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August 11, 2000

6 Min Read
Value Added With a Switch to 3-D

His name is Axel Pauporté, and he is King of the Mountain. At least, he holds this title in Alaska and Verbier, France, which are the locations of some of the most difficult snowboarding terrain in the world. For two consecutive years—1999 and 2000—Pauporté competed for and won this coveted honor using step-in injection molded snowboard bindings made by Switch Mfg. (San Francisco, CA). This accomplishment makes Cofounder and Vice President of R&D Jeff Sand (who also snowboards) very proud of his product, and the 3-D process that helped design it.

Stepin bindings Switch chose Solidworks to design its stepin bindings after working in 2-D for a year. Here the software's wireframe functions are shown blending into the solid model. 

"Competition itself is quite a trophy for me, but to compete and prevail against 30 of the best riders in the world—that's awesome," Sand says. Switch, a relatively small company, has its own competition with big sporting goods names such as Salomon, Burton, and K2, and has performed well. Founded in 1994 with fellow snowboarder and product designer Erik Anderson, Switch now employs 12 and brings in $10 million to $12 million a year solely through its snowboard bindings. The impetus to start the company came from Sand and Anderson's desire to improve the sport. Dissatisfied with the binding standard of the day, which involved a cold-weather boot strapped to the board and supported on the back side of the leg with a spoiler, in 1995 the two designers built the first strap-free binding system. "You simply come up to the snowboard and step on the binding, and you're connected," explains Sand. This mechanism offers a change from the more involved process of buckling the straps to attach the boot. 

Switch designed its bindings in 2-D until early 1996, when Sand started shopping around for a solid modeler. "It's a small matter of a missing dimension," he quips, when describing the company's need to move into 3-D. "You're extremely handicapped in 2-D—a third of your product is missing." Speed was also a factor in the decision to switch, Sand notes. "When you see how quickly a section of a 3-D model is made vs. one in 2-D, there's no comparison. One takes 14 seconds and the other takes a week." 

Because of the attractive pricing (around $5000) and easy-to-navigate interface, Sand eventually settled on SolidWorks. The solid modeling process was slow at first for Switch designers, Sand recalls, but that has all changed to the point that now it's much faster than working in 2-D. He attributes this in part to the interface and to advances within the software. 

The Process
Designers at Switch put pencil to paper for their initial product concepts, and then create a basic sketch model. The purpose of this model, says Sand, is to lay out the mechanical and geometric relations between parts; it also implies molding information, such as mold closures and parting lines—essentially, the engineering intent. 

At this point, the molder is brought in to determine the moldability of the product. When looking for the right molder/moldmaker, Switch uses a feature of SolidWorks called eDrawings Publisher, a tool that allows 2-D drawings to be sent via e-mail. Sand feels that this feature has helped to bring in lower bids than he otherwise would have received. "Bidding is a tough balance between providing enough information so that a moldmaker understands the part, and not making the information confusing and scary," he notes, "thereby ending up with a high bid. When you see an eDrawing and you're visually walked through the part, it seems as it is. It's not scary—it's just a part." 

Switch currently uses four molders, located all over the map: Taiwan, Italy, and Southern California. All except one perform in-house moldmaking as well. A crucial point of discussion with the molder is weldlines. "Because our parts are stressed, we make sure the vendor is aware of where we can tolerate weldlines and where we can't," says Sand. 

Next comes the proof-of-concept phase, in which the sketch models are made ready for a prototype. Switch sends its designs to a rapid prototyper, who uses selective laser sintering (SLS) to make a part out of DuraForm (DTM Corp.). By testing the prototype himself on a board, Sand says it often gives him a good idea of how strong the part will be. 

"We'll see right away where the Achilles heel is in a design in a prototype much faster than in finite-element analysis [FEA]," he notes, although he indicates that his company does use FEA extensively during other design phases. 

Once he's satisfied with the concept, the engineers begin the industrial design phase. They use Alias (from Alias/Wavefront) to create surfaces, says Sand, because of the easy manipulation of curves within that program. The surfaces are then imported into SolidWorks. "The beauty of this workflow," he explains, "is that if we need to change an Alias surface, we just edit it and replace it at the very beginning of the design. Then all of the subsequent features rebuild without a problem." He says the compatibility between the two software programs surprised even SolidWorks. 

You're extremely handicapped in 2-D—a third of your product is missing.

No design would be complete without material selection, and Sand indicates that one of the favorites at Switch is Xenoy PC/PBT from GE Plastics. Since the bindings regularly experience cold and wet conditions, they need to be made of a material that is flexible and not notch sensitive. "I picked Xenoy because it's been a real problem solver for us," he explains. 

Sand recalls one instance in which one of his Taiwanese molders substituted what the molder thought was an equivalent material for Xenoy. The bindings were breaking, but Switch had no resin analysis equipment at its disposal to test the failed parts. It was finally revealed that the substitution had been made, and the parts were then run with the selected material—with no breakage this time. 

For those considering the leap to 3-D, Sand offers some advice. "Don't be intimidated," he urges. "It's easier than it seems." However, he stipulates that designers must be disciplined, because seeing their part in 3-D may so enchant them that they play with the software's features for hours. "If you're going to make the jump, you better make the commitment to your existing deadline," Sand emphasizes. "It's really easy to find yourself goofing off in the 3-D world." Switch will release a line of next-generation X-Team bindings in 2001, just in time to go head-to-head with its competition as snowboarding season opens—thanks to the speed of 3-D. 

Contact information
Switch Mfg.
San Francisco, CA
Jeff Sand
Phone: (415) 777-9415
Fax: (415) 777-9427
Web: www.switchbindings.com
E-mail: [email protected]

SolidWorks Corp.
Concord, MA
Phone: (800) 693-9000
Fax: (978) 371-5088
Web: www.solidworks.com
E-mail: [email protected]

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