Tucker West prepares to take off from the starting position. Advanced manufacturing technology is being applied to sled production, and USA Luge has high hopes that can lead to more medals at the Olympics and on the World Cup circuit.
That’s been the case over the last 10 years as it has developed a much stronger relationship with an expert in metal finishing, Norton, a brand of Saint-Gobain Abrasives. Longtime supporters of the team, Norton signed on as a primary sponsor in 2009, and the level of technical assistance was taken to a new level. USA luge athletes weren’t simply getting more abrasives to use in prepping their sleds for races and working to recondition sleds between race seasons, they were going to get a crash course in advanced manufacturing.
The results have been pretty impressive so far. After winning medals only in doubles luge competition at the Olympics (Gordy Sheer’s and Chris Thorpe’s silver medal and Mark Grimmette’s and Brian Martin’s bronze medal at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and Grimmette’s and Martin’s silver medal and Thorpe’s and Clay Ives’ bronze medal at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah), the U.S. has captured two medals in singles luge in the last five years. Erin Hamlin won a bronze medal at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and Chris Mazdzer earned a silver medal at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. While you never want to diminish the skill of a slider guiding his or her 50-pound sled down an icy chute at 90 miles per hour, USA Luge coaches are quick to say that they think the team has some of the best equipment in the world. Here is how metal finishing experts helped them to get there.
The first rule in this sport is that you can’t compete unless you have a high-tech sled. Luge equipment is the product of precision engineering and manufacturing. It’s primarily composed of composite materials, tailored to the exact preferences of a specific slider.
The equipment blades are made of specialty steels. They are the only piece of the sled that engages the ice. Connected to those blades are runners, also known by the German word kuffen, which means the same thing. These are the curved sections at the front of the sled that point back toward the slider. Using their legs, the sliders apply pressure to one or the other curved sections, while simultaneously applying pressure with the opposite shoulder to steer the sled through the course. The pod, which is typically made of fiberglass, is the platform on which the slider sits. Two pieces of steel called bridges connect the runners to the pod.
“The issue in the past is that we always had to rely on purchasing runners from other nations, and you can bet that we’re not getting the best equipment if we’re buying equipment from countries that we’re competing against,” said Grimmette, the former Olympic medalist who is now USA Luge’s director of sports programs.
Prior to the 2014 Olympics, Norton employees conducted tests on a selection of runners that the USA Luge team had collected and felt were good samples from which to start building a portfolio of metal features that might work best in their own runners. The tests and analyses revealed that Hadfield steel, named after Robert Hadfield, who created this steel alloy in 1882, was going to be the best material to focus runner development on. (Hadfield steel, or manganese steel, is an alloy steel containing an average of 13 percent manganese. It’s known for its high impact strength and resistance to abrasion once it’s work-hardened.) The runners used on the sleds today can be traced back to the initial reverse engineering effort.
“Through Norton’s engineering expertise, they can help us narrow down what materials that we wanted to test,” Grimmette said. “We can then bring those materials to the track, try them on the ice, and figure out which ones perform better.”
The metals that went into the two-piece runners developed for the 2014 Olympics did the trick, helping the U.S. to claim its first singles luge medal.
“That’s when the relationship really came into its own, around 2014,” said Sheer, the former luge medalist and now the program’s marketing director.
Chris Mazdzer, a silver medal winner at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, guides his way down the Lake Placid, N.Y., track by adjusting the curved portions of the metal runners with his legs. One of the keys to faster luge times is to prepare the runners in such a way that friction is minimized as the sled heads down the track.
Each of the runners on today’s sleds are made of two pieces of steel. Because the Hadfield steel is so hard, it needs to be attached to a piece of carrier steel, into which holes can be drilled to assist with connecting the pod to the runners.
“When talking about two-piece runners, we feel like we have among the best, if not the best, set of runners for cold weather conditions,” Grimmette said.
That leads to the most recent engineering project: USA Luge athletes and Norton engineers are looking to develop a better one-piece runner, which performs better in warm weather conditions, when more moisture can be picked up by the runners. Again, a lot of research and development is taking place in terms of looking at different metals.
