Introducing Tech Tuesday
Today, we’re introducing a new monthly feature to the blog that we’re calling “Tech Tuesday.” This will be our chance to go behind the scenes with Baden’s Director of Research & Development, Hugh Tompkins, to learn more about some technical aspect of the Axe Bat or the bat-making process, generally.
For our first installment, we thought we’d get to know Hugh better, find out more about his job responsibilities and get an update on how things are going with the new lab he’s overseeing construction on at Baden’s corporate headquarters in Renton, Wash.
Q: So, Hugh, how long have you been at Baden?
A: About three years now.
Q: What has been your involvement with the Axe Bat?
A: I was brought in primarily to work on the Axe Bat, so I’ve been involved with all aspects of its development since I started. Our 2013 bats were the first to include my design contributions.
Q: How is the Axe Bat different today than when you started?
A: It’s completely different. We’ve literally changed every component of the bat since I’ve been here. We changed the barrel profile. We changed the end cap. We changed the grip tape. We changed the graphics. Most important, we changed the knob.
Q: What changes did you make to the knob? Can you tell us more about that process?
A: Sure, the knob was kind of this unformed concept when I got here. Even though we’d been making it for a couple years, we relied heavily on our manufacturers to create the details. So when I came in, we did an actual ergonomic study and started making rapid prototypes on-site using computer modeling and 3D printing. Instead of making a change every 12 months — after the factory had received our drawings, cut a mold and made a mass production part — we were able to make a change every three days. This allowed us to go quickly through many different iterations and get a lot of feedback in a short amount of time. The result is a far superior design that fits more comfortably in the hand.
Q: What do you remember about your first day at Baden?
A: It was kind of funny. Baden had never had a product developer with my background before — most of their other product developers had been graphics guys — so nobody, including me, was really sure where to start. My first day, I basically sat at my desk and read engineering reports and papers on various bat technologies. I just immersed myself in trying to learn as much as I could about the science behind bats.
Q: What’s your educational background? What did you study to prepare for a career in sports product development?
A: My degree is in industrial design from the University of Washington. I was actually three years into a mechanical engineering program before I decided I was more interested in the creative side of building and designing things and changed over … which added another four years to my college education.
Q: Did you play sports as a kid? Is having a background in athletics a prerequisite for your job?
A: I rowed in high school and college. I also played a lot of basketball growing up and played soccer when I was younger. But, no, I wouldn’t say athletic experience is a prerequisite.
In fact, a lot of times, companies that have in-house designers like getting perspectives from outside designers. Often, people who have been “swimming in the soup,” so to speak, can get too close to their products. And that inhibits their ability to think creatively about problems that have existed for a long time. So, in some ways, having a sports background can be an encumbrance if you have a lot of preconceived notions that blind you to potential areas where a design could be improved.
Q: What’s a relatively recent invention you wish you would have thought of first?
A: Wow, that’s a tough question. Probably something in mountain biking — maybe the full suspension mountain bike? When I was in school, I was certain I was going to work in the mountain bike industry. In fact, my first patent application was for a shaft-driven bicycle that used a spinning shaft instead of a chain.
Q: Why do you think it took so long for somebody to come up with an alternate baseball bat design like the Axe Bat?
A: I think it’s just something nobody thought to question. The baseball bat had been around for so long — and looked the same way for so long — that everyone just assumed there was a good reason for it. But that wasn’t the case.
The round knob is a result of the manufacturing limitations of the wood lathe. But when something has been around that long, it’s very easy for it to just keep going. People tend not to question it. So, for us, the Axe Bat is really about questioning bat design from the ground-up, and examining all of those elements to find out what is truly best for the hitter.
Q: I understand you’ve been working on a new lab at Baden. How’s construction going and when will it be finished?
A: Yes, we moved our corporate headquarters back to Renton (from Federal Way, Wash.) about two years ago. One of the driving reasons for the move was to have room for the lab. We needed somewhere we could have our own design space — where we could do proof-of-concept prototypes and build things and be noisy and have stinky chemicals and do things like that without bothering anyone. We also needed a more private space so we didn’t have people meandering through looking at projects that weren’t ready to be launched for another year.
Will it ever be finished? My guess is no. There’s always going to be new equipment and things that we want to have back here. But we’re making great progress.
Q: For test equipment, what do you have now and how do you see those capabilities evolving?
A: We’ve just begun to build out our test capabilities. We have about three new pieces of test equipment right now, in addition to the older equipment Baden has used to test balls for years. Most of our empty space has already been ear-marked for equipment that’s being built and designed right now.
Ultimately, we’ll have a full composites lab back here that will allow us to do carbon fiber layups, cure them and actually make bats — go from raw material to completed bat, which will be a big step.
Q: What kind of music do you listen to if you find yourself needing some inspiration in the lab?
A: Usually, I don’t subject the people back here to my music. We go with whatever John DeLuna is playing. (Editor’s note: John is a product designer who sits next to Hugh. He’s listening to Billy Ocean at the time of this interview.)
Q: What’s your favorite sports movie?
Q: Let’s say I want to work in sports product development. Are you hiring? Can I send you my resume and portfolio?
A: Yes and yes. Email those to me at hught at badensports dot com.
You can read even more about Hugh’s work at Baden in this story that ran last November in The Seattle Times‘ NWjobs section.
Do you have a question you want covered in a future installment of Tech Tuesday? Email it to mattp at badensports dot com.by