For the first installment of the BallOfSpray interview series I asked Adam Cord if he would allow me to pepper him with a few questions.
Most of you have never heard of Adam. After reading this interview I think you will see that Adam is on the cutting edge and working to shape the skis of the future.
Horton: Before we talk about O'Brien, I think the readers want to know about you. Do you ski? If so, at what level and for how many years?
AC: I first learned to ski at the age of 6, and competed some in slalom in Boys 1 and 2. I grew up on Sawmill Lake in Columbus, IN. I didn’t get serious about slalom skiing until I got to college and started competing for Purdue in 2002. Once I started progressing I became hooked and have been a slalom junkie ever since. At home I trained with my neighbors, including Scott Tynan. At Purdue I trained with the other teammates, including roommate Cale Burdick. I’ve competed at Nationals in Men 1 every year that I have qualified, which include the past 5. In those 5 I’ve had 4 top 10 finishes, including 3rd in 2006.
Horton: What did you do before you worked at O'Brien?
AC: I graduated from Purdue with a degree in Manufacturing Engineering in Dec. 2006. While at Purdue I mainly skied, talked about skiing, thought about skiing, and then sometimes went to class. My claim to fame was that I was the only slalom skier from the Midwest to ever beat Cale in a college tourney.
Horton: How long have you been with O'Brien?
AC: After graduating from Purdue, I packed up and moved to Bellevue, WA and started working at O’Brien in January of 2007.
Horton: What is your current title and responsibilities?
AC: The longer I work at O’Brien, the more my responsibilities seem to grow. Technically my title is Marketing Manager, but I’m busy with a lot here. I am in charge of the marketing (web, print, promotional, etc.), slalom and wakeboard pro teams, ski product line management, ski and binding design, research, and development, and high end slalom manufacturing.
Horton: What is your role in terms of the Elite skis?
AC: During my long and painful math classes at Purdue, I would daydream about how much better things would be if I had my own ski company and I got to design products from the perspective of a skier. Not a pro, but a die hard skier. A few years later I got a job with O’Brien and I was approached by Andy Mapple about an idea for a high end ski program. Elite was born. I’m basically the point man behind the Elite program, as well as the engineer behind the RTM process. I have been busy working with Andy and the rest of our pros on designs for everything from skis to bindings, handles, vests, fins, etc. These guys have a lot of really great and innovative ideas that we hope to bring to market in the very near future. I’ve also been working with Tom Grey on our new website, obrienelite.com, as well as a whole slew of other people that have helped get this program off the ground.
Horton: What were the design objectives for the 09 Elite ski?
AC: We had a lot of goals from both design and manufacturing perspectives on the new ski. Andy and our other pros focused more on design, while I focused on manufacturing. From the standpoint of design, we wanted a ski that had the speed we craved, and also provided consistent and controlled feedback. What this means is that the ski is extremely predictable through the edge change and the turn, while still giving the cross course speed and width that we felt other skis were lacking. We also wanted to be sure that it worked well at both 34 and 36 mph. All the testing that Andy did with the ski was at 34mph. He also took advantage of our pro team at 36mph, as well as many other skiers of different levels at both 34 and 36mph.
The main objective with switching manufacturing processes was to increase the quality and consistency of the skis. You can have the best shape in the world, but if the flex is off or it has too much or too little rocker, it just won’t feel right. Finding the right flex for a ski is definitely an art, and luckily I have some of the best skiers in the world to help with that. Consistently building a ski with that flex, on the other hand, will come down to the guy or gal who’s laying up that ski, as well as many other variables. The idea with RTM was to remove as many of those variables as possible. Instead of mixing resin by hand and “eyeing” how much to use on a ski, the resin is mixed in a static mixer to the exact ratio and injected at a controlled rate and volume, which is repeated exactly every time. Instead of laying up the ski in a hurry with wet resin that is in the process of curing, the ski is laid up slowly and every layer of carbon can be placed exactly where it needs to be because it is dry. Instead of putting the wet ski in the mold and then squeezing all the excess out, the dry ski is laid into a mold that is then closed and sealed before the resin is injected and vacuum is pulled to completely wet out the ski. The result is complete control and consistency, allowing us to hit those magic flex numbers every time.
From the BallOfSpray forum - JDarwin Asks:vWould O'Brien consider sponsoring some 34mph Big Dawg skiers as opposed to/in addition to professional skiers?
AC: We definitely understand the importance of having Big Dawg skiers on board with our program, not only from a marketing standpoint, but from a design perspective as well. We have been using several of these skiers for testing, and expect many to compete on our ski this coming season.
