Tim Williams had a unique experience at SportAM. As Director of Simpact Engineering Ltd, he writes about what was special when going to a niche event like this.

Have you got something interesting?” Paul Gallen (Hankuk Carbon) messaged me on WhatsApp. “Something that I can include in my presentation at SportAM.

Tim Williams

Tim Williams, Director of Simpact Engineering Ltd

This was the start of my experience with the Advanced Materials Series of events run by Fluency Marketing. Paul was presenting at SportAM (Advanced Materials for the Sports and Leisure Sectors); an event which was held at Holywell Park, Loughborough University back in October 2021. He messaged, “Something interesting about your application of our composites in a broad Sports Market”. I replied that I would have a think about it, even though I knew what to give to Paul. For now, curiosity got the better of me. I wanted to find out more about this event—it was perplexing that I had never been to one. Especially because of the sort of projects Simpact got involved in.

I was intrigued. An event that promoted the use of advanced materials in sport, That’s like a niche within a niche. It sounded far too good to be true, especially for an engineering consultancy dealing with the development of advanced structures in a diverse marketplace. My first port of call in my composites network was Steve Barbour from Composite Braiding Ltd. Steve said he was going, and after I told him of my interest, he quickly arranged for Sue at Fluency Marketing to organise my two-day ticket. Suddenly, I had something to really look forward to next week.

It started differently to what I expected. Upon arrival, there was Dr Kelvin Lake walking towards me with a big smile on his face. Kelvin and I did some pretty exciting stuff together when we were younger (relating to jumping out of perfectly good aeroplanes), so to be reunited with him and the memories that we shared was always going to be good. Kelvin, now a lecturer at The University of Wales Trinity Saint David, was giving a presentation on Day Two about the use of simulation tools and how they could be used to improve the development of kite surfing. It seemed like you can have your cake and eat it…

As SportAM was hosted by Loughborough University, it could only be kicked off by Dr Paul Sherratt. Paul is the head of the Sports Technology Institute (STI) and gave an interesting keynote on the trends in sport and the opportunities for innovation.

The use of advanced materials in sport is set to really change with integrated electronics and IOT connectivity, providing the perfect fertile ground for innovation. Sport is low in regulations, has lots of ‘niches’ for bespoke products, and is serviced by lots of enthusiastic and knowledgeable consumers. This makes it perfect for companies like ours that are driven by innovation to get products to market quickly.

It was fascinating to hear about the social effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and how working from home had resulted in a surge of sales for the tracksuit industry! Paul gave a tour of the STI and their state-of-the-art experimental test facilities at the end of Day Two. It was something worth looking forward to.

Next up was Steve Barbour from Composite Braiding. Steve is always a crowd pleaser with his laid-back, unrehearsed style. His presentation covered the use of thermoplastic braided composites in sport. Braiding is like making socks–think of it like this as it is great for making lightweight closed section tubular structures. Composite fibres are ‘knitted’ together by a rotary machine that’s surprisingly fast at knitting (a mile a day in fact). The floppy structure is then placed within rigid tooling and consolidated under heat and pressure to make the final part. Thermoplastics are much easier to recycle than their thermoset counterpart, and the level of automation in braiding is making it competitive with steel. Steve gave some examples of projects that they had been involved in which included a frame for a mountain bike and a roll cage for a niche low volume sports car.

Despite his laid-back character, Steve really knows his stuff when it comes to composites. My company, Simpact, has been fortunate enough to collaborate with Steve on a number of composite development projects. Composites are anisotropic (especially braided structures where fibres are at different angles) so it’s important to understand their response to loading when it comes to their use in sport. We have done some specific materials testing of thermoplastic composites to ensure that our simulation models are representative and accurate.

That leads me to the presentation from Dr Geraint Harvard from R-Tech Materials who specialise in materials testing. Geraint is a keen sportsman, and the subject of his presentation was performance enhancing materials. He posed a question to the audience: “Are we seeing the greatest athletes in history today?” This is an interesting question—what effect does the equipment used by the athletes has on their performance? We looked at the World 100m record and how this has improved since Jesse Owens 10.2s in 1936. When Usain Bolt broke this again in 2009, how much was this down to Usain and how much was it down to the performance enhancing materials in his running shoes and the running track surface?

