibone explains. "You have to build fairly complex models - almost like amini-sculpture."

In addition to creating sophisticated parametric models ofthe boards, Pettibone leveraged key features of NX to devise a new onlinecustomization solution called ShapeLogic Design-To-Order Live! for NX. Thesolution, at the heart of Firewire's soon-to-be released, Custom Board Designsystem, essentially consists of an Internet-enabled user interface with intelligentparametric models and advanced 3-D CAD tools to establish a customer-drivencustomization system. Pettibone leveraged the NX Open application programminginterface (API) with ASP (Active Server Page) scripting to create the dynamic,interactive Web application along with NX's Product Template Studio (PTS), atool for creating re-usable design templates. The latter was used to prototypethe online ordering system interface.

The NX Open APIs, in particular, serve as that critical linkbetween the browser interface and routing the consumer-requested dimensionsdirectly to the parametric model. Design rules are embedded in the baseparametric 3-D CAD models in the CBD system, allowing customers to change onlycertain parameters around length, nose, and tail width and thickness, forexample. This lets them achieve their desired board shape, yet doesn'tcompromise the complex interrelationships within the model that affectperformance.

From there, a 3-D PDF is created, which includes the customboard model, the 3-D parametric model of the board's base design, along withall of the exact board dimensions. Users can visualizetheir board on-screen before committing to a purchase, and they can alsodownload a lightweight version of the 3-D model in the JT data format to sharewith friends and solicit additional input. Board designscan be stored online until a future purchase (Firewire has already built 30custom boards based on CBD orders and has somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000board designs saved in the online system, Price says). Oncecustomers hit the order button, the system generates a precise CAD solid modelof the custom board, which is fed directly to CNC machines in Firewire'sfactory for production.

Unlike other online configure-to-order systems, which allowusers to tailor cars or sneakers, Firewire's CBD is a true engineer-to-ordersystem that works on live 3-D models over the Web. "You can go on a Nike siteand design your own shoes, but what you're doing is replacing colors and trimon an existing shape - you can't havethe width changed to fit your foot," Price explains.

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