A visit to the Surf Flex Lab
“I don’t like subjectivity,” says the professor while adjusting the sensor. “I need to know, objectively, why things happen.”
The sentence is delivered as a matter of fact; he’s just making conversation, it precedes a short anecdote about a recent retail experience, but it may well be the professor's mission statement. We’re standing in his laboratory surrounded by computers, machines, and tools, all of them tasked to explain how the world works without recourse to human experience.
The professor is Marc in het Panhuis, a Professor of Materials Science who’s authored 170 scientific papers across numerous disciplines, and who’s now directing his formidable intellect towards the mysteries of surfboard design.
When I first met Marc he’d recently coupled his love of surfing with 3D printing technology by running a blind experiment on fin design at Macaronis. It was an Indo trip with a difference for the six willing guinea pigs who surfed all day, but did so while wired up with GPS units, all riding similar boards, and ordered to avoid the barrel.
The result of that experiment validated the scientific approach with most surfers agreeing that an unconventional ‘crinkle cut’ fin performed best, while also indicating the result would have been different if they knew what they were riding. Subjectivity could have skewed the outcome.
That was just over a year ago. Shortly afterwards, Marc began focussing on flex in surfboards. It’s the last great unknown in board design, and the mystery only grows with each new material hitting the market. Flex has become a buzzword in the industry, promoted as a desirable quality, yet because it can’t be quantified there’s no way to question the claims.
Such a scenario is ripe for cynicism, yet any surfer who can link a bottom and top turn can tell the difference between a Tuflite surfboard and standard PU/PE construction. For intermediate surfers, flex is appreciated most in its absence. Yet at this stage it’s still a matter of feeling, a matter of subjective response, and I've already told you how Marc feels about that.
Embarking on a new adventure, Marc created tools for the job, beginning with a stout hunk of metal called The Flex Machine that he showed me during that first visit. At the time he was devising a series of tests to run on it.
Flex, however, is a mercurial beast, it not only changes between boards, it changes within a board, and we don’t even have an agreement for what is good flex or bad. I left that visit wondering where his efforts might lead.
Equally, I wondered who would adopt it. Bill Finnegan said “all surfers are oceanographers”, but when it comes to boards, surfers are less than scientific. To date, persuasive marketing has been enough to convince us of the merits of various technologies. Does the science really matter?
It says something about Marc’s confidence that he shared none of my misgivings. Like me, he couldn’t see the outcome to his project, but he committed himself to it anyway. Scientists may wonder at the mysteries of the world, but I wonder at their capacity to solve those mysteries.
Since that earlier visit, Marc has formalised and expanded his operation at the University of Wollongong. Now called the the Surf Flex Lab, it’s a dedicated facility for mechanical testing of surfboards and its constituent parts: fins, blanks, laminates, and inlays. I took up an offer to visit the new facility, and even dragged a few boards along at Marc’s insistence.
I apologised to the receptionist for carting a four board bag across the tiled foyer of the Australian Institute of Innovative Materials. She gave a knowing smile; clearly many boards have already crossed the threshold.
Marc enthusiastically greeted me at the front desk. Both of us had welcomed the day amongst a clean, early spring swell, albeit at opposite ends of the Illawarra - he at Jones Beach, me at Thirroul. We exchanged notes, as is the habit, before Marc filled me in on the research while we walked to his office.
“After we set up last year we got lots of interest,” said Marc. “Lots of businesses made contact with me: board labels, fin companies, blank companies.”
“That wasn’t such a great surprise. But I tell you what,” said Marc turning to face me, eyes widening, “the thing that did take me by surprise was what they asked for: every company wanted to test something different.”
The broad scope of analysis meant Marc couldn’t easily replicate experiments. Each one referred only to itself. The breadth of inquiry revealed how little anyone knows about flex - even the people making the equipment. We’re all getting in on the ground floor.
When I ask for specifics about the experiments, Marc apologises profusely. He wants to be a good host, show me his equipment and how it’s being used, but prudence is required as he’s signed Non Disclosure Agreements. Gag orders. Lots of them.
“I’ve signed an NDA for almost every company I’m working with,” he explains. “Sometimes they won’t even tell me what they’re working on until I’ve signed it.”
Despite this, Marc describes how a typical experiment might work. For example, a company sends him ‘Exhibit A’ to thoroughly test, which becomes the baseline, before he tests ‘Exhibit A plus technology’ and compares the results of the two. All things being equal, and Marc is diligent enough to make sure it is, then the difference is due to the technology.
That’s a simple explanation, there are myriad variations on the experiment, but none can be specified just yet. Despite the brief account two points become instantly clear to me. The first is that progress can be made even without a universal form of measurement. As long as a baseline is found then apples can be compared to apples.
Marc is undertaking what’s called pure research. He’s not working towards a known result, rather he’s explaining the unknown, and the success will largely depend on how other people use his findings. However, at one point through the afternoon he muses on a future where surfboard flex is quantified, just as length, width, and volume are now.
If that were to happen then all boards could be compared to each other, not just those from the same manufacturer.
The second point is that, owing to the amount of work Marc is doing, the surf companies really do care about advancing their equipment. For a cynic like me that’s heartening news. They’ve approached Marc because he can validate their claims. The flipside is that nothing in the field has been validated, and it’s worth spending a moment pondering that thought too.
In Marc’s office I unpack a shortboard laminated in basalt cloth, a Stretch gun with deck channels, a Free Flight edge design and a Free Flight ten channel gun. I chose each for the variation from the norm. Basalt because it’s a new material and the others because of their transverse surfaces - edges and channels - that stiffen the structure.