JDarwin: How does input from their sponsored skiers eventually find its way into the designs of their skis? How do competitive products affect their design- are they analyzed and tested by O'brien personnel / skiers?
AC: We use our sponsored skiers in every step of the design process. These are the guys who live slalom skiing day in and day out, and they know what works and what doesn’t. Most of them also spend more time coaching than they actually do working on their own skiing, so they get the chance to see people of all levels. This gives them a great understanding of what works for different people, what people like or dislike about their equipment, etc. Also, I personally test every product that we make before we ever put it in the market (A guy’s gotta get out of the office sometimes!).
From the BallOfSpray forum - DaveD asks: Is RTM going to be used more often for making skis?
AC: The Elite skis will be made using the RTM process. The problem with using it further down the line is that it’s an expensive process, and lower end skis don’t require the precision that competition level skis do. As our methods improve we may build some other skis using RTM, but for the most part it will only be the highest end skis.
From the BallOfSpray forum - Disland asks: Do you view the high end ski market as a profitable segment? Or do you use the high end to create a brand to sell more of the low end high volume higher margin equipment.
AC: This definitely goes both ways. High end skis can be profitable, but I don’t think everyone makes a profit on them. The idea of branding using high end products has been used for years in many markets and it applies here as well. We believe that our high end products help to sell more of the low end.
Disland: How do you view the introduction of the Warp 8. Obviously at $3000 they have set a whole new price point. Is there really more to gain by going to top end materials and construction, or is it a gimmick?
AC: Here’s my take on prices and construction from the standpoint of a water skier as well as an engineer. There have been a lot of advances in the past few years in composite technology that can and have drastically improved the performance of our skis. Unfortunately, those advances aren’t cheap. Companies who have raised the bar by going to a better technology have also had to increase prices in order to stay in business. Some other companies might just be raising prices to enjoy the increased profits. Who those companies are is up to the consumer to decide. From a technology standpoint, I definitely see high end materials and construction as an advantage. As I previously stated, flex will make or break a ski, and consistency is king.
From the BallOfSpray forum - HO 410: What is the material of a Sixam or Elite?
AC: The Elite uses a CNC machined Divinycell core, but then uses carbon, carbon, and more carbon along with the resin. This is a true “All Carbon” ski!
The Sixam consists of the same type of Divinycell core, several layers of carbon, a little fiberglass, and graphic sheets, as well as epoxy resin holding everything together.
Horton: I am constantly telling the readers at BallOfSpray that there are no bad skis and no best ski among the current high end skis. Each ski has a feature that is its best feature. For some skis, it is smooth turns on one or both sides; for others, it is ease of width or perhaps forgiveness at some point. What do you think are the specific things you expect to hear after a skier tries the 09 Elite for the first time?
AC: I expect everyone who tries the Elite to be amazed first and foremost by its speed. Second is the feedback and “controllability” of it. What I mean is that it’s very easy to read, which means it won’t surprise you, and that it will do what you want. Do you want to take it easy and have some big carvy turns? Go for it. Do you want to try and see how much angle you can hold on to? You can do that too. I like to think of my ski as a tool. I want to go around some buoys really fast with a short rope, and my ski is the tool I’ll use. I think people will try this ski and say “That’s a powerful tool!”
Horton: I have heard a story about your first few rides on the 09 Elite. Can you tell us about it?
AC: Haha ok. I was so busy this summer getting the RTM process dialed and getting everything ready for nationals that I didn’t ever get a chance to try the Elite ski before I went down to Okeeheelee. I actually went to nationals without having taken a set since taking an early fall at the Western Regionals. The whole week leading up to the Men 1 slalom event I was debating whether or not I would even bother competing. Finally on the day before the event and while in our booth I was giving my pitch about how great the new ski was, I decided “screw it, I’m competing, and on an Elite!” So that day Andy and I took off down to Miami Ski Club, where I met Remi and his wife, who are two wonderful people. After sitting in the boat and watching Andy rip through some disgustingly easy looking 39s on an Elite, I went out and skied. I took 2 sets and by the end you wouldn’t have been able to wipe the smile off my face. I had only run some 32s on the ski, but it felt really good, and I couldn’t believe the speed! It was very gratifying to know that the ski that I had worked so hard on had turned out so good. The next day I used that ski in competition and ran 28, 32, 35, and 2@38, good enough for 6th place! Of course the first thing Andy said when I saw him was “Why didn’t you go around the other 4?”, but I was very happy!
Horton: With RTM are you using epoxy, polyester or thermoplastic?
AC: We use an RTM specific epoxy.
Horton: Ask 10 skiers how long a ski lasts before it becomes "less lively" and you will get 10 different answers. Can you shed any light on ski life expectancy?
