What is a Sports Engineer?
For some years, I have had mixed reactions when I tell people I am a Sports Engineer. I usually follow it up with “I design and develop (or engineer) technology for sports” and I give a few examples of technologies used in sports such as: GPS tracking in team sports, or running watches, or sensors that measure a golf swing or tennis racket swing. Usually, people will get it after I mention those examples because they are common enough these days all thanks to smart phones and smart watches. But the truth is, there is a wide spectrum of things that Sports Engineers do, and using sensors to track sports activities and movements is just one small part of it. As described on the Centre for Sports Engineering Research website – a Sports Engineer deals with everything concerning the athlete on the outside. Broadly, the basic areas include:
- what the athletes wear (e.g. apparel, protective gear),
- what they use (equipment),
- their sporting environment, and
- the tools for measuring and analysing the athletes
There are mainly two motivations for engineering those areas:
- To prevent injuries and to keep the athletes safe
- To enhance (or some say optimise) the performance of athletes
There is a third motivation or perhaps a by-product of the above two; and that is improving the viewing/spectatorship of sports. As a result of athletes having less injuries and being able to train more effectively, plus having optimised conditions and optimised the athletes’ performance, they are breaking records and taking their sports to the next level. This makes it so much more exciting to watch sporting events and be inspired by what is possible.
So in this post, I want to highlight some of the specialisations within (sports) engineering that play a part in achieving those goals. You should definitely read further if you are : –
- someone who is passionate about sports and you are looking for a course to study in the new year and you are interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering & maths) skills
- already working in a STEM field and you would like to apply your skills in something other than traditional industrial applications plus you are quite into sports,
- simply interested in sports and technology and how they come together.
Now here we go.
I did a writeup previously about customising apparel and equipment for athletes. The focus there was custom design and one purpose of custom design is to have the extra edge in fitting to enhance overall performance and safety. But generally, designing apparel for performance means consideration of the properties of different textiles and fabrics, and the environment and conditions they need to perform under. Does it (the apparel) need to keep the athlete warm/cool or dry? Does it need special properties such as being hydrophobic and antimicrobial? Does the construction allow the athlete to move more efficiently or stay comfortable for longer? Or perhaps a composite is required so that certain coverings have more protection and there might be a need for fibre reinforcement or fusing of different yarns. This is applicable to garments (including shoes or boots) as well as equipment such as gloves, protective gear, grips, seating cover etc. Engineers involved in textiles might also find themselves quite hands-on with sewing machines or other sewing equipment.
Next we have Materials engineering which technically also includes textiles (since they are polymers). There are essentially three main types of materials including metals, ceramics and plastics/polymers, and then there are composite materials which can be a blend of two or more types of materials. Engineers could be looking into making new materials or improving existing materials; making them stronger, lighter or more flexible depending on the sporting application. Understanding the properties of different materials allows sports engineers to design a piece of equipment to do its job well (while meeting regulations) and taking into consideration the competition conditions and how the athlete uses it. Engineers working in this area should be well versed in materials testing – hardness tests, stress-strain tests, impact tests, failure/fatigue tests etc. Besides equipment, there is also materials for sports flooring/turf. For e.g., the hardness of the court could affect how athletes perform in tennis. All these will inevitably be related to other specialisations such as mechanics, design and manufacturing.
Aerodynamics & Fluid Dynamics
In sports where speed is a key determining factor of winning or losing, engineers would be concerned with the aerodynamics and fluid dynamics (or hydrodynamics) of the athlete during competition. Unless we are in a vacuum, we will mostly be moving either through air or water; and though we may not feel it, air and water resists our movement (aka drag). Usually the faster an athlete tries to go, the higher the drag will be. But this drag can be minimised and that’s what aero & fluid dynamics engineers sometimes focus on. They might be involved in designing apparel for athletes that improves air flow or fluid flow across their body – think Cathy Freeman’s full Nike running suit, or Speedo’s LZR swim suits, and Under Armour’s speed skating suits. Besides apparel, equipment (like helmets and bikes and goggles) are often taken into consideration as well; and then there are the optimum angles/positions/postures that athletes can adopt for minimal drag and therefore optimal flow.
