Shoe Month: R&D transforms shoes into performance gear

Monday, May 13, 2013

BROCKTON, Mass. -- Ben Hogan had it wrong. The secret isn't in the dirt.

It's in the shoes.

Scoff if you want, but what I witnessed here – inside FootJoy's high-tech testing chamber, dubbed the "Shoe Box" – underscored that what golfers wear on their feet makes a difference. As in 10 yards or more.

Standing atop force plates that measure contact with the ground and strapped to sensors charting his swing in 3-D, Chris Kerr hit several shots with a driver in a golf course simulator – wearing FootJoy's top-of-the-line stability shoe, the XPS-1. When the FootJoy staffer repeated the exercise wearing less stable footwear, depriving him of a solid foundation to propel his swing, Kerr's double-digit distance loss flashed on an LED display.

It's a demonstration, not a conclusive scientific study. But company executives say the Shoe Box's gadgetry enables them to test theories and quantify performance like never before. The end result: Better shoes engineered to deliver a competitive edge.

"We utilize all of it because it's not about measuring (an individual factor) for the sake of measuring… We're trying to determine the correlation with performance," says Mike Feeney, FootJoy's senior manager of product development. "The simulator bay, the force plates, the 360-degree, full-motion measurement – it's all for assessing what prototypes or aspects of design will generate, ultimately, greater ball flight."

FootJoy's efforts illustrate what few consumers may know: Footwear creation today has evolved into a major scientific endeavor, requiring research and development efforts and materials discovery, not unlike those used in golf club manufacturing. Such advancements have led, arguably, to a golden era of golf footwear. Heavy, leather-soled clunkers have been made obsolete. They've been replaced by lightweight uppers, cushion midsoles that conform to your feet and outsoles that flex to mirror the natural motion of feet – yet can create a platform to power a swing. Changes in shoe weight alone underscore the advancements that have been made: In the mid-1980s, a single leather golf shoe typically weighed 22 ounces. Now, some models barely move the needle at half that weight. And they'll only get lighter.

"The race is on," says Bill Price, Adidas Golf's vice president of footwear. "Our category is one of the fastest-changing in golf today. And it's because of tour players. They're evolving; they're athletes. They've got their nutritionists, their coaches, their trainers. They're working out in such lightweight, flexible shoes, and they're asking us, 'Why can't I have that in golf?'

"And the reality is, golf shoes don't have to be like stiff ski boots," he says. "They shouldn't be."

Price says the modern golf swing also has evolved, from a lateral motion to a rotational one. Such dynamics require different physical movement, which sequentially occurs in a chain reaction starting with the feet.

"All this change is occurring, but we've been playing with the same shoes," he says. "It only makes sense that the shoes needed to evolve, too."

Among the influences causing the category transformation are the contributions of companies such as Adidas and Nike, athletic footwear giants that have brought their resources and research from other sports into the golf arena. Adidas, for example, has two major laboratories – one at corporate headquarters in Germany; another in Calgary, Alberta. Their discoveries regarding human performance are shared with appropriate sports divisions, ranging from soccer to golf, to help produce specific products, according to Price.

In essence, golfers are becoming human guinea pigs in sports labs so that their movements and footwear can be analyzed to assess their effects on the swing.

Behind the always-locked doors of the NSRL – the Nike Sports Research Lab, established 32 years ago and one of the oldest of its kind – director Matthew Nurse neatly sums up the work that's done in the facility located within the company's world headquarters complex in Beaverton, Ore.

"Let's take Jim Furyk. He swings like he's trying to fight bees in a Mini," he says. "But we can objectively quantify everything he does. We geek out and do more math than you care to know and take those insights to make better products."

Seemingly every device inside the NSRL measures something. Says Nurse: "Anybody can look at something and say it's slippery out there, but how much or how little? Our job is to put a number to that."

Nike, for example, created its Power Channel outsole after NSRL researchers discovered power "leakage" in Tiger Woods' swing while studying him in action. At the time, Woods, was wearing "super-stiff, old-school shoes"; the shoes essentially toppled over through impact.

"With those shoes you're either on the ground or off it (and if it's the latter), you're no longer pushing," Nurse explains. "That led to creation of the Power Channel, which created flexibility in the shoe so that he's keeping contact on the ground through impact."

To measure the performance changes, NSRL researchers used motion-capture, high-speed video and pressure plates inside the shoe as well as beneath it. The plates not only measured the amount of pressure Woods exerted into the shoe's footbed, but the pressure driven into the ground.

Aside from all the R&D, shoe manufacturing also has become a glorified scavenger hunt. The market demands a never-ending pursuit for better materials, whether it's rubber compounds or materials for uppers. Many shoe companies attend countless expos and scour the globe to meet vendors who can provide the latest innovation.

Once new materials are acquired or developed internally, designers use computer-assisted design systems to invent new models, and rapid-prototype machines create replicas in a matter of hours for review.

The high-tech equipment doesn't stop there. On the back end, an array of machines, built specifically to test products or gauge the suitability of new materials, are put into play. At FootJoy, for example, one machine deploys a robotic foot, adorned with a FootJoy shoe, and stomps in a puddle virtually for perpetuity. Sensors inside the shoe detect any water breach and record product failure if it occurs. Other equipment test shoes' tolerance for heat and humidity; some tug and pull at materials for durability.

The testing and research may seem extreme, but their goals are worthy: to make sure a good walk isn't spoiled. And to play better, of course.