New robotic technology developed by Kiwi academics is set to create access to international markets for New Zealand’s golf product exports for the first time.
The design of golf balls is strictly controlled by international regulators to ensure uniformity and the technology, designed by researchers at Canterbury University, will make it possible for New Zealand exporters to test balls and clubs for a fraction of its current cost.
Kael Deherrera, co-founder of Volle Golf, says New Zealand has the world’s second highest number of courses per capita and a well-established golf tourism industry, however, our golf product export market is underdeveloped.
He says the start-up commissioned the development of the robot technology in a move designed to help them build the country’s first premium golf ball brand – by reducing the overheads associated with testing new balls offshore.
According to latest industry figures, around 61,000 international visitors play golf in New Zealand annually – contributing over $425 million to the economy.
“Golf was first played in New Zealand 151 years ago and as a destination we have a dozen marquee golf courses and yet the country has never had its own premium golf ball export brand.
“Balls must fit within specific weight and size criteria and are tested within dozens of specific aerodynamic parameters including average ball speed, launch angle, and spin rate – to ensure conformance to international standards.
“As a result, the golf ball industry has become commoditised which makes it difficult to innovate. This means the ability to build brand equity is one of the only clear sources of differentiation for a start up like ours.
“The cost of testing the balls in a US facility to the level and frequency we need would be close to $500,000 annually – which also creates a significant barrier to new entrants in the market.
“We have been working with a team of researchers at Canterbury University to develop a cost-effective robotic golfing machine which is capable of testing the balls to international standards.
“While these machines could retail in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, with a budget of just $20,000 they have developed a prototype machine which will see the creation of the Southern Hemisphere’s first golf laboratory.
“The facility and equipment will allow us to analyse new materials and products within New Zealand for the first time.
“By altering the financial entry point to the industry, the door has been opened on not just testing our own products but also the creation of an entirely new export market where we can sell robots and also provide data by measuring the standards adherence on behalf of other manufacturers around the world,” he says.
Deherrera says the Volle ball sales are growing rapidly, and the brand is expanding beyond the direct-to-consumer channel into wholesale and export.
He says the global golf ball industry will be valued at almost $2.3 billion by 2025 and the average golfer uses around 100 balls per year.
“While we started production two years ago with a limited supply run, we now have individual stores looking to sell over 6,000 of our balls annually and we are preparing to enter export markets such as Australia.
“A number of golf pros, clubs and retailers are getting behind us and the ball was used in its first professional tournament recently.
“Having our robotic testing equipment and facilities adds a layer of credibility within the industry, there are only a handful of manufacturers with this level of infrastructure anywhere in the world,” he says.
The company employed the skills of four final year engineering students to create the robot as part of a Final Year Project.
Ben Remacha says he and fellow students; Lewis Griffin, Sam Middelberg and Cole Baker-Smith are also keen golfers so were eager to be assigned the project.
“We knew what the company was trying to create as we were familiar with the golf swing machines which are currently in the market and how expensive they are, so it was going to be a really exciting challenge for us to create a golf robot with just a few thousand dollars within nine months,” he says.
Remacha says the students began by sketching a prototype of the robot before presenting it to the client.
“The brief was for us to create a robot which could achieve a minimum upper swing speed of 110 miles per hour, which is average for a good male golfer.
“Once we finalised the initial design, we started thinking about the material selection, the frame and the best engineering materials within the budget. We also tried to source everything we could locally to mitigate long lead times and sourced the motor for the machine from a company in Christchurch.
“One of the biggest challenges we had was nailing down how we were going to achieve everything within the timeframe and to create something that was commercially viable. We knew that the competitors had been working on their robots for 30 years.
“We also realised how big everything is, how many components to it all, and we’re doing it all ourselves, cutting, drilling and putting it together in the workshop at the same time managing our study.
He says the testing process was challenging with Remacha even snapping and having to replace one of his flatmate’s golf clubs.
“Once we achieved the 110 mile per hour goal our spirits just went through the roof, we were just so happy. We were pretty sure we’d be able to achieve what the company wanted, but when you see it happen it’s just the best feeling,” he says.
Remacha says what makes this project so unique is that so many of the swing robots are designed to focus on getting the best out of the club and focus on that.
“This project was all about focusing on the ball as Volle is a golf ball manufacturer. The interest is all about the ball and so that is why our robot uses a single axis of rotation,” he says.
Remacha says he’s excited to see the commercial potential for the robot and how it can help improve efficiency for golf balls and ultimately improve the game for golfers.
He says if budget wasn’t an issue, then they could have used a more expensive material like carbon fibre for the arm as opposed to aluminium.
“The reason we were all so into this project is because as engineers we like solving problems and that is what this project presented for us,” he says.
Deherrera says golf is the most popular club-based sport for adults with over 500,000 golfers throughout New Zealand, there is also significant potential for sales in the domestic market.