When the “How It’s Made” series was proposed, I planned to cover each piece of equipment (skis, boots, poles, etc.) with a 1000-1200 word overview of the process; however, I soon realized how naïve this notion was.
So far, I’ve determined that each company that manufactures skis has its own methods, materials, and philosophies, and that each company therefore deserves a unique explanation. Fortunately, several ski companies responded to my inquiries.
The Nordic ski industry is a small, and many of the technical design personnel wear several hats. In addition to working with designers, attending races, customer service and more, the manufacturers have little time for interviews; however, several manufacturers will be featured in successive articles.
I finally caught up, via telephone, with Atomic’s Rick Halling. We discussed Atomic’s entire line of Nordic skis—from entry level touring to those destined for use on the World Cup racing circuit. It was all very interesting, and this installment of “How It’s Made” will focus on the race line of Atomic skis.
Rick and all of his employees are proud of Atomic’s racing and winning legacy as well as the company’s commitment to environmentally friendly manufacturing methods. One concern with green manufacturing is how much it will improve the performance of the skis; however, research shows that new eco-friendly materials and methods actually can produce faster skis. Using environmentally friendly resins, fibres and manufacturing techniques is also important because of the workers’ direct contact with all of Atomic’s skis.
Rick estimated that it requires almost three hours to build one pair of top-of-the-line race skis. (This does not include the time the ski sits in the press, allowing the epoxy resin to cure.) An entry level ski still requires two hours of hands-on time.
Much of the time building the race skis is spent shaping the core material. A slight difference in core thickness has a great effect on the flex or stiffness of a ski; in addition, the presence of camber in the core increases the cost and time needed to manufacture the ski.
Making skis with consistent camber and flex is practical for Atomic. Because of the time the company spends on one pair of skis, it becomes too expensive to have a wide variety of flex patterns from ski to ski.
The details of how Atomic creates its cores came from Christian Rainer, the Head of Research & Development at Nordic Gliding Products’ factory in Austria:
The honeycomb Nomex core makes up most of the ski’s volume (Fig. 1). Manufacturers wet out each layer of the core by hand, a method that is time consuming but yields a lighter, higher-quality end product.
Prior to the layup process, manufacturers attach a scrim sheet to the top and bottom (open ends) of the Nomex core to prevent resin from filling the spaces of the core. The layers, or plies, of the ski are cut and taken to the press for the hand layup process.
The layup is a puzzle in the sense that workers must place each layer in its proper place, following a single construction drawing. Manufactureres apply epoxy resin to each layer before they are all placed into the press for curing.
The chosen layers of base material are precut; another two layers of carbon laminate are in direct contact with the core scrim sheet.
The layer directly under the cap is a layer of reinforcement cloth. This layer can be one of several fabrics depending on the style of ski (skate or classic). The orientation of the fibres (along the ski or at an angle to the edge) determine the characteristics of the ski.
The top layer, or cap, consists of ply carbon laminate. This layer adds stiffness to the ski and also helps control the flex pattern. Cap is made from transparent polyamide. Manufacturers add graphics to the cap through a process called sublimation, in which they transfer ink from a paper design into the capsheet.
After the epoxy resin between layers cures and manufacturers cut the core to the correct height, they glue a wood sidewall onto the Nomex core. The wood adds stiffness and allows for further shaping, and adding glue to the surface helps keep the fabric in proper alignment.
These layers of the Nomex core resist tension where carbon fiber is present. As the ski is compressed, the ski tips move apart, pulling the carbon taught throughout. After shaping, the core is ready to go to the ski press.
The press is computerised and able to alter its shape to fit each ski. A graphic display predicts the flex pattern, making slight adjustments to meet the designer’s flex goals. Atomic’s new variable press allows the company to achieve a higher quality product and rejects fewer skis during flex matching.
When the ski is removed from the press, material often hangs over the edge of the ski, and the base is dirty from excess epoxy squeezed out during the curing process. Manufacturers clean the ski and mount it onto a separate machine to cut away the edge overhang. After shaping, the skis are sent to the grinding street to prepare the base and add structure.
Quality control is consistent throughout the manufacturing process, and before the skis leave the factory, they are subject to final inspection and flex matching (Fig. 3). To ensure the proper grind has been added to the base, a stylus similar to a phonograph needle makes several passes along the ski base to be certain the structure is uniform and true to its specifications. Atomic workers pair the skis, send them to the warehouse, and prepare them for shipping to retailers or selection by national teams. Skis used by national teams come of the same production line as those used by citizen racers.
I was curious about the amount of time and effort Atomic needs to create a new model of a ski. What is the concept, development, design and production that goes into this? One benefit to the variable press is having the ability to experiment with new designs without having to build a complex tool. This saves time and also allows engineers to build several pairs of skis with different shapes and camber. With the Dauchstein glacier right up the road from the factory in Austria, workers can test skis at lunch that have been built just that morning.
Rick has several articles in the Fasterskier archives explaining the benefit of having the glacier so close.
A definitive answer to the number of hours going into a new design could not be determined, but Christian did note that Atomic is currently working on new designs for the 2010 Olympics.
Kevin is 42 years old, married with two children and living in Post Mills, Vermont. He began racing bicycles at sixteen and continued pursuing individual sports. After a six-year layoff, Kevin has returned to athletics racing in biathlon events. He has written numerous articles for FasterSkier, including a series on his return to racing and his current "How It's Made" series.