Grimmette said this R&D is a “big” project that can help out the USA sliders in the future. A one-piece runner design will allow the runners to be exposed to different surface treatments that a two-piece runner couldn’t survive. (In a two-piece runner, the two steels are glued, and that glue doesn’t last when exposed to excessive heat associated with surface treatment processes.) A hardened steel that has been treated to be that much more resistant to wear is a competitive advantage for USA Luge athletes, particularly if other teams don’t have something similar.
The USA Luge team may be competing against other countries in World Cup events and the Olympics, but it’s also battling friction. The sleds need to shoot down the chute with as little impediment as possible. That’s where the Norton products have been helping out consistently over the years.
“We’re always working to reduce the friction as much as possible,” Grimmette said. “So we’ll start with lower-grit sandpapers and work all the way up to the higher-grit abrasives. Then sometimes we’ll use a diamond paste. When we get done working with the runners, they have a mirror-like finish on them.”
That’s the work that takes place after and building up to races. Grimmette said that maintenance work might take about six to eight hours per day as a slider works up to a major race. That same preparation is now down to about an hour or 90 minutes because of abrasive products tailored to achieve a specific finish and hand tools that alleviate the need for excessive amounts of elbow grease.
These tailored tools are particularly helpful in between races, when sliders might have less than an hour to repair a runner. The smallest bit of dirt or sand can create a divot in the steel contacting the ice, which can slow down the sled on the next run. Abrasive products that can deliver a smooth and consistent finish in a matter of minutes keep the USA Luge team in the hunt for a medal.
“It’s really important for them to be able to get something that they can use to finish the metal quickly and remove scratches and marks,” said Rich Sargood, supervisor, product engineering, Norton/Saint-Gobain Abrasives. “They need something that will allow them to be very quick and very efficient.”
Over the lifespan of the sponsorship, Norton employees have enjoyed plenty of opportunities to interact with USA Luge athletes and even attend the annual World Cup event in Lake Placid, N.Y., home of the 1980 Winter Olympics. Norton’s engineering, manufacturing, and R&D team members know more about the sport than perhaps they ever planned to, and the luge team has gotten a crash course in what modern manufacturing is all about.
Grinding belts and sanding paper are some of the consumables used to prep the sled’s runners before they hit the ice.
“We’ve had some athletes visit the plant and also our R&D center, and they’ve been pretty wowed,” said Anne Bonner, Norton’s R&D manager, bonded abrasives. “They see all the technology that we have and all of the different tools available, and their socks are knocked off.”
Grimmette confirmed that this technology transfer has made a big difference in helping the team to tighten its production processes. While it may rely on different manufacturers to build parts for its sleds, the USA team assemble the final product at its Lake Placid headquarters. The tutorials in quality control, in particular, have helped to ensure that parts are consistent from one batch to the next. That means that a key component for one sled can be used on another sled, which wasn’t always the case.
Grimmette added that being able to closely track design revisions also allows them to tweak sleds so that they can be tailored to specific pilots. “It makes for a better sled,” he said.
It makes sense that a manufacturer would be a good source of manufacturing services. Norton is just that.
As an example, Grimmette said that Norton’s Watervliet, N.Y., facility has been instrumental in expanding the life of the sleds. Needless to say, sleds are ridden very hard during a season’s worth of races, and the ability to return them to a near-new state is a bonus for sliders who don’t want to spend the time to break in new equipment.
“We actually bring our sleds down to the factory and use the paint booth there,” Sheer said. “Our coaches always come back from that experience beaming because of the amount of information that they learn about painting and the best ways to recondition our equipment.”
The education process continues for both sides. The Norton team will explore different metallurgies to see what might work best for the sliders and take feedback to influence future research. The USA Luge organization is looking to incorporate more advanced manufacturing technologies, such as 3D scanning of parts to help with digitizing sled designs and 3D printing of sled parts. It’s a symbiotic relationship that has worked well, especially over the last 10 years, and promises big returns in the future. Attention will be focused on the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing to see if metal finishing know-how results in medal finishes for the athletes.
The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.
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