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Changing the way surfboards work with scientist & surfer, Riccardo Rossi

Surfboards design is something extremely technical that only a few of us truly understand. The smallest change in a board can have a major impact on how it’s going to work, instantly making it better or worse. It’s no surprise that surfboards shapers are constantly on the search for new techniques to facilitate their process and push the boundaries of design, and that’s when CFD comes in.

Kelly Slater’s boards have recently been shaped with a new technology and the-so-called technology is also used on Firewire boards—let us introduce you to the CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) technology. The questions remain: what is CFD, how is it going to improve our boards and who’s the man behind this surfboard innovation?

Meet Riccardo Rossi, an Italian scientist and surfer that is, in our eyes, a genius. Riccardo has been at the head of the Computational Thermo-Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Bologna, and Lecturer and Scholar at the Center for Turbulence Research of Stanford University. Last year, he decided to open his own company, RED, that specializes in CFD consulting. He’s now working with Firewire as well as with Sequoia Surfboards, a local shaper based in his hometown. His story is quite unconventional and unexpected, but nonetheless interesting.

We had a chat with Riccardo to gain a better understanding of what CFD does to your surfboard and how he ended up working alongside some of the best shapers and surfers in the world. Ready to understand the science behind your board in an easy way? Let’s dig in.

Can you tell me how everything started? When did you start using CFD and what does it even stand for?

CFD is short for Computational Fluid Dynamics. It sounds complex, but it’s very simple. Let’s think about an airplane. Back in the days, the only thing you could do if you wanted to design one was to go in a wind tunnel with a model of your plane and run air in the tunnel to measure what you need.

With computers being more powerful now, we have the chance to perform the same tests on the computer. Instead of being physical tests, it is a numerical experiment. You’ll add the fluid volume and the object in the software and the simulation gives you back the flow around the plane, the car or the board, depending on what you want to look at.

It’s a bit more complex when you must do it, but it’s also really fascinating because the very first thing you start from every time are the equations of fluid mechanics, which are always the same. You can write them down on a piece of paper, but the only issue is that they’re so complex that you can’t solve it by hand.

How and where was CFD developed originally?

The CFD technology was initially developed in the aerospace industry early in the 70s. There has been a lot of push then from the scientific and engineering community to develop this kind of technology and now a lot of industries use it without you even knowing about it. They use it to design the cars for Formula 1 and they also use it in bio medic for when they must replace the valves in a heart because you want to know how the design is going to interfere with the blood flow. Whenever you have a fluid moving somewhere, you can test it beforehand with CFD.  

Oh wow … how did you learn all of this? At school?

Yes, studying first and teaching afterwards. I have a master’s in Mechanical Engineering as well as a PhD in thermo-fluid dynamics. After the PhD, I taught and then researched here in Italy for more than 10 years. I then started travelling to Stanford, California, for about 7 years.

That’s a lot of researching! When did surfing became a part of your life?

When I started going to Stanford in 2007, I didn’t try surfing for the first two years. Then in 2009, one of my students told me that he was going to surf and asked if I wanted to join. I then surfed for the first time and got hooked, like any other surfer.

Surfing was never on my mind until 2009. I’ve always been more attracted to motorbikes as Valentino Rossi, 9x World Champion of Moto GP, grew up close to my hometown. I also live on the East Coast of Italy and the waves here are probably the worst [laughs].

What happened next?

Not much, I kept surfing and enjoyed it more every day. In 2013, I was shopping for a new board and while doing researches online I ended up watching this YouTube channel called Shred Show. Shred Show was a show by Chris Grow (who now works for Firewire) doing reviews of boards and fins. The video I watched was about a Channel Island board; Chris was talking about the shape and how the water will flow around it. I then thought to myself—how do you know? How can you tell if the water is or isn’t there? Because of my expertise, I thought that maybe they were doing simulations. So, I started doing research to see if companies and shapers were doing this kind of thing, but found nothing.

At that point I just decided to do some tests on my own. I downloaded whatever shape I found from the internet and tried to play around it with my software. I was curious about what kind of information you could extract from the simulation and what kind of change you would get in terms of forces on the board like drag, lift, etc. It was interesting because by making little adjustments, the dynamic lift of the board would change quite a lot. Realizing this, I put together a bunch of files, pictures and information in a short PDF and sent it to the big guys in the market. After three weeks, I received an email from the CEO of Firewire, Mike Price.

And the rest is history. Or should I say, the present! Can you explain what’s the advantage of using CFD for surfboards design?

Well, now you can have a better understanding about how the board works, basically. But you can also use the software to develop new boards and it’s very helpful as you can look at a shape before physically building it. You can also reduce the environmental footprint as you reduce testing with real products. It’s like a new step in between designing the board in the computer and testing it in the water.

It has been about a year since you’ve started working with surf companies. What’s next?

Well, there is another and very important piece of equipment beside the board itself in surfing and these are the fins. So, let’s say you’ll see some virtual water running around thrusters and quads real soon.

Computational Fluid Dynamics isn’t as complicated as it sounds.

As Firewire claims, “Using CFD, it is possible to explore the behaviour and establish the performance of new products before being built, thus allowing for better designs, shorter development time and even reduced environmental footprint thanks to limited need for testing with real products”.

We’re in a new era of shaping and you’re probably as excited as us about these changes. We don’t know what the future holds, but we’re excited to see the first fins created with CFD and to watch a new era of shaping start. We’re no scientists, but we know that big things are coming for Riccardo and the surfing world.

Learn more about Rossi’s company, RED.

Want to learn more about CFD? 

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