In order to quantify the benefits of aerodynamic designs or positions, tests are typically conducted in wind tunnels or in pools set up for hydrodynamic tests. On the other hand, for cycling, there are options to measure aerodynamic drag on a track using portable sensors. Though this would overlap with the sensors category further down. [If you would like to learn more about wind tunnels, definitely check out this explainer video below by Air Shaper]
Simulations & Modeling
In cases where wind tunnel tests or fluid dynamic tests are not quite feasible, we may be able to rely on computer simulations or Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) which is specific for flow simulations. Typically, we will need a 3D model of whatever needs to be tested, let’s say a new bike helmet design, import that 3D model into the simulation software, set the intended parameters (position, wind speed etc), and run the simulation. Running simulations gives us a relatively good idea of what works or needs to be improved before we go ahead and build the product and test it in real life. Apart from air/fluid flow simulations, we can also do mechanical simulations and temperature simulations (or Finite Element Analysis). In those cases, there needs to be some basic understanding of material properties, mechanics and physics (which we will touch on next) and of course the conditions of the test.
Apart from that, there’s also modelling and simulation of sports movements. This is technically part of a specialisation of its own – Sports Biomechanics. Engineers or Biomechanists would first create a (mathematical) model of the athlete based on what needs to be analysed. Then run some experiments to collect/measure some basic data and which can then be applied to the model to obtain other information that cannot be directly measured. Knowledge and understanding of anatomy and human movements is definitely required to do this.
Mechanics and Physics
When we think about movement or anything that moves, there is mechanics and physics involved. Newton’s laws of motion may come to mind (or at least the second law, i.e. F = ma) . For example in cycling: forces are applied to a pedal which causes the crank sprocket to turn, creating a moment/torque, pulling the chain and transferring the torque to the back wheel sprocket; and in turn, the tyre pushes against the ground due to friction and ultimately propels the bike forward at a certain speed. Being able to calculate the forces and losses helps the engineer design systems that are more efficient so bikes can go faster (or at least that’s part of the idea).
The sports engineer would also use strain gauges or force sensors (embedded into the equipment) and high-speed cameras to measure and validate the physics in the lab or in the field (depending on the equipment used). High-speed cameras are particularly useful to capture things that happen at an instant, such as impact, spin or material/structural deformation. Think of a golf club hitting a golf ball and similarly a tennis racket hitting a tennis ball and how the forces are transferred. Capturing how the ball deforms on impact and how that translates to different forms of energy gives insight into the performance of different rackets or clubs. Engineers will typically use robots (robotic arms) to perform those club/racket swings so that there is consistency in every swing. Another similar cool application of robotics testing is the ‘Robi-leg‘ designed by the adidas team to conduct kick tests on soccer balls.
Electronics & Sensors
As we have seen in the previous section, there is a fair amount of robotics and sensors involved in determining the forces and understanding how sports equipment perform. Quite often, the measurements and data required cannot be obtained using off-the-shelf or plug-and-play measurement tools or sensors. Engineers sometimes need to design a jig with precision motors and control to ensure repeatable testing and consequently ensure that the test results are comparable. Or engineers might need to stitch together a network of sensors and design custom data acquisition electronics. So that’s where electronic engineers become really handy in such cases. Fortunately, with growing interest and development in the hobby electronics space, programmable microcontrollers have become more advanced with more features and this makes the job of putting together a custom electronics solution a lot easier.
Depending on the application or what needs to be measured, engineers need to pick the right type of sensor. They could range from force transducers, pressure sensors, infra-red, lidar, ultrasonic, accelerometers (for shock) and other sensors for wearable applications such as those that measure physiology (e.g. heart rate, muscle activation, temperature etc) or motion (ie IMUs). Besides getting the correct type of data, it is also important to know how precise the measurement needs to be, so sensors with high enough resolutions should be picked. Sometimes when the wearable application becomes embedded into the sports garment, that’s when we go into e-textiles or conductive fabrics and also flexible electronics. Essentially, that’s marrying textiles engineering, materials engineering and electronics.
Data & Analytics
As we mentioned in the last section, sensors are used in various sports engineering applications; they are placed on athletes or embedded into equipment, and as a result, can collect lots of data. Besides that, data is being created continually these days because of the digital world we live in now. Every digital or mobile device we use collects data, especially when we think of sports training apps. Data can largely be categorised into quantitative (numbers) or qualitative (descriptive). Data that are captured from sensors are considered quantitative data, and usually in number formats and time formats (e.g. time series data).