Marc picks up the ten channel gun. I explain to him how in 1975 Mike Davis dropped channels into his board to handle the drop at the Boneyard, a reef at the other end of Jones Beach, and pioneered channel bottoms. Between local history and those deep serrated edges, so unlike the thousands of other boards he’s already tested, the decision is made - the ten channel it is.
Part of the expansion of Marc’s lab includes hiring fellow Jones Beach local Brett Connellan to help test boards. Brett isn’t here today so it’s just the two of us in the lab, which looks just as you'd expect with white walls, polished metal desks for computers and electronic tools, and warning signs a’plenty. We don the safety goggles and walk in.
Running experiments for clients is only one of Marc’s duties here. He’s also disassembling (read: destroying) boards in creative ways to measure their various qualities, while at the same time he's assembling a vast database of information from the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of boards he’s tested. He’s tested that many boards he knows what construction has been used just by tapping the glass with his fingers.
“The three main tests,” explains Marc, “are for torsion, which is the twist of the board, dampening, which is the longitudinal flex of the board, and ‘fingerprinting’.” The last one requires further explanation and we’ll get to that shortly.
The first two tests are run in The Flex Machine, and while he’s showing me how it operates, Marc points out a hydraulic unit that can be set to run for extended periods to test boards for durability. Do boards lose their flex over time? And if they do, by how much? Watch this space...
It’s the ‘fingerprinting’ test where Marc gets granular. Using a hammer, the kind you can’t buy in Bunnings, that’s wired to a finely-calibrated sensor he can detect structural differences in two boards made on the same day, of the same shape, in the same material. Sometimes he’ll mark a grid and tap away, or sometimes just tap a point on the stringer, but each tap registers like a heartbeat on the monitor to our left, informing Marc of the structural properties.
Unlike The Flex Machine, the hammer and sensor pack away into a box the size of a camera case, meaning Marc can take his testing on the road. Which he did recently, spending time in Hawaii with local David Shormann tapping the quivers of pro boards to build the database.
While there he met Aaron Gold who allowed his boards to be tested for damping and to be fingerprinted. Marc shows me the dampening reading - i.e how longitudinally stiff - Aaron’s 10’6” Jaws gun is compared to that of a standard 6’3” by Dylan Perese. Where the latter has a healthy amount of movement, the line almost reaching the limits of the graph, the line on Aaron’s graph barely moves at all.
“And Aaron told me that’s still not enough damping (stiffness),” says Marc. “He wants his boards to dampen even more.” And big surf being as rare as it is, Gold is willing to test his boards before riding them at XXXL Jaws. It's the one instance when good flex equals no flex.
For the hammer and sensor to work the board being tested has to hang freely from a rig. With extra caution Marc helps me slip a leggy string through the plug and over a hook that then ascends to the top of the frame. My single fin ten channel hangs there like a museum piece. Marc then attaches double-sided tape to the bottom and sticks the sensor onto it. We're ready to go.
When he's testing for clients, or when he's been donated a board, Marc will tap the board in a grid pattern which provides a more thorough understanding of the board's properties. However, that method leaves a lattice of hammer impressions on the board. Seeing the consternation on my face he quickly pipes up. "Though I can still test boards by tapping on the stringer, which leaves no marks on the board."
Marc measures out the point of impact and then gives a short tap like he's testing the patellar reflex. The board hums and the monitor to my left flashes on with four different graphs, each measuring something about the board. "It's not unlike measuring resonance frequencies in high-rise buildings," says Marc. "Only instead of a sledgehammer against a steel beam it's this tiny hammer against the board."
Marc repeats the experiment a number of times, each time the readings appear similar to my eyes, however Marc is seeing slight changes.
"Well...?" I ask once he's done. "What does it show?"
"It's consistent with what I would expect for a PU board with a wooden stringer," says Marc. "But I'd need to compare it to a similar board without the channels to say something more meaningful."
I'm really not sure what I was expecting. I don't even fully understand what the graphs are showing, yet Marc is adamant that as a data gathering exercise it was worthwhile. Data on its own says nothing, but once he's amassed enough of it he can begin to discern patterns and the data then becomes useful to him. It becomes information, and then ultimately knowledge.
On the walk back to Marc’s office, I talk about the explosion in ideas around board making, about how he appears to have landed at the right place at the right time. Marc nods his head in agreement. The commercial interest he’s attracting is testament to that. However, the next thing he says shocks me.
“No-one has paid yet.”
All the testing and research, at least that which was conducted for private companies, has so far been for gratis. He's working towards some financial arrangements but nothing is yet forthcoming. Not only is he heading into unknown scientific territory, but remuneration for his services is equally unfamiliar - there’s never been a surfing laboratory before.
Marc's got ideas to make the Surf Flex Lab commercially viable, maybe something like the ECOBOARD model where companies pay a percentage to be validated, or perhaps royalties from future products, or even a design breakthrough due to his work.
However, the very fact that he’s in demand, and also that the work is commercially sensitive, bodes well for Professor Marc’s success. There’s never been more experimentation with materials than there is right now, and if companies feel protective of their intellectual property then it’s only because they’re safeguarding future profits.
But Marc doesn't need my reassurance. For one, he's seen the new materials and ideas that are coming down the turnpike and he's confident they'll play a part in surfing's future.
And though he can't say a thing to me, I get the sense that we'll all soon be aware what those ideas are.