Walk a Mile in Your Ski Boots

March 11, 2011

8 Min Read
Walk a Mile in Your Ski Boots

There are few things the product development team at BlackDiamond Equipment takes more seriously than its pre-dawn ski runs or rockclimbing sessions. A couple of times a week, depending on the season, the teammeets up at around 4 a.m. and logs the uphill journey in the dark through theUtah canyons to catch a couple of runs or do a short climb before heading offto work.

Job candidates interested in an engineering role at themanufacturer of high-end climbing and ski gear are subjected to the same hard-coreregime as part of the interview process. It's not just about bonding or feedinga shared love of extreme sports. Rather, these early morning expeditions are akey way the firm's engineers stay in sync with the needs of its customers."It's all part of the Black Diamond culture - within the design department,we're always testing out some sort of prototype gear," says Ben Walker, BlackDiamond's director of R&D. "The biggest challenge our type of products present is that it forces the design team to understandwhat it is our customers want and need. You can look at market research orstudy up on these activities, but it's not easy to watch someone climbing andget a true understanding of what they're doing or how they're using theequipment. You have to be in their shoes to truly understand what they want."

Click here to watchseveral videos highlighting Black Diamond's technology.

For Black Diamond engineers, it's notwalking in customers' shoes that counts, but rather strapping on their skiboots or knowing exactly what's required from extreme climbing gear, fromcarabiners and rappels to ice axes and crampons. Because Black Diamondcustomers tend to be elite skiers or climbers, not recreational users, theytake their gear seriously so it's critical the engineering team does the same.Rather than chasing after the latest bells and whistles, Black Diamondcustomers are all about performance and reliability because they're oftenentrusting their lives to the equipment since it's used under such extremecircumstances.  "Whetheryou're a mountaineer on a peak in the Himalayas or a skier on the edge of theirability, your focus and concentration is on what the body is doing, and thegear needs to disappear into the background," says Walker. For that reason,Black Diamond's guiding design principle is minimalism, even austere design. "Ourgear can't have anything that's superfluous," he explains. "We need tounderstand how the gear is used ... so we can give them everything they need -exactly that and nothing more."

Balancing Act

The engineering challenge to achievethat vision varies depending on the product category. In the case ofcarabiners, the clips used to affix ropes while climbing, the design challengeis all about keeping the form simple and minimizing weight. For skis and skiboots, Black Diamond engineers are chasing a completely different objective,aiming for the highest performance without any extras that would impede theuser experience. With these kinds of products, the challenge typically involvesinnovative use of cutting-edge materials like composites, carbon, aircraft-gradealuminum, different glue and epoxy technologies and polyether block amide(known in the industry as PEBAX) in order to achieve performance and hitoptimal weight goals.

To strike the balance, Black Diamond employs a variety of 3Ddesign tools, including CAD, surfacing programs and FEA platforms. One of themost important initiatives was to embrace tools and workflows that fullyintegrate industrial design and engineering. Unlike consumer products likecars, which have a lot of engineering surrounded by a beautiful shell, most ofBlack Diamond's products require form and function to be built into the samepart, which requires a change in processes so that industrial designers andengineers can work in parallel to ensure flaws or manufacturing issues are caughtearly in the process.

Consider the development of BlackDiamond's carabiner product line, the iconic Hotwire product reintroduced lastspring with the goal of reducing weight and updating aesthetics. Using the NXCAD tool from Siemens PLM Software and the Autodesk Alias industrial designsuite, Black Diamond created a process by which the same surfaces and modelspulled together in NX by the engineering group were simultaneously worked on bythe industrial design group using Autodesk Alias without losing design intentand without having to redo surface work as the models were passed between thepackages. Engineers took the first pass at the new carabiner design in CAD,next employing Nastran Finite Element Analysis (FEA) tools to optimizematerials and weight, then handing the work-in-progress back over to industrialdesign, which further refined the models for aesthetics. Unlike traditionalprocesses, there were no passing back and forth of stripped-down IGES files andnothing lost in translation - a change that greatly accelerated the newcarabiner's time to market.

"With this collaborative approach,industrial designers and mechanical engineers were able to work simultaneouslyon the same surfaces using the same tools," Walker explains. The results ofthis approach are pretty impressive. Black Diamond was able to reduce theweight of the Hotwire Carabiner from 45 to 37 gm. A follow-on product, theHoodwire Carabiner, to be released later this year, pushes the envelope evenfurther, packaging
the same lightweight design with new patented technology that enables snag-freeclipping and the inability to freeze up under frigid alpine conditions.

FEA to the Rescue

Black Diamond's Fusion technical ice tool is another exampleof a redesign project that benefited from the early integration of engineeringand industrial design. The tool, used in ice climbing on severe alpine terrain,was earmarked for a redesign that called for weight reduction in theneighborhood of 10 percent as well as an updated look. FEA analysis factoredheavily into the redesign, especially after the team determined it wasn't anoption to simply reduce materials or the size of the original design to achieveits goals. "We didn't feel we could safely reduce more weight with the olderdesign after we did the (FEA) analysis," says Brendan Perkins, design engineerat Black Diamond. Starting with a clean slate, the engineering team gave thedesigners a basic mockup of what the ice tool's wall thickness should be alongwith other critical design elements like pick angle and approximate shaft size.Using the same iterative design workflows, the team came up with a newhydroformed aluminum shaft design that was 9.4 percent lighter.

Heavy FEA use was instrumental to Black Diamond's quest toachieve its aggressive performance goals on its freetouring ski boots, whichcombine the performance of a traditional alpine ski boot with the flexibilityof a hiking boot for skiers wanting to access terrain outside of resortboundaries. "If we're constantly being driven by customers to create equipmentthat doesn't sacrifice from a performance, strength or safety standpoint, yetis still getting lighter and lighter, the only way to do that is through toolslike FEA,"  Walker says. "Previously you might get to an optimized designthrough engineering know-how and experience, but at this point, further gainswon't come through those means. If you're not using tools like FEA, you'vealready fallen behind or you rapidly will."

In addition to FEA, innovative materials use,and a process that addresses engineering,  industrial design and manufacturability as an integratedfunction was also core to the development of the Quadrant and Prime, the latestadditions to the freetouring boot family.  The boots combine a blend of PEBAX and polypropylenematerials to achieve the optimal weight and performance characteristics, andadditional innovations such as the Boa closure system (a cable system thatreplaces laces on snowboard boots) were brought into the family to deliver performancewithout adding weight. Finally, NX's Shape Studio freeform modelingcapabilities let Black Diamond designers and engineers directly manipulatesurface geometry to capture the anatomical nuances of the foot in addition toanalyzing the boot's performance and designing injection molded parts.

Another key differentiator for BlackDiamond is its testing procedures, which occur throughout the testing andproduction process. In addition to formal field testing with more than 400enthusiasts around the world, the Black Diamond development team is an integralasset. Benchmarking of prototypes and competitors' products occur regularly inthe lab and the company has a several hundred thousand dollar freezerenvironment rigged up, where it does special testing on ski boots in extremeweather conditions using
a full data acquisition environment and National Instruments' LabVIEW.

Even with all the formal testing, it'sthe Black Diamond team that is the best judge of what works and what doesn't."These sports are so ingrained in the psyche of every person here," Walkersays. "Every decision is made with helping skiers ski better or climbers climbmore safely with equipment that's less obtrusive. It's what drives us."



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