It’s safe to say that Intuition revolutionized ski boot technology when they made the heat mold liner widely available. Here is the story.
Intuition Sports Incorporated is a British Columbia incorporated company owned by Rob Watts. Its primary business is to make liners for ski boots and snowboard boots. The company was incorporated in 1992 by three partners working out of a garage.
Byron Gracie, Herbert Lang and Rob wanted to make boot liners that didn’t fall apart. Byron was a ski fanatic and a hobbyist who wanted performance ski liners. Pre-Intuition he spent quite a few years trying to make liners for himself. His first prototype liners were hand-stitched out of pigskin – a hand-crafted work of art! After one year, Byron wanted out of Intuition and returned to a life of ski-bumming. Herb and Ron disagreed on the method and necessity of forming the liners and after three years, Herb also wanted out, leaving Rob as sole owner.
Intuition looked around for liner material that could be sourced with a bit more consistency; experimenting with thermo-formable foam liners from various suppliers. Many boots and liners were trashed and foam found wanting, until Intuition ran into a little know New Zealand company called Ultralon. The first overlap one-piece Intuition liner was made in 1993 using off-the-shelf Ultralon foam. What later came to be known as Intuition foam was developed in 1995. The company subsequently applied for and was awarded a patent on the concept of an integral liner consisting entirely of sheetstock thermoplastic foam.
In the first few years of Intuition’s business all liners were made in Vancouver. As the company made greater quantities of liners, it was difficult to find the people to sew and make the liners and difficult to maintain quality. During its years as a Canadian manufacturing company, Intuition made between 20,000 to 30,000 liners a year and maintained a staff of about twenty people. As production volumes ramped up Rob had to make the tough decision to outsource production to China in order to maintain quality while keeping prices reasonable. Now the liners are made in China while prototype liners are still made in Vancouver.
Intuition now has three people in their modest offices in Vancouver but makes about 350,000 boot liners a year! Most of this production is for the OE (original equipment market) with the bulk of production (about 60%) targeted to the snowboard market. The ski boot market is also important to Intuition with most of that production going to alpine touring boots. With the introduction this year of more conventional tongue style liners, Intuition hopes to win business in aftermarket liners not just in alpine touring boots but also in conventional alpine liners.
Intuition also makes products for other markets utilizing their thermoformable foam; including, for example, wakeboard boots; medical orthotics, splints, etcetera.
Intuition liners were designed to improve on stock boot liners and to have the following features:
* Last longer due to better quality
* Better fit
I’ve been using Intuition liners for the past year, replacing old boot liners from my Garmont MegaRides with Intuition Alpine liners. I can say that this is one of the cases where hype does meet reality. The Intuition liner really is that good and your feet will thank you for that. I’ve actually found them to be such a drastic improvement that I changed out boot liners from my alpine boots to the relatively stiffer Alpine Powerwraps model.
One key to Intuition’s success is its use of a special formulation of Ultralon foam. Ultralon is one of many brands of EVA (Ethylene-vinyl_acetate) thermoformable foam; a mature product used in many industrial applications. Intuition came up with a unique formulation of the Ultralon closed cell foam that was more resistant to heat-related shrinkage and pressure related “packing out” than other types of foam.
Intuition’s liners start their life as a cut-out of closed-cell foam. This cut-out is sewn and then heated up and molded with a “last” (ie. a plastic model of a foot). This process takes place in China and results in the standard overlap generically-shaped Intuition liner ready to be custom molded.
First, know that any pre-molded Intuition boot liner has been molded to a generic foot shape and a generic boot. People with generic feet can frequently use this liner without issue. But to experience the full glory of a custom-fit you should custom-mold your Intuition liners.
Intuition has designed and sells a special oven with blowers which allow you to heat the liners while they are in your boots – an innovation which has made molding the extremely thermoformable Ultralon foam a much easier process. Intuition obviously recommends getting its liners cooked using the blower style liner and also recommends that liners be thermo-molded by either dealers or by Intuition itself.
Nevertheless, for various reasons people will want to try to cook their own liners. For them, I’d point to the old dependable do-it-yourself Cooking with Big Tim video. I will note the caveat that if you’re not careful it is all too easy to heat damage, wrinkle and improperly mold the liners using any DIY process.
Molding Theory and Details
Intuition foam consists of millions of tiny cells, or bubbles. These closed-cell bubbles are created by pouring measured amounts of mixed ingredients (Intuition has a specific unique formula of ingredients) into a two-piece mold. This mold is sealed and heated under tremendous pressure, slowly and evenly. It’s then allowed to cool to ambient temperature.