A good example of this ‘unfair advantage’ conversation is the Nike Vaporfly which has a thick sole containing a composite plate. In 2009, Kenyan runner Eluid Kipchoge became the first person to run a marathon in under two hours. Instead of being a celebration of human performance, Kipchoge’s shoes became a subject of criticism. The governing body of World Athletics imposed an immediate ban on soles thicker than 40mm and those that contained more than one plate, thus, limiting their effect on human performance. Does this mean that in future we will have podium places for the manufacture of running shoes at the Constructors Championship?

Geraint is also a keen road cyclist. We looked at a graph of the Cycling world hour record and how this has increased dramatically (especially around the 90’s) with the introduction of carbon fibre and the materials integration with aerodynamics. Given all of this (seemingly limitless) technology of today, it seems even more impressive that Eddie Merckx clocked 49.4km in 1972 on a steel framed ‘gentlemen’s racer’. The UCI Unified record of 55.1km is now held by Belgian Victor Campenaerts.

The most memorable talk of the event for me was given by Harriet Little. At the age of 9, Harriet was a normal schoolgirl keen on swimming but then an undiagnosed neurological disorder changed her life. The cause for what happened to Harriet is unknown, but her condition confined her to a wheelchair. For anyone, this would be an impossibility, but Harriet’s determination saw her take up archery, and her skill in this sport combined with the latest lightweight carbon fibre bow and special neck brace allowed her to compete for Team GB in the Paralympics. Her story had the attention of the entire audience, they were gripped.

Many more interesting presentations included the use of auxetics (a negative poisson’s ratio material) in sport and the opportunities that this material property could give. A particularly interesting one in this area was given by Dr. Nathan Elliott (R&D Engineer at HEAD Tennis Racquets). Nathan talked about the auxetic sensation that the material property could give when applied to tennis, resulting in active response and super accurate feedback. As a Mechanical Engineer, originally dealing in the development of automotive structures, it is fascinating to think about this type of structural response in an entirely different market.

Understanding and characterising these advanced materials is fundamental to developing the sports products of tomorrow. The last, and certainly not the least, part of the SportAM agenda was a tour of the Sports Technology Institute (STI) given by Dr Paul Sherratt, who had opened the SportAM event. Paul showed us the extensive facilities in the STI ranging from mechanical drop test equipment (for the characterisation of impact foams) through to a pneumatic gas gun used for accelerating surrogate heads to investigate head injuries sustained in rugby. We at Simpact can’t wait to make use of these facilities for our client projects, which in itself shows the value of attending an event like this.

So, what is the UK’s position on advanced materials and why do we make use of them? It is clear that they are providing a competitive advantage in sports when used in the right way. It is a question that the British Government is currently listening for answers to via the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS). UK Advanced Materials published a call for evidence earlier this year as they are seeking insight into advanced materials as one of the seven Tech Families in the UK Innovation Strategy. Their four questions are listed below and although this open call closes this week, we at Simpact think that the following is a good answer to the first question;

Challenges for UK Advanced Materials are the lack of understanding by the general public of their properties and their environmental impact in production, use and decommissioning. This results in a fashion driven adoption. There is an opportunity to move to more sustainable products by better education and product labelling. This will create a stronger, more robust market for Advanced Materials. The UK should stimulate events such as specialist conferences and seminars to grow a network of informed ambassadors for UK Advanced Materials.

As a Specialist Engineer, what do you think? We hope that you have enjoyed reading this article as much as Tim enjoyed being at a special event like this.

  1. Are there any challenges and/or opportunities for UK Advanced Materials?
  2. What lessons, if any, from other countries and companies could we learn from?
  3. What are the strengths of UK Advanced Materials?
  4. Are there any specific gaps in UK Advanced Materials capability that you would like to share?