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AE doctoral students to design driver for Golf Channel competition

Kyle Hanquist and Kevin Neitzel will apply their background in aero-thermodynamics to the design of Wilson Staff’s next driver as competitors on the Golf Channel’s new series Driver vs. Driver. | Medium Read

It’s easy to forget that aerospace engineering is not just relegated to the realm of planes and spacecraft; it permeates everything where aerodynamics is relevant, including the design of high-performance sports equipment. Kyle Hanquist and Kevin Neitzel, Michigan AE Ph.D. students, will apply their background in aero-thermodynamics to the design of Wilson Staff’s next driver as competitors on the Golf Channel’s new series Driver vs. Driver.

As one of the show’s 11 finalist teams, Kyle and Kevin (“Team Michigan”) will work with Wilson Lab engineers to design, test and refine a high-performance driver in the hopes of avoiding elimination by a panel of judges. The prize includes $500,000 and the chance to see their driver commercially sold under the Wilson Staff name.

As Kevin explains, the duo’s involvement on the show stems from an entrepreneurial flare:

“Before hearing about the competition, [Kyle and I] were already interested in market applications for our [aerospace] research. We participated in the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program that taught us to pitch and sell our ideas to a non-technical audience. We actually learned about the Driver vs. Driver competition through a line item in a College of Engineering e-mail while we were on travel in Europe for some I-Corp conferences. The more we thought about it, the more the competition seemed like a perfect opportunity to mix engineering with our mutual hobby, golf.”

In developing their proposal, Kyle and Kevin focused on one of Wilson Staff’s central tenets – innovation. Kyle notes:

EnlargeTesting the driver design in a Michigan wind tunnel.
IMAGE:  Testing the driver design in a Michigan wind tunnel.

“Wilson is looking for something that changes the game. When you talk about innovation in golf, you think of the shift from wood to metal drivers. You think of adding dimples to golf balls. Today, the USGA [United States Golf Association]strict regulations close the box a little on huge transitions like that. Still, Wilson is looking for a driver that gives a large jump in performance.”

To achieve this performance jump, Team Michigan grounded their design approach in aerodynamics principles. As researchers in Professor Iain Boyd’s Nonequilibrium Gas and Plasma Dynamics Lab, Kyle and Kevin were accustomed to using computational fluid dynamics (CFD) techniques to model high-speed systems. They applied these same techniques to the design of their driver, as Kyle notes:

“When we were designing our driver, we used CFD to see how we could change the shape of the driver to reduce its drag. We used the wind tunnel [at Michigan] to test our design. We printed a 3D-model of our driver and were able to smooth and sandpaper certain parts to see how the airflow reacted. We looked for features that kept the airflow attached indicating drag inducing separation.”

As a few of the only engineers amongst the finalists, Kyle and Kevin considered their computational background a strong advantage. Kyle notes:

“When we first found out we were the only aerospace engineers, we were excited. Engineers like looking at the numbers, which is a lot of what this competition is about. We knew we could create a great performing driver with low drag, a good moment of inertia, and an ideal weight. Aerodynamics is a big focus in the golf industry today.”

Though their design cycle resembled that applied to traditional aerospace systems, the team was forced to keep some additional factors in mind. Kevin reflects:

EnlargeKevin and Kyle at the Big House
IMAGE:  Kevin and Kyle at the Big House

“When you are designing and working with sports equipment, aesthetics means a lot more. For aerospace, it is almost purely about function. However, with golf clubs, it’s as much about buyer perception. People have to like the look and shape of your driver and feel motivated to buy it. If [your aesthetic] is wildly different, it may throw people off and affect the player/club relationship.”

Overall, the competition afforded Team Michigan a unique opportunity to apply their aerospace research to a commercial environment. To Kevin, “our goal was to do our best, enjoy the experience and make the university look good.”

The pair will formally present their design analysis in the upcoming publication, “Aerodynamic Optimization of a Golf Driver Using Computational Fluid Dynamics” at the AIAA SciTech Forum this January. To follow Team Michigan’s progress, tune into Driver vs. Driver, premiering tonight and airing Tuesdays at 10pm EST.

Testing the driver design in a Michigan wind tunnel.
Kevin and Kyle at the Big House
Portrait of Kim Johnson

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