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Turning the Tide with Smart Surfboards

Surfing, one of Australia’s most-loved past times, is undergoing a revolution as technology from these startups promises the perfect surf.

Ryan Mets and Chris Greben didn’t set out to revolutionize the way surfboards are purchased. The idea for their online surf shop Boardcave was actually conceived in 2010 through their surf blog.

“There was no information online to help people buy boards at that stage,” said Mets. That was a problem, he said, as it meant surfers had to rely on shop assistants who too often recommend the wrong boards.

The right surfboard depends on multiple factors such as a surfer’s size and ability. Using the wrong one makes surfing difficult and can jeopardize budding surfers, said Mets.

He explained, “If you start your surfing career on the wrong board, you’re not going to be catching waves, and it’s not going to be a very good surfing experience.”

Boardcave founders Ryan Mets (right) and Chris Greben
Boardcave founders Ryan Mets (right) and Chris Greben

After surfers flooded their blog with inquiries, the pair quit their jobs and started developing technology to find the perfect board. The result is their patented Board Engine, which allows customers to search for and compare surfboards from leading brands on the site. Products are matched to customers’ needs through a filtering process after they create a profile with key information like their weight and fitness.

“The more user data we gather, the more we refine surfboard recommendations,” said Mets of the one-of-its-kind system.

Smart surfboards enter with a splash

Also using technology to help surfers is Disrupt Surfing, founded by Gary Elphick. Its proprietary platform launched online in 2014, enabling customers to design surfboards with 3D printing software.

The aim was to help surfers design boards tailored to their needs and satisfy demand for customization in an industry dominated by mass production. “The crux of the platform has always been about design,” said Elphick.

Disrupt Surfing founder Gary Elphick (middle) and his team are working on new models of smart surfboards.
Disrupt Surfing founder Gary Elphick (middle) and his team are working on new models of smart surfboards.

Disrupt also uses data to help surfers design boards, going beyond profile characteristics such as height. “We recently introduced our first IoT [Internet of Things] play called Smart Surf,” said Elphick. “It’s all about capturing data analytics off surfboards.”

This water-encased microchip sits inside the surfboard. Surfers can swipe a mobile phone over it to record their location – similar to how runners use GPS-enabled wearables to track their training.

The next generation of Smart Surf is also in the works. These smart surfboards will log data, such as speed and board pressure, when surfers are in the waves. “It’s about actually capturing your riding style and using that data to feed back into the profile for your next equipment,” said Elphick.

Winning Hearts and Minds

While surfers flocked to the platforms, some industry players were more wary. “It was a challenge getting local manufacturers on board in the beginning because a lot of them thought we were competing with them,” explained Elphick.

Competition was especially unwelcome, as Australian surfboard manufacturers were facing pressure from cheap imported boards and the financial crisis, which dampened demand.

Even before these challenges the industry had long battled ebb and flow, with long periods without work common. One experienced hand-shaper described the downtimes, where factory workers would sit and twiddle their thumbs, and got sent home after three hours.

However, the industry is still dominated by small manufacturers, and the global surfing market is expected to swell to $13.2 billion by 2017, according to a global report on Surfing market by GIA.

Many of them tend to be averse to technology, said Mets. “I remember meeting someone who said, ‘No one’s going to buy surfboards online, that’s a stupid idea!’” he recalled.

Disrupt and Boardcave had to win over industry players. “We’re not trying to disrupt anything, we’re purely developing technology as a tool to advance the industry,” explained Mets. “We’re not a manufacturing company; we build systems to streamline and take production into the cloud.”

Boardcave noticed that manufacturers were struggling to ensure orders were in line with the estimated time of arrival (ETA), as manufacturers outsourced production to numerous specialists, complicating the supply chain.

So they built Boardcave’s solution to streamline supply, connecting the different manufacturers to retailers and customers, to enable more accurate ETAs and timely delivery. Once an order is placed, an order timeline gets created, and the board is tracked through production in real-time with QR codes.

Elphick hits the beach with a custom Disrupt surfboard
Elphick hits the beach with a custom Disrupt surfboard

Meanwhile, Disrupt aims to help local manufacturers make custom boards at mass production prices. “How can we do fully customized boards for the same price as retail and make them locally? With the tech that we use,” said Elphick. The idea is that Disrupt’s solution leverages economies of scale – tapping global demand for custom boards and feeding larger order volumes to manufacturers to reduce the final price.

Judging by the numbers, both are making rapid headway. Boardcave’s production volumes have increased by 261 percent in the last quarter, while Disrupt is seeing double-digit month-on-month growth. Both are also expanding into other surf markets in the US, Brazil and Europe.

The technologies that Boardcave and Disrupt are developing have massive implications for the surfing industry, enabling manufacturers and retailers to provide surfers with custom boards at affordable prices. But more exciting is the power of data, which these startups are leveraging to not only help surfers find and create perfect boards, but also improve their skills in the surf.

Top image credit: Nisa and Ulli Maier Photography.

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