This Is Your Computer on Skis

That is, this is a pair of custom-made skis, when designed by a computer

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Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

We have made-to-order blue jeans and dress shirts, golf clubs and personal computers. Is there anything we can’t customize? How about skis? Nope, turns out Wagner Custom Skis, in Placerville, Colo., near the resort town of Telluride, has been designing one-of-a-kind skis by hand and computer algorithm for several years now.

It turns out that if you combine a degree in engineering, some computer programming skills, and a deep knowledge of—and love for—a specific domain, you can make a living customizing stuff. At least, that’s the experience of Pete Wagner—engineer, programmer, skier, and founder, in 2006, of Wagner Custom Skis. He’s my guest today by phone, from a parking lot in Utah.

Pete, welcome to the podcast.

Pete Wagner: Thanks, it’s good to be here.

Steven Cherry: Maybe by way of explaining what you do let’s make me a customer. Let’s say I grew up skiing and now am getting back into it. Maybe this is my midlife crisis—wouldn’t it be great if they were all this mild—and my last pair of skis weren’t all that, so what do you need from me?

Pete Wagner: Well the way that our process begins is you get our website and you fill out our skier DNA questionnaire which takes about 5 minutes to complete. That gives us some basic information about your height, weight, age, your skiing background, and what equipment you’ve been on—and also information about where you’re skiing and how you’ll use the skis. Essentially we figure out more or less what the mission statement of the skis is going to be. And then we follow up with a design interview and that usually takes about 10 to 15 minutes. We’ll typically do that over the phone or Skype—we can also do it over e-mails—and one of our ski designers will work out a recommendation for you. What we do is present you our design recommendation. It explains what your skis will be, what the performance will be, and you choose the top sheet graphic and place your order, and then it takes us about three weeks to build your custom skis.

Steven Cherry: So the skis themselves, how different are they from skis I might buy at a really good ski shop in Telluride; or Mammoth, Calif.; or Jackson Hole?

Pete Wagner: Most skis that you find these days at ski shops come from China or Eastern Europe. A big difference about a Wagner custom ski is that, No. 1, it’s designed and optimized for you the individual skier. And what that does is it’s going to actually help your balance, comfort, control, power, and efficiency. And then it’s made in the United States by craftsmen who are passionate about skiing.

Steven Cherry: So what do the algorithms themselves do that couldn’t be done with a slide rule or just by instinct by one of those old fashioned craftsmen ski makers.

Pete Wagner: You know what the algorithms do—the first thing they do—is based on the feedback that you give to us in the skier DNA questionnaire. They actually will figure out what your optimal geometry will be, that’s the length, width, side-cut radius, tip, and tail shapes of the ski. And then it figures out the perfect lay up of materials that we’ll make your skis with, and then it figures out the optimal flex pattern and calibrates the stiffness based on your size and past skis. So it’s doing a lot of calculations in comparing past skis that you’ve been on that are in our design database with what your product should be, and it actually creates all of the code that then controls our computer-controlled milling equipment. So not only does it figure out what your design should look like, which is a predictive engineering component, it then programs all of the machinery in our factory and runs all of that equipment.

Steven Cherry: So basically the manufacturing goes straight from algorithm or algorithm output to machine output?

Pete Wagner: Exactly. Our skier DNA design system figures out what your optimal design’s going to be, translates that into the code that controls the computer-milling equipment, the computer milling equipment fabricates all of the components of the skis really precisely, and then we take all of those components and assemble them by hand, and then it’s all finished by expert ski builders.

Steven Cherry: I was wondering if you could imagine the skis themselves being made directly by a 3-D printer? It seems like, other than the edges, the skis are basically layers of composite fibers right?

Pete Wagner: Yeah, yeah. You’re exactly right on that and in theory if we could have a 3-D printer be able to output some steel edges, and some rubber dampening layers in wood and in high strength plastics, we could use that type of technology to create our skis. In fact that might be the future once we get that type of versatility from 3-D printers.

Steven Cherry: And we should talk about money at some point. Since this is my midlife crisis, do I have to give up that restored 1967 Mustang convertible I also want?

Pete Wagner: You know, I guess it just depends on your budget. Our custom skis start at $1750 so it’s going to be less expensive than your Mustang, but it will be more expensive than the skis that you’ll see on the rack that were made in China.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, so that $1700 or so, how does that compare to a pair that I might buy at that really good ski shop for example?

Pete Wagner: You know, the average price of a ski these days is probably in the $800 to $1000 range. A more premium product is going to be more in the $1200 to $1400 range, so we’re about a 30 percent premium over the high-end skis made by the large factories.