This process results in a very uniform cell structure and a very high percentage (70% – 80%) of cross-linkage between molecules in each cell wall. This cross-linkage between the cells restricts gases trapped in each of the tiny bubbles of the cells from migrating; gas-migration between cell walls would change the shape and characteristics of the foam. The cell membrane is also treated with a chemical “filler” to create a more homogeneous membrane/structure.
The end-result of this complex process is high quality “memory” and resistance to “packing out.” In lay terms, the foam has a relatively good ability to keep a specific shape when molded with heat. The foam also has relatively robust structural integrity or quality (due to the homogeneity of the cell membrane structure and its consequent strength) and can be re-molded several times without compromise.
Intuition Liner Offerings
Prior to the 2007-8 model year, Intuition was well-known for its overlap liner. New for this year, Intuition has introduced two models of tongue liners, i.e., liners with a tongue as opposed to liners that have overlapping wings. Photos of the liners on the Intuition website show why they are named as such.
The 2008-9 lineup features new entries to Intuitions lineup; the Luxury and Freeride tongue liner:
* Luxury Liner (tongue type liner with stiffer tongue)
* Freeride Liner (tongue type liner with softer tongue)
* Power Wrap (with 1mm of AEPE stiffer plastic foam in the cuff of the liner, this is the stiffest Intuition liner).
* Power Wrap Plug (a moderately stiff liner with thinner foam for people who wear boots that have a tight fit)
* Alpine (a moderately stiff liner for all around performance)
* Godiva (women-specific moderately stiff liner; extra padding in spots where women tend to have issues with liners)
* Universal (shorter and softer then the Alpine, this liner is for low-cuff boots)
* Denali (very short liner for climbing boots)
Invariably the question will come up – what liners should I get? This question is better addressed in the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) at the end of this article. Having said that, bear this in mind.
1. Plug liners are intended to have a closer fit. Contrast the 12mm thick foam in the Alpine and Alpine Powerwrap liners with the 9mm foam used in the Plug liners. This allows for better fits in a more “race”-like boot as the Ultralon foam used in more traditional Intuitions may take up too much space as it expands when cooked.
2. Tongue liners are optimized for comfort and not necessarily as stiff as the stiffest overlap liners. Moreover, there are two varieties of tongued liners with tongues of varying stiffness. They are Intuition’s new direction for OE and aftermarket and are designed to be useable even without thermo-molding (although sure do fit well when molded!). Here’s some features of a tongue liner vs the overlap liner construction:
* Panelled construction.
* More evenly distributed cuff pressure.
* Easier to refine due to design and tuneability.
* Better energy transmission to ski edge due to better fit.
* More fitting options then even the overlaps.
Generally speaking, Intuition is recommending either the Luxury or Freeride tongue liner for alpine touring applications; the Alpine Powerwrap overlap liner for alpine boots and the Alpine overlap liners for alpine touring boots. It gets a bit confusing when deciding between the tongue liners and overlap liners. I would imagine that those people who don’t have ready access to a dealer or an Intuition oven to thermo-mold their liners or who are simply reluctant to play DIY over-roulette with a brand new pair of liners would be better served by getting a tongue liner.
Of course, individual preference and individual feet play an even larger role in liner selection and selecting the correct liner size. The boots in which the liners will be used, skier skill, skier size and weight, terrain skied, individual preference (i.e., loose fit vs tight fit) …. all these factors play a role in determining which liner will fit the bill.
I should throw in a few quick words about original equipment (OE) liners that Intuition produces. These are liners which Intuition makes in bulk quantities for various ski and snowboard boot companies. To take the example of one company, Scarpa has sourced its liners from Intuition for some time. Intuition’s liners have actually become a bit of a product differentiator for Scarpa and it seems both companies have benefited from that relationship; Intuition in increased sales and exposure and Scarpa in having high quality liners that many skiers regard as the best available.
As OE liners have such big runs, Intuition customizes OE liners to accommodate manufacturer specifications. Some of these customizations have crept into Intuitions’ standard product offerings. For example Scarpa liners have silicone grippy tread on the bottom of the liner and thinner foam on the footbed area to accommodate placement of footbeds.
There you go, any questions?
(Guest blogger Lee Lau is an avid skier and outdoorsman embarking on many adventures with his loving, and sometimes concerned wife, Sharon. He has over 15 years of experience skiing, ski-touring and dabbles in mountaineering. In the “off-season” he is occasionally found working in his day job as an intellectual property lawyer when he is not mountain biking. As a resident of Vancouver, British Columbia, Lee’s playground extends mainly to Western Canada, including South West B.C. and the Selkirks.)