Manufacture the 10 Ounce Ski — Got 1.2 Million Dollars?

Post by blogger | April 7, 2010      

It’s easy, buy a Fiberforge Relay fiber assembly machine for a cool 1.2 mil, add a 450 ton press with heat welding capability and custom made mold, and you to could have a pair of planks that cost about a million each for serial number one.

How do I know this? You can make fun of us saving a good 3 pounds of weight on Denali by bringing carbon fiber stove boards for the group. But composites are cool. So knowing that cutting edge thermoplastic composites company Fiberforge exists just down the street from here, we thought we’d pay a visit and see what we’d need for the garage to make the WildSnow custom ski (stoveboards, how 1990s!).

Production manager Colin C. showed us around, check it out. (Please note, Fiberforge’s manufacturing processes and machinery are patented and proprietary, we were thus careful in this post to publish nothing more detailed or revealing than can be found in the Fiberforge public website.)

Carbon fiber

The foundation of the Fiberforge process is this machine that lays up and thermal tack welds standardized fiber strips (carbon or other) into sheets that are then molded. What makes this stuff terrific is that no additional resin is used in the assembly and molding process. What's more, these machines are optimized for mass production. No mess, way less weight, hundreds of widgets getting made.. Hence the possibility of a carbon fiber ski that could beat Goode at the weight game.

Carbon fiber

Colin shows us the layed up sheet that comes out of the Relay machine. This material then goes to the 450 ton heated press forming system, which is where the real magic happens. According to Colin, while some shapes can't be molded with this process, a vast variety can be, and they end up with a greatly enhanced strength/weight ratio in comparison to traditional fiber/resin layup techniques. Seems to me they could make skis.


The heated 450 ton press. This thing takes so much current they have to run their own gigantic diesel generator or they'd black out half our county.

Pack backboard

Fiberforge is not unfamiliar with outdoor products. Somewhere in this photo is the mold for the Mystery Ranch backpack framesheet. They've made more than 20,000 of those guys, which perform much better and are lighter weight than the now traditional poly/alu/fabric framesheets used in many of today's backpacks.

In all, a truly interesting factory visit that did get Louie and I thinking about how whole bunch of outdoor products could be substantially improved with Fiberforge technology. Thanks for the tour Fiberforge! And the eternal question, will these machines fit in my garage? Shoot, I have to throw away my shop vac to make room!


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


23 Responses to “Manufacture the 10 Ounce Ski — Got 1.2 Million Dollars?”

  1. Tyson April 7th, 2010 9:40 am

    I think carbon is the future of skis. I’m sure you’ve noticed dozens of companies are now adding carbon fiber stringers to their construction (I believe the recently reviewed Stoke has carbon stringers)

    DPS makes skis from carbon fiber and they are as torsionally stiff as a race room ski and have similar weights to a rando-specific ski.

    Most ultralight skis are really noodley at high speeds. The Manaslu is a great ski but you can really feel it’s lack of torsional rigidity. It’s just not a high performance ski for aggressive riding. Seems there are three attributes of a backcountry ski – light, high-performance, inexpensive – I guess you get to pick 2 of those. Manaslu is inexpensive and light. DPS is high-performance and light but also quite expensive. I’m guessing the “Fiberforge Lou Dawson pro-model” ski would also be high-performance and expensive.

  2. haraldb April 7th, 2010 9:52 am

    Thanks lou – very cool factory tour trip report

  3. scottyb April 7th, 2010 11:13 am

    and you thought skis were already expensive, sounds like much the same process used by the aero/space industry for many years.

  4. Randonnee April 7th, 2010 11:22 am

    Very. Cool. Imagine what types of ski technology will be mainstream soon. Fat skis have been in the backcountry about what, 5-7 years? Aside from that, look at the 10-15 year trend for improved skiability of skis. And the trend toward lighweight randonnee ski gear seems to have accelerated in just the past few years. Interesting possibilities!.

  5. Paul S. April 7th, 2010 1:27 pm

    The problem with designing skis or anything else that undergoes vibration is the need to balance rigidity, mass, and damping. It’s a fine balance between making something that has “pop”, doesn’t feel “jittery”, and is generally “skiable”. Surely there are improvements to be made yet, but if miraculous improvements were easy, they wouldn’t be miraculous. It’ll be interesting to see where ski materials go over the next couple of years. Maybe we are going the way of bikes, and we’ll be on 90% carbon skis in the not too distant future.

