Green technology: UV puts a new spin on golf balls

Despite the dominance of such big names as Titleist and Spalding, a tiny manufacturer in Ohio has designed a new golf ball with a variety of innovative features, including an environmentally friendly ultraviolet-cure finish.

Sutherland Golf Inc. is a small, family-run business with just six employees. It is housed in a renovated 16,000-square-foot machine shop in Barberton, OH, about 45 minutes south of Cleveland.

President Rich Sutherland says he founded the company because, like many golfers, he was frustrated by the dizzying array of product claims made by ball manufacturers. “According to the conventional wisdom, if you wanted certain performance attributes, you had to sacrifice others. You either had to buy a ball designed for distance or another designed for control, for example,” he says. “I just had a hard time reconciling myself to the fact that it was impossible to make a golf ball that did everything well with no tradeoffs.”

Walking away from a career as a manufacturer’s sales rep in an unrelated industry, Sutherland rounded up some capital and founded his own company. Consulting with technical experts in such design and manufacturing disciplines as polymer science and ballistics, Sutherland began experimenting with various materials and dimple designs. Three years of research and development yielded the SS402, a ball with a core, cover and finish that are unlike any other, he says.

The SS402 derives its name from the dimple pattern. Each ball has 402 dimples of two different diameters and depths. The SS stands for “star swirl,” which describes the pattern formed by the different sized dimples on the ball’s surface. Sutherland claims this computer-engineered dimple distribution provides the optimum trajectory, lift, in-flight stability and spin for both distance and control.

Sutherland Golf uses materials made of a proprietary formulation for both its core and cover. The core is conventional rubber with some special additives that improve its “coefficient of restitution” or springiness. The cover is a polyolefin ionomer, called “Trilion,” which is soft yet durable. “We’ve been able to produce a two-piece golf ball that behaves better than a three-piece ball. It flies longer and straighter, spins more and stays round,” he says.

Facts about the finish

Last, but no less unusual, is the hall’s finish, an ultraviolet-cure clearcoat that is also a proprietary formulation. “A golf ball receives tremendous punishment. Developing a coating that wouldn’t lose adhesion was a huge challenge,” Sutherland says.

Most conventional golf balls are coated with a waterborne primer and a urethane clearcoat, Sutherland says. He chose a UV clearcoat instead because it is glossy and tough, yet remains more elastomeric or rubbery. This allows the grooves in the club face to bite into the coating, imparting greater spin to the ball and giving better control to the golfer.

UV-coatings have suffered from three basic drawbacks for use in outdoor applications: yellowing, post-cure cross-linking and loss of adhesion. Exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, UV coatings can yellow and continue to cure. Eventually this post-curing causes the coating to become hard and brittle. A golf club striking a brittle ball can actually shatter the finish, Sutherland says.

With the assistance of a coatings supplier, Sutherland says, a formula was developed for a UV coating that is stable in sunlight. The coating is 90% solids, so it emits little VOCs or other hazardous air pollutants. Largely because of its environmental finishing process, Sutherland Golf needs no EPA permits for operation.

The UV coating is significantly more expensive than conventional golf ball coatings on a cost-per-gallon basis, Sutherland admits, but that premium is offset by various economies the technology brings to production.

Sutherland Golf’s UV clearcoat costs about $125 per gallon, compared to around $35 per gallon for a conventional urethane. Standard golf ball coating operations also apply a primer under the clearcoat, which adds another $30 or so to the per-gallon cost of the coating. UV-coated balls need no primer, and nearly all of the overspray can be reused, offering a much higher transfer efficiency than conventional ball finishing, Sutherland says.

“In terms of the total number of balls coated per gallon, we come out very cost competitive,” he adds.

In addition, Sutherland’s UV-cure system occupies less manufacturing space because no large convection ovens are required. The UV ovens are cheaper to operate than natural-gas fired ovens. And compared to manufacturing operations where balls must be removed from the conveyor and placed into drying ovens, the UV system offers savings in labor and handling as well, Sutherland says.

Currently, Sutherland Golf has the capacity to produce less than 100,000 dozen balls per year. The company plans to expand to 300,000 dozen by the year 2000. Sutherland may also license the rights to his finishing system to other companies.

How golf balls are made

From the chemistry of the materials, to the ballistics of the dimples, to the physics of flight, an astounding amount of science goes into making a good golf ball. Sutherland offers a basic primer on how golf balls are manufactured at Sutherland Golf.

Traditionally, golf balls have been made of three-piece construction: a rubber inner core, elastic wrappings and a balata or Surlyn cover. (Balata is a rubber derived from tropical trees; Surlyn is a synthetic polymer trademarked by DuPont.) First the cover is formed into two halves of a sphere. The elastic-wrapped core is placed in the bottom half of the cover, and the top half is placed over the top. The entire ball is then squeezed in a heated press to seal the two hemispheres together and produce the dimples.

