MORRISVILLE, N.C. – Kayak slalom presents an Olympic engineering challenge, and both Creaform and Geomagic were up for the challenge when the Australian kayak team called for help.

Olympic sport keeps pushing athletes to find new and nuanced ways to condition their bodies. The same is true with their equipment. Engineers continually look for new refinements that propel the competition to a new level.

Much of this latter challenge lies in the realm of biomechanics, or movement science.

Ami Drory is biomechanist at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). One of his new developments for the 2012 summer games in London was to find a better “fitout” of kayakers in the canoe slalom.

It sounds like a simple matter of measurement and cushioning, but in the slalom, fitout gives the competitors an especially crucial edge. In the event, paddlers have to maneuver through 18-25 gates as fast as possible. The tough parts are the segments that are upstream. To propel against the whitewater, the paddle, kayaker, and canoe have to act together as one.

“The transfer forces applied through the paddle is a primary determinant of success,” explains Drory. “A good fitout allows the athlete to use their full range of motion while transferring as much force as possible into the water.”

Past methods of fitout have been laborious and the results are not easily repeatable. “There can be a frustrating process of trial and error and wasted material before you get it right,” Drory says.

Tasked with about a dozen customizations in a limited time window, he decided to explore an automated process for fitout. His goal was to develop a reliable and repeatable series of digital procedures that would start with real forms of boat and athlete and end with manufactured parts.

The first step was to accurately scan the athlete in position. AIS owned its own 3-D laser scanner for use on other sports equipment design, but he says the device was insufficient for the project because of the amount of detailed surfacing required in each customization. To handle such a large set of geometric data, he enlisted the help of a Canadian, Sébastien Dubois, an application specialist from the Quebec City-based scanner developer Creaform.

Dubois brought one of Creaform’s portable handheld laser scanners, the REVscan, to the AIS facility in Brane.

The REVscan is a lightweight, handheld 3-D scanner weighing just 2.1 pounds, with a resolution of 0.004 inches, and an accuracy of 0.05 inches. Used at a standoff distance of up to 12 inches, this is an ideal scanner for accurate, close-in work. It is perfect for organic shapes such as human bodies, and generates industrial level accuracy results.

Scanning kayaker Jessica Fox in position wearing a webbing of point markers, Dubois and Drory created the initial digital test model. The scanning equipment, featuring TRUaccuracy technology (which ensures highly-accurate measurements, regardless of the environment) mapped 3,500,000 polygons-worth of 3-D points in about an hour. Another thorough two-hour scan captured the interior of Fox’s competition kayak.

Using Creaform’s VXelements software, Dubois produced STL polygonal data files of the scans which were imported into Geomagic Studio, a product which is ideal for fast, automated processing of almost every kind of 3-D data into precise NURBs surfaces for use in CAD.

Both Fox’s body scan and the kayak scan were processed through Geomagic’s system where they could be saved as IGES data for import into SolidWorks. Once in the CAD system, Boolean operations on the data could be used to enable precise modeling of the kayak fitout, customized perfectly to the athlete’s unique body shape. Using this process, Dubois scanned and processed 11 athletes’ scans in three days.

Stéphane Auclair, vice president of marketing at Creaform, commented on the success of the project.

“The Olympics is always a place where barriers and limits are meant to be broken. This is the sort of project which really illustrates how 3-D scanning advancements are changing what is possible,” says Auclair. “More and more, we are seeing how objects can be made to conform to fit unique body shapes very quickly, and as a result creating products that become a comfortable extension of ourselves.”

Will this engineering give Australia the edge to bring home a medal in the canoe slalom? We’ll have to watch and see.

Medal or not, Drory is confident that the improvements in fit will at very least shave some time off the clock, giving the athlete’s a better chance to achieve their best times.

“This project was a fast and efficient workflow from measurement to manufacturing that is individualized for each athlete,” says Drory. “The optimal boat fitout for each athlete may have a significant positive impact on the performance and success of those athletes in the 2012 London Olympics.