University of Cincinnati Assistant Professor Grant Schaffner in the School of Aerospace Systems is the principal designer for a revolutionary new skeleton sled that was used in the Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. Two Cincinnati-area businesses, ProtoStar Engineering and Machintek Corporation, jointly designed and built the new sled. The sled was ridden by John Daly, one of the three male athletes on the U.S. Skeleton Team. In addition, the sled shell or fairing (called a “pod”) designed by ProtoStar Engineering was used on the sled ridden by Noelle Pikus-Pace, one of the two female athletes on the U.S. Skeleton Team.
Schaffner’s aerospace research at UC in the College of Engineering and Applied Science is in the area of human health, survivability and performance in extreme environments.
“Mainly, I deal with astronauts in the space environment, soldiers in combat and athletes,” he says.
Schaffner is also the president of ProtoStar Engineering, an engineering consulting company based in Cincinnati, Houston and Phoenix.
The sled project began just one year ago when two of the principals of ProtoStar Engineering — Schaffner and Karl Schultz — sketched out a rough design for a revolutionary new sled on a piece of paper while meeting with staff of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation (USBSF) and a representative of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) in a hotel room in Whistler, Canada, following the Skeleton World Cup event there. To that point, ProtoStar Engineering had been providing technical consulting to the U.S. Skeleton team, mainly aiding with aerodynamics analysis and sled structural testing.
Acting on inspiration gained while observing the World Cup event and based on knowledge and experience gained during the past year, Schaffner drafted a preliminary design with the assistance of Schultz. The representatives of the USBSF and USOC liked the idea and told ProtoStar Engineering to run with it.
Schaffner and Schultz credited their experience gained while “bodystorming” (a term used by ProtoStar Engineering to reflect the philosophy of interacting physically with the products they work on) as playing a major role in the design.
“The ‘bodystorming’ term is a play on ‘brainstorming,’ except that you physically involve your body, too,” says Schaffner. “In our case, this consisted of getting on the sled and actually sliding down the track at Lake Placid. The coaches were quite impressed that I and two of my partners were able to make runs from the top of the track after only three days of very brief instructions and practice runs from lower on the track. Our final runs weren’t pretty and we had some impressive scrapes and bruises on our shoulders and arms to show for it, but we gained a real appreciation for the sport, the sled and the track.”
The bodystorming took the form of a three-day “crash” course (quite literally, as attested by the scrapes and bruises they received) in which the ProtoStar engineers learned to ride the sleds themselves, starting near the bottom of the track and eventually working their way up to completing two runs from the top.
Schaffner adds, “It was scary, but intense, exciting and fun at the same time. I can’t say that our sliding was pretty, but we sure learned a lot!”
What followed from the meeting in Whistler was an intense year of design and testing and re-design and testing, with many sleepless nights and hard work along the way. Opportunities for testing were very limited because there were no ice tracks available during the summer, when much of the development work took place. When prototype test results proved to be very promising, the project got a last-minute funding boost from the USOC to build a competition sled for the games. The funding was approved in late December 2009 and with just two months to go to the opening of the Olympic Games, Schaffner says “it was a mad dash to the finish.” The sleds were built just in time to undergo some preliminary runs in the few remaining events on the European portion of the World Cup circuit. While the competition experience was very limited, the results were promising enough that John Daly committed to using the new sled in the Olympic Games and Noelle Pikus-Pace replaced her existing pod with the pod designed for the new sled.
The sled frame was fabricated by Machintek Corporation, located in Fairfield, Ohio, and the pod was fabricated by deBotech Inc., located in Mooresville, North Carolina.
“Without the passionate support and extraordinary measures provided by people at ProtoStar Engineering, Machintek and deBotech, the sleds would never have been completed in time for the Games,” says Schaffner. “It was truly an extraordinary effort that made it happen!”