And the newest growth segment in the golf industry is – envelope please – golf-test machines.
Tom Bitsky, president of Automated Design Corp., laughs when it is suggested he has cornered the market.
“If we had to depend on these golf companies to survive, then we’d be gone,” Bitsky said. “We’d be dead. But we’re very friendly, we keep our prices low, and we get jobs we ordinarily wouldn’t get.”
Before golf entered Bitsky’s life, his company was a successful supplier of automated testing and assembly products to the food service and automotive industries. It still is, although Bitsky hints that golf might be more fun.
Though there is limited demand for highly-specialized, pricey golf-test machines, the category at times has proven to be a boon for Automated Design. Indeed, business has picked up once again recently as golf’s governing bodies contemplate ways to measure COR (coefficient of restitution) and impose new performance restrictions on equipment.
Lately, the small, privately held company has generated almost $1 million in golf business – about half of its total annual sales. And speculation about a need for portable COR testing machines – at $5,000 each – could add to that amount.
“It’s a niche business for us, and we don’t know how long it’s going to last, but we hope it’ll last a while yet,” Bitsky said.
He won’t admit that he knew in advance about a forthcoming coefficient of restitution compromise between the U.S. Golf Association and Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland, but the R&A does not hide the fact that it ordered a cannon last December from Automated Design.
David Rickman, the R&A rules secretary, confirmed the R&A frequently uses cannons to shoot golf balls at clubheads. This procedure is the basis of the USGA’s COR test, to which the R&A agreed to subscribe as part of a compromise announced May 9.
At the present time, the USGA limits drivers to a COR of .830. The R&A has no COR limit. Under the terms of the compromise that has yet to be ratified and enacted, a worldwide COR standard of .860 would go into effect on Jan. 1 and would last for five years.
Automated Design products also are used by the USGA. On the floor of the manufacturing plant, test machines recently were being completed for Nike, Callaway and Titleist. Traffic at the facility, located 45 minutes from O’Hare International Airport, often includes some of golf’s most-respected global scientists and engineers.
Bitsky sells frequently to major golf manufacturers in Japan and Asia.
“We build the machines, they send their people for training, then we ship,” Bitsky said.
Automated Design’s start in the golf business came in 1987 when it was contracted by Wilson Golf to help design the Ultra Ball Launcher. At more than $200,000 each, the machine wasn’t exactly a brisk seller. But in 1995 the USGA adopted it as the method for aerodynamic testing, and in all, Automated Design has manufactured 20 ball launchers – which are still sold exclusively by Wilson Golf.
That ventured teamed Bitsky and Wilson engineer Jim Shenoha. In addition to creating the ball launcher, Shenoha also is heavily responsible for Wilson’s Fat Shaft. He later left the sporting goods company and joined Bitsky at Automated Design. Together, they ushered the company into the golf marketplace.
Business really took off with the USGA’s COR mandate in 1998.
“We got four orders in two hours,” Bitsky said, “and we didn’t even know it had been announced. After that, our reputation started growing, and we really started having fun with golf technology.”
Forget that luxury car and buy something really unusual for your family room – a COR testing machine can be purchased for $54,500, and that includes the “Super Cannon” along with sensing screens to measure velocity and laser devices to align the clubhead.
In addition to the COR driver head tester, other Automated Design golf products include:
- A ball COR tester;
- A ball durability test machine;
- A size, weight and compression tester for balls;
- “The Whacker,” a paint-durability tester for balls;
- A club durability test machine;
- A putting robot;
- Ball loading systems for swing robots such as Iron Byron, the well-known robot sold by True Temper that automatically orients the ball in a desired position on the tee;
- Sensing screens for applications such as COR testers and the indoor test ranges for balls;
- Camera and computer systems for outdoor swing analysis, as well as putting analysis.
“Traditionally, a lot of this kind of equipment has been made in-house,” Bitsky said, “but in most cases we can make it cheaper and better. Jim knows so much about golf that we have been able to come up with some real innovations. All the golf companies know who we are.”
Automated Design makes testing machines for other sports, too. Take baseball, for instance, which also tests for COR.
“This is strictly my opinion,” Bitsky said. “But those hotter baseballs that we were seeing three or four years ago – they (Major League Baseball executives) knew. They had to know.”
What Bitsky knows, though, he seldom shares.
“Confidentiality is the foundation of what we do,” he said. “I never tell one golf company what another golf company is doing. They hear rumors, and sometimes we get calls. One big company called once, because they had heard that another big company was ordering a machine. They wanted to know what it was, but I wouldn’t tell them.
“So they said, ‘We want one. How much is it?’ They ordered one, and they didn’t know what it was.”
The big news for the future of golf could be a ball COR test. If the USGA decides to implement such a test – using a simple COR standard for balls as well as drivers – Bitsky has the appropriate machine.
In the rules-heavy sport of golf, wherever there’s a test, there’s bound to be a machine to measure the results.