May 4, 2016 | By Alec

Balance might be the only thing on your mind the first time you stand on a surfboard, but the experienced surfers that inhabit the coast of New South Wales in Australia are all thinking about equipment. About those little tweaks to board design and materials that can optimize their performance and help them catch those extra waves. It’s exactly why researchers from the University of Wollongong, which can be found right on the NSW coast, have now turned to 3D printing to quickly prototype and test numerous surfboard fin designs to facilitate more bespoke rides through the waves.

This is perhaps the most unusual 3D printing project to come out of the labs of the University of Wollongong (UOW), which is also known for its expertise in the field of 3D bioprinting. These 3D printed surfboard fins are actually part of the UOW’s Global Challenges program, which is aiming to use recently developed technologies to change lives everywhere. The project is headed by UOW Professor Marc in het Panhuis, who has previously worked on diverse 3D printing projects such as a 4D printed valve.

As the professor explains, their main goal is to break through design and manufacturing conventions for surfboards, and develop new shapes, sizes and materials that are more efficient and specifically tailored to suit the individual user and the waves they love. As part of that effort, they have also completely packed surfboards with sensors and GPS tracking devices to gather data on every wave, at every speed and during all turns and airs. “We want to come up with new, more efficient fins that can be bespokely designed for a particular surfer and a particular wave,” Professor in het Panhuis said.

This high-tech approach to surfing has already allowed them to closely track the performances of surfers at every skill level, which provides data for the development of new designs. So far, more than 1,400 waves and 1,100 turns have been tracked. All that data is being analyzed by computational fluid dynamics experts and other biomechanics specialists, who will study exactly how water flows around fins in certain conditions.

Through 3D printing, those findings are now being used to their full extent. The inclusion of 3D printing technology in the project was hardly surprising under the leadership of Professor in het Panhuis, who is the Associate Dean (International) of UOW’s Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health and an expert in material sciences. In particular, he sees it as a technology that brings flexibility to a field of rigid production standards and allows them to use all that gathered data efficiently. “Most current techniques involve molds that are expensive to make and hence, are harder to customize based on individual surfer’s needs. In contrast, 3D printing is a process that allows for rapid prototyping and rapid optimization of designs for individual surfers,” he says.

The Wollongong researchers have been experimenting with custom 3D printed fins for about a year now. As Professor in het Panhuis explained, it has enabled them to test a much broader range of designs and materials. “The difference lies in the fact that we can print fins very fast and make changes to the design extremely fast. On a daily cycle, we can go through three or four different designs of fins. A few hours later we have 3D printed fins coming out of our printer, and they are ready to work when they come off the printer bed,” he explained. “[Surf fins] go from flexible to fully stiff, and that’s one of the things we are investigating.”

Extensively tested in the lab and by actual surfers on the waves, numerous new insights into material and design performance have already been gained through these 3D printed fins. Professor in het Panhuis is therefore hopeful that they can bring 3D printing to the commercial surfing industry as well. “We’re already talking to a number of local surfboard manufacturers in who are interested. We hope to offer the customized service in Wollongong first and then eventually expand it,” he said.

According to Professor Geoff Spinks, who heads the Global Challenges’ Manufacturing Innovation department, this 3D printing project can revolutionize Australia’s domestic surfboard industry. “Australian surfboard makers are some of the best in the world, but they face strong competition from cheaper imports. To stay in business they must offer a high quality product that meets the customer needs,” he argued. “This project could take that engagement to a new level by individually tailoring the surfboard fins to the needs and abilities of the individual surfer.”

But ultimately, it’s about helping the average surfer as well. With the need for mass-customization more apparent than ever, Spinks believes 3D printing can really have an impact on the lives of everyday consumers. “When this project wraps up, we hope that surfboards can be designed completely for the individual, making it easier for people of all ages and sizes and abilities to have a go,” he concludes. Could surfing be that one niche that brings 3D printing to the mainstream?



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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