  6. Richard April 7th, 2010 2:47 pm

    I think your tech antenna were out of order because of the spring pollen in the air. The Fiberforge machine uses what are known as pre-preg glass or carbon fabrics that have the resin already in place, not “no resin”. This process has been used in the aircraft and boat industry for decades. Fiberforge does not produce a lighter or stronger product— it is a very expensive purpose built machine that totally automates the process, not a revolution in weight.

  7. Lou April 7th, 2010 3:02 pm

    Richard, you’re probably right. I did know that the raw material is fiber and resin, but the difference with the normal ski process seems to be that the resin is manipulated by heat and pressure, rather than the messy liquid resin layup process that’s quite common. So it automates the process, that’s enough of a revolution for me. I’ll re-read their docs and edit if necessary. No desire to give the wrong impression.

  8. Patrick Odenbeck April 7th, 2010 5:10 pm

    Mystery Ranch uses Fiber Forge for the Yoke Framesheet adjuster. The piece is half the weight of the original.

  9. Francisco April 7th, 2010 7:14 pm

    I remember in the eighties they used prepreg for prototype surfboards. They never became popular because they were too stiff and unresponsive. Of course they also cost a fortune.

  10. Rob April 7th, 2010 9:31 pm

    As a previous commenter mentioned, it’s prepreg carbon, not simple fibres without the matrix holding the sheer stresses between the fibes, as well as the compressive stresses, otherwise carbon would just be reasonably stiff rope (actually, as an aside, in the case of carbon and glass fibres, it wouldn’t even make a good rope, at least, even in pure tensile applications like sailboat shrouds they still use matrix). Also, you get a lighter ski if you use a sandwich not pure FRP. Something like balsa (or aerogel…=D) is far lighter than carbon, and allows you to space out the stiffer shells, much like an I-beam increasing the second moment of area of the shape, which increases stiffness.

    Sorry about that, back with you. Got a bit lost in the land of engineering. Anyway a ski is basically a gently loaded floating plate. One other really cool thing you can do with fibrous composites generally, and especially carbon is introduce bend-twist linkages into the situation. One thing that could be done with this is to actually actively-passively react to counter chatter. By active-passive, I mean that the bending that is a result of the chatter is also causing twisting on the active edge of the ski which pushes back against the snow. Slightly different layups could provide improved turning response.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, Abaqus beckons me to…err…go model the bend-twist linkages in a free floating plates….How topical.
    – R

  11. Richard April 11th, 2010 6:49 pm

    Since we techies love to talk teck, I’ll tackle the terminology tribulations.
    1- pre-pregs are fabrics (carbon, kevlar, or glass being the most common) that have their resin already impregnated into the fabric under controlled conditions. They are commonly refrigerated until ready to use to retard unwanted cures.
    2- Once they are assembled into the mold, heat is applied initiating the cure.
    The highest performance resins cure at very high temperatures.
    3- Much higher fabric content (and stiffness to weight ratio) is achieved by vacuum pressure, up to several atmospheres in special autoclaves for aerospace parts .
    4- The Fiberforge process has nothing to do with strength, durability, or lightness; the factors are core design, materials type, fiber orientation, resin choice, heat and pressure during cure. Fiberforge is merely a process for automated manufacturing of pre-preg parts.
    5- There is a reason why skis that ski well don’t have cores of balsa or low density foam. Its called vibration dampening. Somewhere in a ski museum there has to be a pair of Hexcells with aluminum honeycomb cores. Borrow them if you can and it will only take a minute of skiing to understand the concept.

  12. Walt April 13th, 2010 10:54 am

    Where’s the photo of the 10 oz ski? What’s the name of it? I think there is such a thing as a ski being too light. I think there is a happy medium weight. I think reducing swing weight is more important than reducing over all wieght. If a ski is that light, you are going to get thrown all over the place in anything but untracked powder.

