Composites have changed the game of hockey, delivering lighter and more flexible sticks that promise to boost player performance. But all this muscular shot power comes at a price: Composite hockey sticks, particularly the two-piece designs, are notorious for breaking, often at inopportune moments that can cost teams the game.
John McPhee, a mechanical engineering professor in the Systems Design Engineering Department at the University of Waterloo and an avid hockey player, saw an opportunity to improve those odds. Based on his experience using robots to evaluate the technical claims of golf club manufacturers, McPhee saw an opening to apply similar robotics testing to hockey stick designs, helping manufacturers develop high-performance sticks with lasting durability.
Traditionally, hockey sticks — be it the old wooden kind or the more modern composite models — are put through their paces with player testing, which McPhee maintains is highly subjective. Robot testing, on the other hand, alleviates any potential guesswork. “Player feedback is great, but it’s not always trustworthy,” he told us. “Put a stick on a robot and you can take the same shot over and over again and compare one design against the other. You can have confidence that the design is better or not as good. It delivers very repeatable test results.”
The SlapShot XT robot can execute a slap shot like a professional hockey player at speeds of up to 110mph.
McPhee says the testing can encompass anywhere from 10 shots up to around a few hundred with the robot. But it’s never around 1,000 shots, despite the fact the sticks being tested are scar- and nick-free, unlike sticks used in the rink, which are typically marked with gouges or chips that facilitate breakage.
While the hockey stick testing application seemed like a no-brainer, the robot design was not. Unlike the golf robots that McPhee was familiar with, the hockey stick robot needed to have at least two arms, and the arms had to be synchronized so they could work in tandem to perform a slap shot. The fact the design called for both mechanical and electrical control systems presented a second challenge.
Undeterred, McPhee and his team opted to move forward. Their first step in creating the robot was to understand the motion of the hockey stick during a slap shot. To do so, the team deployed advanced motion-tracking devices and high-speed cameras, harnessing real, live hockey players to capture the trajectory of the stick at different locations.
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