Data for a specific event like a lab test tells us a specific measurement (or a result) for specific situations/conditions. Data from a similar group of athletes could reveal certain traits about that group of athletes. A collection of data from different sensors/sources over a period of time could tell us trends or patterns that potentially could give us an estimate of certain outcomes before they happen. In essence, engineers working in this area have to be good with numbers. They are armed with statistical tools to process data and are able to apply various algorithms depending on what needs to be achieved. Visualisation of data is always helpful, so the (creative) ability to come up with easy to interpret charts or graphs is definitely a good skill to have. Most of these are achieved using data analysis software and these days they are even processed on the cloud to leverage more powerful processing capabilities.
Product Design & Development
The idea of design can have very very broad applications. Almost every other heading in this article involves designing. Designing apparel and physical equipment, designing experiments and tests, designing electronics, designing software and simulations, designing apps and user interface. The list could go on. A lot of design work requires cross disciplinary collaborations. We cannot design a piece of equipment for the athlete without the athlete’s feedback or the coach’s or sports scientist’s input that could affect the overall fit and performance output. So really broadly, design engineers (in whichever discipline) start off with constraints and design guidelines, before they brainstorm and come up with concepts. They then start to design and build prototypes to test some of the initial hypothesis/assumptions. This is followed by iterations (and iterations) of design improvements and testing until the final product can be made and used. Some know it as design thinking or some just call this good engineering design principles, whatever people want to call it, it is a basic design process that turns an idea into reality.
If we just talk about physical or mechanical product design, product design engineers will go through all of the above steps and there are certain softwares/tools that are specific to their trade. For example, they would use computer-aided design (CAD) software to create their designs in 3D; they would be hands-on in a workshop and trained to use machining tools or rapid prototyping tools (e.g. 3D printers) to build functional prototypes. Product design engineers need to be familiar with the different materials and their properties and how they can be manufactured or processed. Often, the products that they are developing are meant to be mass produced and so they need to know the various manufacturing methods and design with the scale of production in mind.
This article was put together because I wanted to highlight some of the different disciplines that people in the sports engineering community specialise in. As I mentioned at the start, this might be useful for people who are exploring this field as a career or who are simply interested in the intersection of sports and engineering. I have listed out eight different specialisations really briefly and there is definitely more to each category than I could cover in one short article. I also loosely mentioned a few other disciplines such as biomechanics, mathematics, robotics, software or app development and even manufacturing. I am pretty sure there are other STEM related specialisations I missed out that are having an impact on sports. In any case, what we see is that there isn’t a single discipline that can operate in silo when we talk about engineering for sports. Every sporting equipment or product we see in the market is the result of combining traditional and emerging engineering practices plus lots of creativity and design thinking.
For those that are interested in reading more about the subject (Sports Engineering) from a career perspective, there are a couple of books that I have read in the past that I thought were very helpful. One of it is “High Tech Hot Shots – Careers in Sports Engineering” by Celeste Baine. This book covers different sports and areas of sports applications and interesting stories from engineers working in the different sporting equipment companies. Some of those sports include skateboarding, bowling, golf, tennis, and equipment such as helmets, shoes and more. Another one is “All the Right Angles: From Gear Ratios to Calculating Odds: Mathematics in the World of Sports” by Joe Levy. This book connects different sports with all the numbers and mathematics involved in them including power and motion, angles and trajectories, statistics, and even biology and the environment. It gives a different perspective of what matters in sports from a mathematical point of view and it could give you some inspiration for your next idea (if you are looking for any).
Research & Development
A great organisation to stay connected with if you would like to learn more about sports engineering and especially if you like research and development, is the International Sports Engineering Association (ISEA). They are a group consisting of sports engineering researchers and professionals from across the world. The association has been around for over 20 years and they exist for the purpose of promoting and advancing sports engineering as a discipline. Apart from organising a sports engineering conference every 2 years and managing a journal that publishes lots of innovative research, most of the universities that are part of the group also run academic programs that train future sports engineers. A number of those graduates then go on to work in sports product companies, sports tech startups or continue doing research in universities.
This is where I will stop even though I could go on. Hopefully, this is helpful for people who are exploring the field of sports engineering or just interested to find out more. If you think I have missed out on an important discipline or specialisation, please put it in the comments below and add a link or two. Or if you would like more information about any of the above, or if this has sparked an idea and you would like to chat about it, feel free to reach out. Thanks for reading!