New sports technology institute at Loughborough

Materials World magazine
1 Jan 2008

Hailed as one of the world’s most advanced sports technology centres, the Sports Technology Institute in Loughborough, UK, is set to open on 27 February. The Institute will build on Loughborough University’s well developed and commercially-partnered Sports Technology Research Group.

High-profile projects investigated by the Group include partnering Adidas in the development and validation of the 2006 World Cup football (with glued, not stitched, panels, making it one of the roundest and dynamically stable footballs ever), the development of a reconfigurable exercise platform for Reebok, testing of the English rugby team’s jerseys, and synthetic basketballs for US sports equipment manufacturer, Spalding.

The new Institute will house the machinery, software and skilled manpower to design, computer model and build the equipment needed to test components of sports products. ‘That is what makes us unique,’ says Professor Mike Caine, Director of the Institute. ‘Almost all of the rigs and prototypes can be built on site.’

Caine highlights a tensile test machine built by the Loughborough technicians to assess the strength and stretchability of rugby jerseys. The machine achieves a high pull speed of 20m/s, and the dummy that wears the test shirt was modelled on the dimensions of elite players. ‘Few other groups are able to combine mechanical engineering with sports knowledge,’ says Caine.

The workshop will contain computer numerical control lathes, laser cutters, and other rapid manufacturing devices. ‘You could produce almost anything you want,’ says Technician Simon Neal. ‘And we can work with almost anything – plastics, metals, you name it.’

Whatever machine the team cannot build, they buy and then reconfigure. A Fanuc R-2000iB industrial robot, created for automotive spot welding and part transfer, was recently purchased by the Institute. Researchers intend to adapt it to simulate a running foot and help with athletic footwear development.

They also rejigged a bespoke motion control system to create ‘the most advanced golf robot in the world’, says Caine. Capturing a golfer’s swing with sensors and cameras, the team is able to replicate his or her swing profile with the robot and then evaluate the best ball and club combinations for that swing. The Group has already worked with golf pros, such as the UK’s Lee Westwood, to assist with swing analysis.

Personalised footwear that makes use of laser sintered nylon-12 is another area that will receive attention from sports technologists. The group has used 3D motion analysis to study the kinematics of elite athletes’ feet, and sintered the powdered nylon to create a contoured sole that is stiff yet flexible enough to maximise performance.

Daniel Toon, a PhD student working on this project, has developed an aluminium mould of the parts that make up the sole, allowing glass to be added in a controlled and even manner before the sections are sintered together. ‘This way we can improve the stiffness of the overall product,’ he says. ‘We’re also looking at an elastomeric material, called Duroform FLEX, that we might use in the future to improve the cushioning and flexibility of the shoes.’

For now, the team is focusing on elite athletes, ‘but ideally, we would like to create an individualised product that can be used by everyone’, says Dr Tom Waller, a Research Associate on the project. ‘That’s why our project is called “From Elite to High Street” – someday, people could walk into a store, have their feet scanned, and then specialised shoes will be built and sent to them.

Rugby is another area that Loughborough has maintained strong ties with, not only through its regional tradition of playing the sport, but with its association with Canterbury, a sport apparel manufacturer in New Zealand. The shirts worn by South Africa’s players, winners of the 2007 Rugby World Cup, sported the latest design in grip technology – raised mesh printing on the shoulders, chest, back and wrists.

‘Keeping a hold of the rugby ball has always been difficult, especially when it’s wet,’ explains PhD student Bryan Roberts. Previous shirts used a clear rubberised polymer, but this was unsuccessful. ‘No one had optimised raised grip textures before,’ says Roberts. Using design research conducted by the Loughborough team, Canterbury first adapted an outward print of polymer fibres that were thermoheated onto the shirts, providing a goosepimply feel. More recently, the company has introduced an inverse print to provide the ultimate grip. The hexagonal geometries of the thermoprinted polymers ‘match the pips of the ball exactly’, Roberts explains, allowing it to lock-in to the shirt.

New jerseys have also been impregnated with negative ions, which are speculated to increase circulation and oxidation. Exactly how this works is unclear to the researchers, ‘but we have seen a 2.7% increase in the peak power of the player’, says Ashley Gray, a Sports Scientist of spinout company Progressive Sport Technologies Ltd.

With the 2012 Olympics being held in London, UK, the team at Loughborough is hot on the heels of innovative sensor technologies for the UK’s national swimmers, triathletes and cyclists. Caine hopes to increase the centre’s commercial partnerships, both with multinational firms and SMEs.

To this end, and having received £5.4m funding from the East Midlands Development Agency to help local industries, the Institute is hosting the Gatsby Innovation Awards. The competition offers technical support and up to £50,000 to companies that wish to develop a novel concept or technology for the sporting goods and leisure sector. ‘We want to work with regional companies who have an idea but don’t have the resources or experience to get it off the ground,’ says Caine. The deadline for first-round entry is 18 January.


Further information:

Sports Technology Institute