NewsProduct NewsHow It’s Made: Atomic Skis

Avatar Kevin BrookerMarch 2, 20094

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:

Cores with wooden sidewalls.
(Fig. 1) Cores with wooden sidewalls.

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.

(Fig. 2) Variable ski press.
(Fig. 2) Variable ski press.

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.

(Fig. 3) Flex examination and quality control.
(Fig. 3) Flex examination and quality control.

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.

How It's Made

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Kevin Brooker

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.

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4 comments

  • Avatar
    Tim Kelley

    March 5, 2009 at 11:38 am

    Hey Kevin – thanks for another fine article! I once saw skis being built and the epoxy resin was applied (wetted) by hand with a brush to each layer of the core. That was 35 years ago. You mention that Atomic still wets out their ski layers by hand. The fact that ski manufacturers still use hand wetting techniques makes me wonder how you can ever get two skis to exactly match in flex characteristics. I’ve worked with composite materials and resins enough to know that getting composites wetted with resin uniformly by hand is next to impossible (at least for me it is).

    I understand that the variable ski press allows the resins to cure inside the ski in the exact camber shape desired. But if one ski has slightly more resin in the tip or tail than another, once the resin cures in the press and becomes rigid the skis will not match in flex characteristics.

    In the article it mentions that Atomic can build a pair of skis in the morning and test them in the afternoon on the Dachstein Glacier. But due to the fact that the layers are hand wetted with resins – what is the chance this pair of skis will have the same flex characteristics for each ski? What does Atomic and other ski manufacturers do now to ensure that the quality control with resin hand wetting techniques are better today than they were using this technique 30 years ago? Thanks!

  • Avatar
    Kevin Brooker

    March 6, 2009 at 11:00 am

    Tim,
    Thanks for the questions. I’ve sent them along to the guys at Atomic to answer so I don’t put words into their mouths. I’ve also sent the questions to a composites engineer since, as I understand it, the resin adds very little strength to the composite structure. The resins just keep the fibers in the proper alignment. How much a slight variation in resin content effects the stiffness is interesting. If the answers I receive are of appropriate length, I’ll post them in the comments. If they are long I will do my best to write them up in an intelligent way. Kevin

  • Avatar
    Tim Kelley

    March 6, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for the response. I do want to mention that the amount of resin in a composite, say a carbon-Kevlar weave, definitely affects strength and flex characteristics. I have seen this clearly making my own carbon/ Kevlar ski tip extensions. Too little resin makes the composite more flexible than you might want. Too much resin makes the composite heavy and brittle.

    For another example: take for instance a bullet-proof Kevlar vest. The amount of resin is exactly calculated to balance strength and flexibility for a given ballistic impact. If too little resin was added to such a vest, the composite would flex too much and not distribute the force of the impact. If say 10 times the resin was applied to the composites of the vest – it would become so brittle that you could probably snap it in two with your hands.

    So – here’s a heads up to where my question is leading. If pre-preg (computer controlled resin pre-impregnated) composites are not used, and ski lay-up is still done by hand wetting each layer, then one can pretty much say that the way skis are built has not changed since the first fiberglass xc race skis were made in the 70’s. Yes, the materials (composites) have changed. But the inexact art of wetting with resin and wrapping the guts of the ski are still the same.

    Is it bad that skis are still made in this artisan manner? No. I’m sure great skis are made this way. But the downside is that skis are extremely expensive because of this labor intensive technique that may lead to having to build 20 skis to get 2 skis to match exactly. Other industries in the world that use composites have invested in techniques that ensure better quality control and lower costs than the artisan method. It’s too bad that the ski industry has not gone this way too … because expensive skis don’t allow more people to access the sport and help it grow.

  • Avatar
    Kevin Brooker

    March 10, 2009 at 11:34 am

    Hi Tim and any other readers out there,
    Here is the response from Atomic. The answer comes right from the top. I just copied the mail and removed all of the space between paragraphs. Rick responded to me by forwarding an email. Here they are:

    Hi Kevin,
    Below is the response by our head engineer, Georg Bauer. I have watched the production and he is confirming what I witnessed. The compression of the laminates forces out most of the epoxy so only a consistent layer remains.

    Regards, Rick

    Hallo Tim,
    We always work in excess of glue, so that the pressure and
    the mould determine, how much glue remains inside. The hand wetting ensures the flexibility we need to provide the many different constructions. It does not compromise the reproducibility. The wet ability of the types of fibres is
    comparatively equal. The resin is wetting the fibres completely, and at high temperature the resin has very low viscosity and the pressure squeezes the rest out.

    After pressing the skis, we sort them according to flex and pair them, so that mid-flex and camber match. We can do this very fast and sometime test right afterwards.

    All the Best,

    Georg

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