  13. Lou April 13th, 2010 11:23 am

    Walt, one has to wonder. Skis have gotten lighter and lighter for years, and each time they get lighter people say they’ll get “thrown around.” Some no doubt do get thrown around, but some don’t. Seems to me a stable ski that skis well is much more a result of good design and engineering rather than how much it weighs. Or perhaps there is a minimum weight for a ski, and any lighter than that it’ll never ever work no mater how hot the engineering. Your thoughts?

  14. Walt April 15th, 2010 9:28 am

    Well, In mountain biking, it is clearly the case. Those crazy 19 pound xc bikes are just difficult and no fun to ride and throw and bounce you all over the place. You have to be an incredibly strong rider just to control one of those things on a rocky trail. (we aren’t talking smooth roadie-style trails) There is definitely a minimum weight where a bike no longer becomes fun to ride which is somewhere around 24 pounds. And as in skiing with the swing weight of skis, in mountain biking, you want to reduce the rotational weight (lighter wheels, etc.) because that wieght is multiplied by pi (3.141592). So, I would say that in skis, the swing weight is basically 3 times more important, but you still would want them to be nice and stable under foot. So, yes, I definitlely believe there is a minimum ski weight. I think that in super deep, bottomless fluff, a super light ski would help with fatigue, (but again, it is the rotational or swing weight that really matters, not the overall weight.) I think that swing weight is very important in skis that you use for mountaineering and skiing tight couloirs. But, you still need some mass under foot to absorb energy when you hit ice and the chunky stuff. With a 1 pound ski, you would probably be bounced to your death or give up and down climb.
    And the other point I would like to make is that many backcountry skiers are just too weak. They really need to get stronger to improve their skiing, and not go out and buy lighter equipment as an excuse for being weak. You are born with your maximum aerobic capicity. It’s the luck of the cards and there isn’t much you can do about that. But anyone, can get stronger, if they work at it. Just as there is a balance point between the weight and skiability of a ski, there is a balance point between your strength and your aerobic capacity. Most people are far too towards the aerobic side and not enough towards strength. Look what happened to Lynsey Vonn, when she decided to do something about her lack of ski strength. After two years of training, she is the best in the world and the only woman strong enough to use mens dh skis (which are heavier).

  15. Lou April 15th, 2010 10:01 am

    Walt, your point about fitness is well taken. Our whole lifestyle at Wildsnow HQ revolves around staying strong with good cardio, and at the same time dealing with chronic injuries and stuff like that. We definitely don’t slack, but keeping an injury free athletic lifestyle is sometimes a challenge.

  16. ScottP April 15th, 2010 4:18 pm


    Differences of opinion on the proper weight for a mountain bike aside (especially given that advances in materials allow you to get the same strength with with less weight, just at a higher monetary cost), your calculation for swing weight is completely wrong. To figure out how much torque you need to twist an object around, it’s the rotational moment of inertia that matters. I’ll leave the derivation out, but the moment of inertia for a flat rectangle (approximation of skis) is M(L^2+W^2)/12. So it increases linearly with the mass, but quadratically with length and width. If you take weight out of the ski in a uniform manner, the torque required to rotate those skis while skiing will be directly proportional to that weight, i.e. half the weight, half the torque. On the other hand, if you take a lot out of the tips but not out of the middles, you can take less weight out but get the same effect on rotation because you’re effectively shortening the ski. If you half the weight and take it all out of the tips but none of it out of the middles, it will actually result in needing less than half the torque to turn the skis.

    And what you’re still ignoring with your “minimum weight” argument is that materials exist and/or can be made that exhibit the same range of strength and stiffness as the current mainstream ski materials but still weight much less. Your skis’ weight may make them “feel” more solid, but when it comes to absorbing shock it is but one part of the equation and other factors can be changed to make them perform the same. Your assumption that a 1 lb ski would be bouncy is not true; that ski could be made to be as flexy or stiff as need be to ski like a 7 lb ski.