Steven Cherry: I want to talk a little bit about how you got started. You were working at a company that made custom golf shafts, so I guess you already understood the benefits of custom gear and you already had an engineering degree?

Pete Wagner: So I started my engineering career by getting a mechanical engineering degree from UC San Diego where I specialized in computer-aided design and material science. And I was working in the golf industry as an engineer and I did everything from quality assurance engineering, to design engineering and manufacturing, to developing fitting systems for golf equipment. That basically involved doing a swing analysis on a golfer and then using computer algorithms to figure out the right combination of club head, shaft, and grip. So about 10 years ago I had bought a pair of skis, didn’t really think much about it, mounted them up—they were telemark skis so I couldn’t demo them—and I just went out and skied them, adjusted to them, and didn’t think much about it. After I had skied on them for about 70 days I tried a different set of skis and realized that I had been crippling myself. The skis I had been using had been the right size in terms of length and width, but they were much too stiff for me. They were not a good fit. That got me thinking, I’m developing technology about how to fit golfers into their perfect equipment. How come no ones doing this in the ski industry? At that point I started converting the software that I was developing in the golf industry towards skis and I thought originally that maybe I could sell this to a ski company, but then I quickly realized that there’s not—at that point about 10 years ago—there was no manufacturing of skis being done in the U.S. And I was in the right time and place in my life where I decided I would give this a shot. So in 2006, I build a factory just outside of Telluride, Colo., in a small town called Placerville and we’ve been building our custom skis since then.

Steven Cherry: So somewhere in this story you were getting an MBA I guess at the University of Colorado, and this is a little bit like the famous story about FedEx that Fred Smith wrote a term paper imagining his future company and his economics professor gave him a failing grade. The failing grade part is an urban legend, but in your case you did a business plan in school and your professors didn’t think it would work. Why not?

Pete Wagner: Well, they were right about the ski industry being a very challenging market. It’s not a huge, fast-growing market and there’s been a lot of people that have come in and tried to create ski and snowboard brands that have been unsuccessful. So I also got a lot of warnings about trying to start a manufacturing business outside of a ski town and I decided to go for it regardless of their warnings, and it’s been very, very encouraging.

Steven Cherry: Have you thought about any other things that aren’t customized now but could be?

Pete Wagner: I mean you could almost pick a sport and be able to customize the gear for it whether it be—you know what we’re doing is skiing but you could find parallels in other mountain sports like kayaking—whether it be the boats or the paddles. It could be rock climbing equipment, helmets, or even shoes and boots and more everyday-type equipment. So as you said in the beginning, people are getting more accustomed to seeing and using custom-made products and realizing the performance benefits. So there’s all kinds of applications for customization, and I think we’re going to see that growing in a number of different industries.

Steven Cherry: I think you must be right and I notice also that a car is something like 30 percent software now as far as basically the cost of it is concerned, so it seems to me inevitable that more and more products consist of more and more better and better knowledge. So this ski thing may sound like a fringe thing now, but it does look like the future of anything that costs a lot or that we care a lot about, whether it’s sports or things like cooking. So I think you’re at the cutting edge of something, no pun intended, and thanks for taking the time to tell us about it today.

Pete Wagner: Thank you. It’s great talking with you.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Pete Wagner of Wagner Custom Skis about making skis the old-fashioned way, by computer algorithm and spit polish.

This is likely to be the last show aired in calendar 2012, so I’d like to take a moment to thank the folks who contributes to it.

First and foremost, Barbara Finkelstein, who produced half of our shows this year, including most of the most popular ones, and Francesco Ferorelli, our audio engineer, who makes us all sound so much more intelligent and articulate than we are in the studio. I’m grateful as well for the support of all my fellow editors, at Spectrum, especially Rachel Courtland, who wrote and produced two wonderful shows; Jean Kumagai who produced our tribute to Alan Turing; Will Jones, who draws in many of our listeners through our newsletters; and Harry Goldstein, Spectrum’s editorial director, who’s been the show’s earliest and biggest champion.

I’d like also to mention Michele Kogon and Joe Levine, our adroit and talented copy editors, and their team of freelancers; and Randi Silberman Klett, our photo editor, who every week creates visual representations of things that seem hopelessly conceptual. And I want to thank our long-time sponsor, National Instruments, who require of us nothing except that we create the best shows we can.

Wishing you a happy end of 2012 and an even better 2013, for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

Announcer: “Techwise Conversations” is sponsored by National Instruments.

This interview was recorded 18 December 2012.
Segment producer: Barbara Finkelstein; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

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