The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) engineering team produces a huge range of gear that Australian athletes take to pinnacle sporting events. Here’s how they get it done.
When Andy Richardson was studying aerospace engineering, he’d never heard of the job title ‘sports engineer’.
These days, he’s sports engineer lead at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) — where he works in a team of eight engineers on projects ranging from wheelchair seats and racing gloves to custom handlebar extensions for triathletes.
Richardson joined the AIS in 2018, after a ten-year stint in motorsports and time in the high-performance automotive industry, and says it was a fairly large learning curve to be across the 20 sports for which the AIS makes equipment.
“It still is!” he told create. “Nearly every project we do is new and different.”
But the rewards of the job are pretty special: “[It’s really satisfying] knowing that we’ve been able to produce something that supports an athlete and improves their performance.”
Working with para-athletes
Richardson’s team works mostly with para-athletes who need highly customised gear.
“The majority of our stakeholders are para-athletes … We make custom equipment to improve their comfort, reduce fatigue, and improve their overall performance,” he said.
Just last week, the team had a practice session with wheelchair tennis player Heath Davidson, who was trying out a new custom chair that he will soon take on tour.
Led by senior para-sport engineer Matt Crawford and funded by Tennis Australia, the project has been close to a year in the works.
“The position of the seat is really important when it comes to agility and change of direction and speed – so Matt worked with Heath and his coach to develop that seat position,” said Richardson.
“Knowing the position of the seat, Matt could delete the seat mounts and fully integrate the seat mounts into the titanium frame, as well as reduce the tube diameter of the titanium tubes on the frame to reduce weight, which was the primary design objective.
“He also gave some advice on a lighter, more stiff wheel set to buy, and a lighter custom footplate for Heath for his feet and shoes as well.”
Richardson says understanding each athlete’s particular needs is vital, and projects are very collaborative.
“As engineers, we need to continually be mindful about our limitations and qualifications. So, when it comes to engagement with different athletes and different capabilities, we need to be mindful of other relevant experts to collaborate with – experts such as orthotists, sports physiotherapists, physiologists, and so on,” he said.
“For example, if an athlete is a paraplegic or quadriplegic and we’re designing a custom seat or an interface for them, we need to understand the risk of pressure injury, because they may not have skin sensitivity.
“So, if there’s a pinch point, or a pressure point from the device that we develop, there’s a risk that the athlete won’t feel that and they’ll be injured and be unable to compete through that injury.”
New gear for Tokyo
The AIS team had over 100 pieces of equipment in play at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
One challenge they needed to overcome before the Games was for triathletes — in humid conditions they were slipping off their individual customised handlebars.
“I’d been struggling to find a solution for athletes who were having their forearms slip around on the bar extensions in the heat,” said Richardson.
After a conversation with Professor Paul Collins, materials engineer and head of engineering at AusCycling, Richardson’s team came up with a novel solution.
“He suggested that we 3D-print TPU patterns onto a neoprene fabric substrate … to provide grip for that interface between the athlete and the equipment – so that in the hot, sweaty conditions at Tokyo, the athlete wouldn’t slip off the equipment.”
Richardson says 3D-printers have had a huge impact on how the team works. The AIS first adopted them in 2016 and now has a dedicated room with ten printers, including a metal printer and printers that can print with continuous filament carbon fibre.
“We use 3D-printing quite prolifically with our equipment – and it’s no longer 3D-printing for check fitting or prototyping; they’re functional components that we send to pinnacle events now,” he said.
“The biggest change is the design mindset that we have to shift to with 3D-printing – because almost anything, any form, any shape, is achievable.”
Out on the field
Richardson says it’s still a thrill to see the gear being used by athletes at high-level sporting events.
“I actually went to the Olympics – to be on the phone talking with my family so that they could see the athletes and the equipment that we’ve developed on TV at the Games was pretty special.”
He added that seeing a big improvement in an athlete’s performance is always satisfying.
“We’ve had instances where emerging athletes have had such discomfort in their wheelchairs, for example, their time to train has been limited to 15 minutes,” he said.
“We’ve been able to come up with custom seats and protective devices for them and subsequent training sessions have instantly jumped up to an hour long.”
This was the case for wheelchair racer Robyn Lambird.
“We engaged with Robyn in about 2019 – the coach approached us with this problem that Robyn was not comfortable, was in pain in the chair,” said Richardson.
“Robyn went on to win a medal in Tokyo, which is just amazing.”
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