Design software plays central role in sliding sports equipment development

When not hurling himself down bob-sled tracks at 90mph on a small high tech sled, Kristan Bromley designs and manufactures sleds for 22 nations preparing for the next Winter Olympics.

In 2008, Bromley became the first man to win the World Championship, European Championship and World Cup in the same season. The British media nicknamed him Doctor Ice because he gained a PhD from Nottingham University with a thesis entitled 'Factors affecting the performance of skeleton bobsleds'.

His company, Bromley Sports, ships between 100 and 200 bespoke sleds to athletes around the world, but is currently moving into the recreational arena, having designed and developed a patented sled for an exciting new snow activity, Baseboarding.

"Over the next two to three years, we're changing from providing a low volume, highly customisable Olympic governed sled, to manufacturing up to 10,000 Baseboards for a mass market. Our mission is to become the most advanced sliding sport product manufacturer in the world."

Bromley has always had the ethos of optimising processes. This stems from his extremely competitive goal driven nature, tuned through four Olympics, combined with his engineering background at BAE Systems. He is never happy with the status quo and is naturally innovating and looking to add value in every way possible.

Key to this optimisation is VISI, from Vero Software, which is used for creating both high precision performance parts and for carbon fibre lay-up tooling.

It has made the progression from design, which is undertaken using PTC's Creo, through to machining virtually seamless – almost making the design engineer a production engineer as well.

Bromley said: "We have found that combining the two roles has opened up considerable opportunity for creating products that can be manufactured more cost effectively and efficiently."

Baseboarding has recently been introduced at the Whistler Olympic Park in Canada, and Bromley describes it as 'bodyboarding on snow'.

"The Baseboard has a low friction curved base and parallel runners that create a highly agile board with easy-to-learn steering using feet and subtle upper body movements. It's a safe recreational way for families visiting snow resorts to experience the head-first ride position of skeleton racing – which is an amazing adrenalin rush."

Although the Baseboard is extremely light, it is strong and stylised. The product is underpinned with thermoplastic composites, creating a super-tough 3D structure that can withstand temperatures of -30°C. Bromley also uses a CFD package FloEFD from Mentor Graphics, which embeds in to Creo.

He said: "The product design capabilities of Creo coupled with the power and ease of FloEFD enables fast and very accurate analysis of designs with respect to aerodynamic and fluid dynamic performance without leaving the design environment."

However, the design and production requirements of the two markets – the competitive and the consumer – are very different. "At the elite end of the market, we focus on developing products that improve the performance of the athlete," said Bromley. "This requires designs that are customised to give athletes tangible improvements, for example; improved aerodynamic drag, improved ride response and better fitting. Design focuses on small batch numbers, specialise materials and cost effective tooling for one off production runs.

"At the recreational end, we focus on design and performance in a different way. Design is driven more by achieving set price points and delivering large volumes of a more standardised product offering. This requires considerable design expertise in tooling and materials for high volume manufacture."

Bromley Sports made its name in the highly competitive world of skeleton racing. "We're giving athletes the tools to fight for Olympic medals and VISI is pivotal in creating maximum-performing sleds by pushing boundaries to improve performance. Reducing aerodynamic drag by 5% can cut an athlete's time by one, two, or even three tenths of a second, and that's enough to take them from tenth place right through to Gold."

With more than 60 carbon fibre and stainless steel components in the skeleton sled, and the prospect of mass producing Baseboards, he says it was important to bring the whole operation in-house. Previously, most of the tooling work was sent to sub-contractors, but he realised that by bringing tool design and manufacturing in-house they could create new designs, develop products faster, and innovate more efficiently.

The company, which was established by Bromley and his brother Richard in 2000, now uses VISI for every component in its skeleton sleds and Baseboards.

"And it's not just the components that go into making up the products. We develop everything that supports the manufacturing process in VISI as well – the tooling and jigs. Tools are designed in both Creo and VISI. If we are happy with the design at an early stage, we design the tool in Creo and then drag and drop it into VISI for developing a machining strategy. If we need to redesign tooling at a later stage, the direct modelling of VISI can achieve late changes faster. VISI is a very powerful surface modeller, which when it comes to machining tooling to give class A surface finishes is critical. We often find ourselves using the power of VISI to clean up surfaces imported from other CAD packages."

The development process includes ensuring the sled is tailored to an individual athlete's body.

"We design it around the athlete's ergonomics, reflecting the pressure points of their shoulders and knees," he added.

Bromley Sports uses Hexagon Metrology's ROMER Absolute Arm with integrated laser scanner to reverse engineer the athlete's form.

"We scan an athlete's body shape and generate accurate mesh data for Computational Fluid Dynamics analysis in less than an hour."

Once the design is completed in Creo, he seamlessly drops the file into VISI and starts to work on machining strategies.

"Although VISI is extremely powerful and flexible, it's also simple to use. When we're machining new tooling for the carbon fibre composites, being able to approach that particular tool with different machining strategies, and having the ability to manipulate those cuttings paths, is critical. To achieve the precision we need to help athletes win medals, we've found we can't use a 'one toolpath suits all' approach. We need to tailor those toolpaths and the cutting strategy in order to reduce machining time and produce a part with a high level of surface finish that requires minimal hand polishing."

Bromley also points to the loop between design and production environments. "After running different machining strategies on the same component, we often find ourselves going back to Creo and redesigning small features that, at the time, did not have real functional value but at the manufacturing stage have huge impacts on machining time. From a design standpoint we find the machining strategy capabilities in VISI of enormous benefit in the iterative design process."

It is a design to manufacture service that Bromley Technologies offers to other companies looking to balance product performance and manufacturing efficiency.

Referring to the software tools employed by his company, Bromley concluded: "Gaining performance is all in the detail, and as an organisation trying to help athletes win Olympic medals we need the world's best, to help the world's best."