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Surf's Up on Custom Board Design

Surf's Up on Custom Board Design

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

The boards come from Firewire Surfboards, a 5-year-old company that made a name for itself in surfing circles by leveraging high-tech materials like expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam, aerospace composites, epoxy resins, carbon rod suspensions and bamboo decks never used before in the business. The application of those state-of-the-art materials enabled Firewire Surfboards to produce boards that were lighter, stronger and more responsive than the traditional polyurethane foam mass-produced offerings, making them appealing to the high-end surfing audience.

Surf's Up on Custom Board Design

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

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

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

Customer-Driven Customization

Enter Pettibone, an engineer with a background in designing custom golf clubs. Tapping his acumen around pushing 3-D CAD to tackle complex surface shapes, and his knowledge and interest in surfing, Pettibone began developing highly parametric and flexible models of Firewire's base surfboard models in Siemens PLM Software's NX - a challenge in its own right. Typically, much custom finishing of high-end board design is handled by seasoned craftsman who painstakingly detail each unit by hand. "Surfboards have long, 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 a mini-sculpture."

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

The NX Open APIs, in particular, serve as that critical link between the browser interface and routing the consumer-requested dimensions directly to the parametric model. Design rules are embedded in the base parametric 3-D CAD models in the CBD system, allowing customers to change only certain parameters around length, nose, and tail width and thickness, for example. This lets them achieve their desired board shape, yet doesn't compromise the complex interrelationships within the model that affect performance.

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

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

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