More recently ball manufacturers, including Sutherland, have begun producing two-piece balls. A solid rubber core is placed in the center of a mold, and a liquid plastic cover material is injection-molded around it.

In the past, balata-covered three-piece balls were favored by good golfers because they are softer and easier to control around the greens. They tend to cut and get out of round more quickly than plastic-covered two-piece balls, however, Sutherland says.

“Three-piece golf balls are rapidly becoming the dinosaurs of the industry,” he adds. “Lots of pros are going to two-piece balls because advances in polymer science have imparted more distance and workability to them.”

At the heart of Sutherland’s ball manufacturing process is the company’s specially designed mold. The mold is used to make four balls at a time. A technician places a rubber core in each cavity in the bottom half of the mold, where it rests on pins that ensure it is precisely centered. The top half of the mold is lowered in place, and the plastic cover material, heated to 450 [degrees] F, is injected at an initial boost pressure of 1,500 psi.

The cover material enters the mold through openings equidistant around the equator line of each ball. The flow fronts migrate up and down, evenly surrounding the core until the cavity is fully packed. At that point the machine changes to a secondary packing pressure of 700 psi. The mold is water-cooled to 28 [degrees] F to solidify the plastic. After 30 seconds the pressure is released but the ball remains in the mold for another 25 seconds.

Because the plastic shrinks as it cures, the cover material tightly adheres to the core. “The core-to-cover adhesion is phenomenal, and that’s critical to performance. The fact that our core and cover compress and rebound as a single unit greatly enhances the initial velocity,” Sutherland says.

Next the balls are placed in a machine that trims and sands the tabs left by the mold openings. Then they go into a vibratory mill filled with a pyramid-shaped plastic media, which buffs the surface all the way to the bottom of each dimple. This buffing smoothes the surface and also promotes adhesion of imprint inks and the finished clearcoat. After imprinting each ball with the Sutherland trademark and any special-ordered custom logos, the balls are rolled on carts to the finishing unit.

The company’s single, custom-made finishing unit measures just 5-by-7 feet. It contains a small chain-on-edge conveyer from Binks Manufacturing Co. (Franklin Park, IL) that carries the balls through the spray zone and curing chamber at a speed of 8 1/2 feet per minute. A technician places each ball on a spindle where it rests on three sharp pins. Before entering the spray zone, the balls pass through a device that blows positively charged air on them to dissipate any static charge that might attract airborne contaminants.

The filtered spray zone is equipped with two high-volume low-pressure spray guns, supplied by AccuSpray Inc. (Cleveland). The guns are positioned at a 45-degree angle above and below the balls, which rotate as they pass by. The output of the guns and the rotation of the spindles are precisely matched to make sure each ball is evenly coated with just 1 mil of UV-cure clearcoat. “Any more than 1 mil and you start to get flooded dimples,” Sutherland says. “If the coating starts to fill up the dimples, you’ve killed the bali’s ballistics.”

Overspray strikes a baffle and runs down into a collection reservoir. More than 90% is recovered. UV coatings are ideal for recycling because they don’t dry like conventional paint, Sutherland says. As long as the coating is shielded from UV light, it remains uncured and can be reused.

Finally, the balls pass through the 20-inch curing chamber where they are completely cured in just 3 1/2 seconds. Sutherland says the three-dimensional curing system is proprietary, so he can’t discuss the specific configuration of UV lamps and reflectors in the curing chamber. “Curing all the way to the bottom of the dimples is crucial,” he notes.

Finished balls can be taken right off the conveyer and placed directly into packaging for shipment to customers.

Though his company is only using the technology on a small scale, Sutherland says the efficiencies of UV-cure technology hold the potential to boost high-volume ball production to unprecedented levels. In the future, Sutherland Golf may license its system to other ball manufacturers, he adds.

As is so often the case with startup businesses, the R&D to develop the SS402 took more time and cash than expected. Without marketing capital, Sutherland’s distribution is currently confined almost entirely to northeastern Ohio. Balls are now sold through a handful of regional sporting goods chains and by mail order. A large part of the company’s current business is the custom imprinting of balls with corporate logos for special events and promotions.

Sutherland is hopeful that word-of-mouth advertising will generate a following for his product. He’s confident that once they try it, golfers will be willing to pay a premium price ($32 a dozen suggested retail) for the improved performance the ball will bring them. “This ball will allow the average guy to actually get some spin on the ball for the first time in his life,” he says.

With even a threefold expansion, Sutherland Golf will still be dwarfed by all the other competitors making golf balls. But America has an estimated 25 million golfers who consume nearly 70 million dozen (that’s 840 million balls) each year. Sutherland says he’ll be satisfied if he can capture even a tiny fraction of that massive market. “I’m not in the high-volume, low-margin business. I never intended to go head to head with the big guys.”

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