AC: Many people say many different things about how skis “feel” and whether or not they break down. There are many factors that go into how a ski feels, a lot of them having to do with water viscosity. As the density of water changes, the ski will ride higher or lower, which can have a dramatic effect on some skis and little on others. This difference has to do with where the water breaks and how the ski is designed. That being said, some skis can and will break down. For some it will happen in a season, others, even of the exact same ski, may never have this problem. In order to understand this we need to look at both the materials and the build process. Inconsistencies here will lead directly to a broken down ski later. I could probably write a few pages on this, but here are some of the factors that can play into this: poor core adhesion, inconsistent resin/hardener mixture, air entrapment in the ski or in the resin, or even core inconsistencies. Extreme temperatures can also play havoc with the core and resin over time.
Horton: How does RTM change the life expectancy of a ski?
AC: RTM helps remove many of the manufacturing problems that lead to the eventual break down of a ski. The most detrimental and common problems with manufacturing are inconsistent resin mixture and wet out, as well as entrapped air in the resin. RTM allows us to precisely control the resin mixture and wet out, as well as leaving the ski with no entrapped air.
Horton: Andy mentioned to me that the spoon shape of the top of the 09 Elite allows for a simpler carbon layup and better forebody flex. Can you expand of that?
AC: This design feature had a dual purpose. We wanted to remove material that is further away from the center of the ski to reduce rotational inertia, and we also wanted to control the flex in this area. While most skis will get stiffer as you move toward the tip, we are able to keep this area very consistent and actually soften it with this design. What this means on the water is that the ski doesn’t have the tendency to “push back” at the end of a hard turn, which causes the tip to rise. The consistent flex makes the ski want to stay at its angle relative to the horizon, allowing you to maintain edge hold and ultimately speed through even the hardest of turns.
Horton: Does the spoon shape also improve the skis paddling characteristics?
AC: It’s always important to be prepared in the event of an engine failure.
Horton: I have to assume that your design team went though a great number of prototype shapes to get the 09 Elite the way they liked it. What can you tell us about this process?
AC: This process is long and difficult, with a lot of time spent cutting, widening, narrowing, filing, bondoing, and eventually skiing. This is what Andy spends a good portion of his time doing. As much as I would love to be able to call a laminar flow engineer at Boeing and ask him the best way to design a water ski, there is no replacement for experience and good old trial and error. I learned very quickly that almost every crazy idea I’ve had for ski design Andy has already tried twice. Having someone like him is invaluable. Usually there are a lot of “Aha!” moments in testing, as well as a lot of feeling that you just wasted the whole day on an idea that didn’t work at all.
Horton: Are there any funny "behind the scenes" stories about R&D ideas that went very wrong?
AC: I once ripped the binding screws completely out of a test ski that had no inserts while crossing the wakes. That’s one of the most surprising things that can ever happen to a person. Well, surprising and painful.
Horton: Do you have a favorite Andy Mapple story?
AC: When we first finished the 67 Elite mold, I built the first ski and promptly overnighted it to Andy, eagerly anticipating his feedback. All I got was a text that read something like “This thing skis like crap.” He let me think that the whole project was a failure for about half a day before finally calling and telling me that it was the best thing he had ever skied on. I could have killed him!
Horton: Do you have a favorite Drew Ross story that does not include him sneaking a drink when his wife is not looking?
AC: I was at the ’07 Slalom Shootout with Drew, when he used a different ski for every round of the competition. He ran 39 in almost every round!
Horton: Do you have a favorite Drew Ross story that does include him sneaking a drink when his wife is not looking?
AC: What?! Drew would never do that!
Horton: Are there any Camille Duval posters left at the factory? Is so, can I have one?
AC: I currently have 3 Camille posters in my office. You can’t have any of them, but I’ll consider sending a photo text.
Horton: I consider the SS to be perhaps the most underrated ski on the market. With the Elite taking center stage, what are the plans for the SS?
AC: The SS really is a great ski. Until the Elite, this was the only ski I had ever ridden that made me feel good about my offside. We are still seeing pretty high demand for this ski as it gets more exposure, so we will continue to sell it and tweak it if we think it’s needed. I’ve actually just spent some time this past week working on some slight flex changes for the SS that will make it ski even better.
Horton: What other products are in the pipeline for the Elite brand?
AC: You name it, I bet we’re working on it. There have been a lot of advances in other industries that I believe we are missing the boat on, and we are looking to bring as much of that innovation as possible into our industry. RTM is obviously the first, but there will be other out of the box type ideas that we apply to our sport.
Horton: Hmmmmm…. Anything I forgot to ask?
AC: Yes. I’m a Cancer.