Is Carbon Prepreg the Future of Snow Skis?
“Carbon fiber is lighter and stronger than fiberglass. Using [carbon fiber] enables a snow ski to become stiffer and much lighter in the right places, compared to a fiberglass ski. Due to the orientation of the fibers*, the carbon skis reach a level of torsional stiffness that is unparalleled by any other material. Torsional stiffness holds the edge at a consistent angle to the surface of the snow or ice along the entire length of the ski, resulting in a much more efficient and effective edge. Carbon fiber also has the unparalleled advantage of quick reaction period. This drastically reduces the time in which the edge is separated from the snow when hitting an uneven surface during a carve, maintaining superior grip.”
—New Zealand’s C6, a top snow ski manufacturer and carbon composites expert
Carbon fiber composites have been a kind of rock star in the sporting goods industry, gaining increased popularity over the past decade. And why not? Sporting goods engineers covet lightweight materials that can enhance performance and lower the risk of injury, or at the least, lessen impact on the body. Add in unparalleled strength and durability for that weight, along with flexibility in design and construction, and you’ve got carbon fiber composites.
Snow ski manufacturers have been experimenting with carbon fiber for over a decade, but in recent years, have begun to ratchet-up the performance-for-light-weight ante with carbon fiber prepregs. In case you’re not aware, a prepreg is a fabric reinforcement (like carbon fiber) that has been “pre-impregnated” with a near-perfect amount of resin and hardener. Prepregs are ready to lay in mold, without the steps required of a traditional hand lay-up—they are cured with heat and/or pressure (typically with vacuum bagging methods).
Prepregs remove the largest part of human error from the composite-building equation. Traditionally, resin is added to a lamination by hand which can result in inconsistencies across the reinforcement—areas of too little or too much resin. With prepregs, resin content is built into the fabric in a consistent fashion, at an almost perfect fiber-to-resin ratio throughout. This maximizes strength properties for the fabric and drastically reduces the weight and likelihood of weakness for finished parts. In addition, parts made with prepreg can, in theory, be identical. So, carbon prepreg fabric has all the desirable characteristics of standard carbon fabrics—and takes them up a notch.
So can carbon prepreg technology produce the perfect pair of skis? Manufacturers like C6, and Utah-based DPS Skis, seem to think they’re getting close.
DPS Skis is a leader in prepreg ski technology stateside. With 10 years of development behind them, their newest line, called the Pure3, employs sandwich construction using only carbon fiber laminates—and they make it clear that they stand, or rather ski, solidly on carbon prepreg:
“Prepreg carbon is the ultimate precision construction—exact distribution of resin for the ultimate in strength and flex consistency. The highest performance structures built today, such as jet fighters and spacecraft, use the same process. If you see other carbon sandwich skis in a shop or in person, feel the weight difference between it and a Pure3 DPS ski. Also, bend and twist the ski torsionally—you will notice that most ‘carbon’ skis on the market twist easily just like a fiberglass ski. A DPS Pure3 ski will feel infinitely more solid and have a ridiculously long shelf life with nearly the same pop and feel on your tenth season as your first.”
That’s quite a sell. And selling is what snow sports manufacturers are doing these days. According to SIA RetailTRAK™ data produced by Leisure Trends and NPD Group Company, snow sports retail was reported to be up 7% in 2013/2014 to $3.6 billion in sales.
Despite all the love for carbon composites across the snow sports industry, experts agree that carbon prepreg is cost prohibitive both to the manufacturer and the buyer. In addition, a recent report issued by market research group, Lucintel, also predicts that the global sporting goods market is likely to witness the slowest growth over 2014-2018 in terms of dollar shipment with regard to carbon fiber in general. So, where do these concerns play into the business of ski manufacturing?
“It really takes a number of years and quite a bit of capital to truly pull it off,” said DPS founder Stephen Drake, in an article posted at skiingbusiness.com. “But I do think it will continue to evolve, and there will be more pure carbon skis in the next few years.
“Carbon skis are typically for technical, charging skiers with good technique,” Drake added. “It’s not a backcountry-specific ski, and what we’ve learned is that while carbon skis are tailored to a dedicated skier, the lightweight aspect of it makes it versatile across a bigger demographic.”
In fact, the lightweight angle of carbon prepreg skis may come into play even more with other recent trends on the slopes, including an increase in uphill traffic and backcountry access. Resorts nationwide are reporting that skiers are ditching lift tickets and using human power to ascend and explore the mountains.
- •That same study produced by Leisure Time and NPD Group also found that alpine touring equipment (for backcountry use) sales increased 8% in dollars sold, as well as 8% in units sold.
- •According to online blog, liftopia.com, 42% of ski areas in the U.S. currently allow uphill access to their slopes, an increase from 31% in 2012/2013.
- •Liftopia.com also reports that one-third of ski areas now permit backcountry access, in an effort to offer visitors a unique experience and satisfy the requests of backcountry enthusiasts.
What this means is that skiers are looking for more than entertainment on the slopes, they’re looking for a workout. When muscles are doing more of the work for longer periods of time, lighter weight means greater endurance—which becomes a premium. And carbon composite skis deliver, particularly carbon prepreg skis.
So, what’s the future of carbon prepregs in skiing? Many ski makers use carbon stringers during manufacturing. Most already employ some form of carbon hybrid construction, combining carbon fiber with fiberglass or wood using wet lay-up methods. And those manufacturing pure carbon skis claim that once serious competitors try pure carbon, they never ski on anything else, creating more demand.
Carbon prepregs stand at the top of performance standards for nearly all carbon fiber construction. With the global demand for carbon prepreg increasing in other industries, including automotive and aerospace, availability and affordability will likely follow. That increases the likelihood we’ll see more carbon prepreg on the slopes.
*C6 uses unidirectional prepreg carbon fiber.