As Lance Armstrong tackles the French Alps in search of his fourth Tour de France title this month, he's measuring his ascent with the help of an engineering marvel from Nike (NIKE ) and its partner, Japanese watchmaker Seiko: an altimeter built into a titanium-coated wristwatch. Armstrong's eyes are protected by sunglasses from Oakley (OO ), precision molded to thousandths of an inch for aerodynamic efficiency and equipped with optical lenses so clear a laser beam can pass through them without noticeable defraction. Under Armstrong's body floats a superstrong carbon fiber-epoxy bicylce frame built to cut the wind with tear-drop shaped tubing and weighing in at a pixiesque 2.27 pounds.
Not that Armstrong is any different from other Tour riders these days. Mirroring changes in the manufacturing and aerospace industries over the past decade, cycling has experienced a rapid evolution from gut check to geek tech. Computerized engineering and materials science have become an integral part of this grueling sport, influencing the design of everything from pedals to shoes to gear assemblies. Even better, nearly all of Armstrong's hyperengineered equipment can be purchased by average Joes. So can much of the equipment used by his competitors.
FROM BRICK TO SLICK.
That's becoming par for the course in sports ranging from golf and tennis to sailing and softball, as sports-equipment companies increasingly apply space-age techniques they once reserved for the pros to everyday products. It's all part of a mad scramble to win customers and improve margins in a sports-equipment market that totaled $65 billion in 2001 in the U.S. alone.
Witness Armstrong's Nike Triax wrist altimeter, which retails for $299 at Nike.com and a handful of cycling e-tailers. Packed inside its slim body are a digital compass, a military-grade altimeter that measures both cumulative feet ridden uphill and altitude, a temperature sensor, and a temperature alarm -- all enclosed in a titanium-urethane cover and wristband. "We started off with a black box the size of a brick and ended up with a watch that's smaller than anything else out there -- and more accurate," says Ed Boyd, global creative director for Nike's sports-equipment division.
Pretty nifty -- and all but impossible to even imagine just a decade ago. Back then, sports designers drew two-dimensional models on computers -- when they weren't using T-squares. Products mock-ups were pieced together by hand out of steel or fiberglass and often ended up looking very different from what the engineer had envisioned. "In two dimensions, it was hard to see if you had enough space. We would make a model and do a physical check. It was very much trial and error," says Boyd.
Want to test a new model? Wait a week or two. For materials, designers relied on tried and true substances such as nylon, wood, steel, and aluminum.
Then, about a decade ago, easier-to-use three-dimensional modeling software appeared on the scene. At first, it was largely the province of giant aerospace concerns and mammoth carmakers. But as computer power soared and prices sank, 3-D modeling quickly got cheap. A select group of sporting-goods companies took notice. Most were in areas where athletes relied heavily on technology, such as golf, cycling, tennis, and running.
As they incorporated 3-D modeling into design and production, the outfits found that they were able to tweak designs to unprecedented tolerances. "We're moving a nose piece 1/100 of an inch back and forth to make sure it looks the best. It's pretty obsessive," says Oakley President Colin Baden. The Foothill Ranch (Calif.) company produces not only sunglasses but also wristwatches and apparel.
Computerized design also spawned a generation of machines that use digital coordinates to generate precision scale models in light-reactive plastics or wax. They work much the same way a printer prints a page, albeit at a far higher level of technical sophistication. And they can receive commands from anywhere around the globe.
IN BY 9, OUT BY 5.
At first, such mock-ups were costly -- thousands of dollars each -- and the machines that made them were available in only a few places around the country. But as computing costs plummeted, engineers could go from concept drawings to prototype in hours, not days. That has evolved to the point where sporting-goods companies with serious design shops either own such a device or use one regularly.
The result is that Oakley's Baden can input design parameters into his prototype machine in the morning, have resin sunglass models by noon, pop in premade lenses and have mountain bikers and skiers test the models and provide feedback by 5 p.m. Nike's Boyd notes that this quick cycle is particularly key in sports where ergonomic factors are crucial to a product's sales potential.
More powerful computers have likewise given designers the ability to simulate stress tests virtually -- even on PCs with graphics capabilities designed for video games. That, in turn, has encouraged them to try newer materials in their products, since they no longer have to worry about overengineering the entire package to compensate for unknown stress patterns.
"If we find a material process that might have been used to make tail lights for cars but think it would have a great application in a new category like watches, we would be in the forefront of trying to use that no matter what the disastrous consequences might be," says Oakley's Baden.
He recalls that once, an Oakley metallurgist, tinkering with ways to turn a superheated titanium alloy into thin, strong eyeglass frames, blew up a water-cooled copper crucible designed to handle 2,000-degree Fahrenheit temperatures -- sending a forklift through the wall of the forge. But Oakley also became the first eyewear company to use ceramic-magnesium components that are stronger and lighter than titanium.
For the most part, though, the design and manufacturing advances boost the companies' bottom lines. While it's hard to quantify the precise savings, most outfits claim that they cut costs with computers by reducing staffing, pushing products to market faster, and eliminating mistakes earlier in the design and concept stages. In the early 1990s, Oakley introduced two or three new sunglass frames per year. Last year, it introduced 11.
The greater product variety has helped generate steadily growing sales (higher by by 18% in 2001.) "If we can apply the latest in technology in our manufacturing efforts, we tend to gain substantially in our margins," says Baden.
Boosting margins, as well as stoking demand with innovative products, has become an imperative in the sector, especially in the current rocky economy. According to sports-market researcher SGMA International, U.S. manufacturers' sales of sports equipment, apparel, footwear, and recreational vehicles, watercraft, and bicycles to wholesalers fell by 1.8% last year to $65 billion, from $66.1 billion in 2000. In certain products, such as cycling, sales declined by double digits.
Slackening demand increases the pressure on sporting-goods companies to cut costs further, which likely means that even more will turn to computer-aided design and manufacturing. So far, the majority of sports outfits, most of which design simple products, remain largely in the dark ages when it comes to using advanced computer techniques. "Some of them are older industries. They haven't broken into a lot of the new materials and design processes. We see a lot of opportunities there," says Brian Vogel, president of Sommerville (Mass.) product-design firm Altitude.
Indeed, more businesses could quickly make the switch once the benefits become clearer, and as companies start to understand how accessible these new technologies are. Most design software today costs less than $10,000. And Boyd regularly runs his programs on his laptop -- he even designed a new sports CD player for Nike on a flight to Hong Kong. Which just goes to show that cutting-edge companies like Nike and Oakley continue to forge ahead faster than Lance Armstrong on his finish-line kick along the Champs Elysees.