  17. Walt April 16th, 2010 11:15 am

    You may be correct on your moment of inertia calculation. But I’m not not so sure rotational forces aren’t part of the equation as well. Think of the skier’s legs as the axis and the further out you go from the axis, mass matters. A bigger, heavier wheel takes more energy to turn than a smaller, lighter one. Yet, it can go over anything and the smaller one can’t. So, my point was, that if you have the strength to perform with a bigger, heavier ski, do it. That’s exactly what Lindsey and everyone else does on the world cup. If super light skis were so great, don’t you think the world’s major ski manufactorers would being doing this? Money not that much of an option at that level. No, because there really is a happy medium between weight and performance. It does exist. Sure, skis have gotten lighter and shorter but only because they were in excess of what they needed to be and today’s world cup possess superior strength compared to their predicessors to turn today’s much stiffer skis. (so, they don’t need to be as long.) Yes, they have also eliminated useless weight by making bindings of strong plastic instead of metal and things like that. But that trend won’t go on forever. I’m sure ultra-light prototype light skis have already been tried and rejected. Are really going to tell me that some (weak) hippie in his shop is going to build a 1 pound ski that will revolutionize skiing and upstage the major ski manufactorers? It will never happen. We are already close to approaching the minimal weight for skis to still perform well. Skis need mass. You can’t get away from it.

  18. ScottP April 16th, 2010 2:34 pm

    Well, it’s a question of what people want for what situations. In a Downhill race, lighter skis don’t actually give any sort of benefit. All the turning is (ideally) carving and the skis are not being carried at any point, so any investment in making them lighter gets no returns. And as you said, extra weight provides extra momentum and makes them for stable for long carving turns, and extra weight can also make the skier go faster because it helps them better overcome air resistance. For big carving pow turns on wide open bowls, this is what you’d want so I see your point about the balance for weight between up and down.

    On the other hand, Goode does have a big following in the Moguls event, where the constant fast turning makes light skis very desirable. There’s a lot of pressure for Moguls and Aerials to make lighter skis and the research continues to go in that direction among major ski makers. For a lot of very short fast turns, lightweight skis are great. For those skiing tight steep couloirs in questionable conditions (maybe even with a belay), easily turnable lightweight skis are fantastic if you don’t have the certain something required to point it (which I, for one, do not). So a lightweight ski in this situation is win/win, on both the up and down.

    The wheel analogy isn’t necessarily true here. True, more mass in a wheel gives it more angular momentum for the same speed so it’s more likely to keep going, but that’s not necessarily why 29er wheels roll better. They also roll over things better because the ratio of their radius to the obstacle is smaller, so the obstacle “appears” smaller to the wheel. You can make a heavier 26″ wheel that has the same moment of inertia as a 29er wheel, but it still won’t roll as well (in case it’s not obvious, I’m sold on 29ers).

  19. Frank K April 16th, 2010 4:33 pm

    Walt, thanks for being the voice of reason around here. A 10oz ski would be great to strap to a backpack, and that’s about it.

  20. Lou April 16th, 2010 6:30 pm

    Ah Frank, oh yea of little faith. In 1976 (circa) I predicted future skis would eventually be about half the mass they were then, and people laughed and said a ski that light would never work and be too squirreley and unstable…. the rest is history and you are skiing on it (grin). Lou

  21. Frank K April 16th, 2010 7:28 pm

    I don’t have any skis you would consider light (just got curious and weighed my regular AT setup- almost 16lbs), Lou, except perhaps my Verdicts and I hate them because they are squirrely, just like other lightweight skis. It’s a trade-off and I’m OK with the Verdicts at this time of year. Thankfully not all skis are built with light weight as a key quality, I’ll take “heavy” skis that actually ski well, thank you very much.

  22. Lee Lau April 17th, 2010 6:15 pm

    I’m with Frank

  23. Bar Barrique April 17th, 2010 10:56 pm

    My alpine skis are boat anchor heavy Atomic B5 Metrons, and, my most common backcountry ski is a set of Goode 95’s. Their are differences between the handling of the skis in different situations, however, with a sufficiently beefy boot the Goodes carve quite well on hard packed snow. The lighter weight of the Goode’s is also very handy in situations requiring jump turns. While I would not consider a light weight ski to be an advantage when riding the lifts, they have tremendous advantages in an AT ski, and, in my experience, the difference in performance is not as great as some might think, especially for normal back country conditions. BTW, the Hexcells garnered some impressive reviews in their day.

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