Engineering in Grams (customer story)

When conversing with Jay White of White Engineering, the listener is immediately captivated by what he has to say, not only because the subject matter is fascinating, but also because White has a genuine knack for talking about it. A former NCAA skier at Oregon State, White graduated in engineering physics, then went to work in a Portland, Oregon sporting goods store. “It’s what everybody does when they get out of college after four years,” White deadpans. In actuality, it was a high end ski shop where he purchased a lot of racing equipment while also coaching his last year at OSU. As a result, the engineer took a decided interest in the human foot, primarily, how to better fit a ski boot.

Hampered by a snow drought in the late 1970’s, White had time on his hands, so he developed a computerized ski boot fitting capturing 3D pictures of feet. This led to the founding of Foot Image Technology in partnership with Hewlett Packard. “We took their document scanners and made them foot scanners,” White recalls, “recommending ski boots across North America and Australia.” This fostered an interest in sport body data capture which led to a project with the Australian army scanning 5000 soldiers from the knee down and developing an army GP boot. He then went to work for Adidas special projects, where then vice president Robert Erb hired White as a special consultant on customized athletic shoes for Notre Dame and Tennessee football, as well as former Celtic Antoine Walker and Lakers great Kobe Bryant.

After a while, White began hitting golf balls off of various summits (including Mount Everest) sponsored by TaylorMade, Adidas, Woolrich, and Solomon. “Just clowning around, climbing” he says. “But I had to have something that would help me pay the bills as all climbers do.” A five year stint at TaylorMade began in 2000 where White worked with golf ball flight. He also developed hardware cameras for the company’s motion capture system. When TaylorMade execs moved to Fila, they brought White along, putting him on their Fila Adatto custom shoe project. “You'd walk into their store on 5th Avenue and we’d 3D scan your foot,” White recalls. “Select three different insole thicknesses, five different arch pieces, two different fore foot pieces, two different heel pieces, and in ten minutes, cobble together a custom shoe for you. It went worldwide, so I was traveling all over.”

Eventually, White went to work for Natural Point, the largest producer of motion capture equipment based in Corvallis, Oregon. This took him inside a wind tunnel at Scottsdale Cycling Specific where he worked with United Health Care, as well as sponsored and unsponsored athletes alike to help them achieve optimal cycling aerodynamics.

White designed all wind tunnel balance components (load cells, rotating motors, stepper motors, ultra-fast camera systems) which measure the rider in micrograms within the airflow. By 2012, he and his team determined that wind tunnels were akin to “hitting aerodynamics with a sledgehammer.” He wanted to know how much drag was on the athlete’s foot and knees or how a helmet texture impacted drag. “The tool for that is computational fluid dynamics (CFD),” says White. “Most of those using aerodynamics for athletes would truncate a cylinder for the forearm, a sphere for your head, poke on their helmet and the bike would be horribly tubular. We wanted to get absolute perfect models of bodies, which are avatars for athletes that move like athletes, look like athletes, wear shirts, pants, shoes, buttons, etc. and the bike is going to be like a Specialized Tarmac with the derailer, chain, and all—not a helmet on a stick figure.”

The Hunt for Reducing Grams

A hundred grams of drag reduction = one second per kilometer on the bike. This is irrespective of velocity. “If you're at 30 miles per hour like Mark Cavendish and you're competing in the Tour de France, you're going to travel that kilometer one second faster, “says White. “So if a helmet signature in a 12K time trial is reduced one hundred grams, you're going to be 12 seconds faster. That helmet modification moves you from third to first place. We're hunting 20 grams or so, and you can’t detect that in a wind tunnel. Impossible.”

The hunt for reducing grams also involves textures, which are all velocity specific. Paint, (gloss or matte finish) for example, adds texture to the Oakley helmet and how one buries that paint at 30 miles per hour, can result in anywhere from eight to 22 grams less drag. White can also recommend helmet decals that provide changes for a particular velocity zone. “If I can do a simulation quickly enough,” he says, “a consumer can send a video of themselves and a bike, and we can position the avatar from it. You ride a Specialized Tarmac and wear an Oakley AR05 at 17 miles an hour. What decals should you have? If I can kick that out in 20 minutes, then I don't have to charge you $500 for a CFD. Based on my data, I can tell you to buy a $100 decal set from Oakley and you're good to go.”