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‘Taking on the big boys’ – the story of how Torpo was made




Starting a company to sell internationally and compete with the largest sports and swimming brands in the world is no mean feat. Designing a training aid that goes against generations of swim coaching requires determination and persuasion. Acquiring patents and trademarks, setting up a distribution system away from the Amazons and large sports distributors, getting accredited with BSI and EN safety standards, and manufacturing a product, the type of which has never been made before, has been incredibly challenging. All that and more within a pandemic and during major Brexit changes has pushed us at Torpo to the limit.


Here is some of the story of how Torpo was made, through various designs, prototypes, and production methods. Some detail may be missed for patent protection reasons. This is a case study of a product in development, where the processes and also the whole structure of the company and business involved trial and error.


The idea of Torpo had been mulled over in thought for over 10 years with only a simple sketch as any reality. Back in 2018, it started its basic trials with rough designs on the road to reality.

Simple Torpo sketch showing longitudinal stability, lateral instability and low drag coefficient
Early drawings

Eventually we employed a former Dyson design engineer to work on the detailed drawings from which prototypes could be made. Throughout was the need to keep the ‘science’ of why Torpo worked at the forefront. The design required lateral instability through a perfectly round shape in one plane whilst stability with a low drag coefficient in the other plane. These factors were vital to make Torpo function correctly as invented and differentiate it from the ‘flat’ kickboards in their various forms which had been on the market for over 60 years.


As an aside, Torpo is designed to be laterally unstable (like any round object, ie it rotates smoothly left to right) to promote rotation within the freestyle stroke. This only benefits those who are already confident to swim unaided. Any young and/or inexperienced swimmer would need a flat kickboard (or float) to give them balance as they learn to kick and swim.


The drawings started in 2 dimensions then 3 dimensions, showing the dynamic form of Torpo. It took many iterations to get what was required. But since those early days, the overall shape of Torpo has not changed. Ergonomics played a large part in the design phase. The ratio of width to length affected not only the drag coefficient and relative balance but also the distance from the swimmer’s head, allowing head down (and head up) training with enough gap above every swimmer’s head.


Much of the design work was based around the handholds. Instead of just a simple gap found on some flat kickboards, Torpo needed an accurate handhold based on grip, comfort, and hand sizes. We measured finger and hand sizes of many different people, younger and older, female and male, larger and smaller. We varied the size and depth of the handholds in various different prototypes and reacted to the feedback from swimmers. Torpo was designed to be used as a single and double-handed swimming aid. This affected how the handholds were designed.


As prototype development advanced, we changed the size to allow easier changing of hands mid-stroke. When you try your kicking drills with Torpo, you will see that the water-resistance plays a big part in how you hold it. In the air, away from the pool, it seems maybe difficult to grip. Yet in the water, the ergonomic handholds allow ease of use. The swimmer is able to adjust hand position from top to side and from all fingers to just one or even none inside the handholds. It is very tactile and comfortable.


Design, prototype then manufacture. Easy?

Anyone who has read the excellent book ‘Black Box Thinking’ (Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance [Matthew Syed, John Murray publishers, 2015]), or been involved in complex product development, will know that success is most often achieved by trial and error, by incremental change due to user feedback. It is okay to be wrong! The most successful products in history will have gone through many stages of mistakes, feedback, changes, and more feedback. The acceptance of that process is often the key to a successful outcome. The inventor’s idea is not a straightforward process of thought transferred to design, design made into a prototype, and finally manufacture of the prototype. Feedback is vital to any such process, at all times during development.


Success is most often achieved by trial and error, by incremental change due to user feedback. It is okay to be wrong! The most successful products in history will have gone through many stages of mistakes, feedback, changes, and more feedback. The acceptance of that process is often the key to a successful outcome.

We were blessed to have such good feedback throughout Torpo’s development, from the children and the coaches at a local swim school to the amazing Stephanie Millward MBE, the Paralympic multi gold medallist swimmer. My swimming club in Melksham, England where I have taught and coached for many years, tested the various stages of Torpo. The great marathon swimmer and coach, Stu Hacker, kindly gave us several hours of his time at the SwimCube near Northampton in the UK providing vital feedback which resulted in a minor change to design. Latterly we were lucky to have a session with the British swimming team at Bath University, who continue to trial Torpo when training sessions allow.


Secrets - Prototypes and testing

Prototypes took many forms. Although the design changed little from the first digital drawings, the prototypes went through many iterations. The first was exciting! Cut out of the type of molding foam used by model enthusiasts, this gave shape to Torpo for the first time, ever! We tested it in a local pool, marveling that an idea mulled over for more than a decade was finally sitting in the water. Although the density was wrong at this stage, it gave a great opportunity to test its size and shape. Part of the fun back then was keeping it secret. We were strongly advised by our patent lawyer to keep it under wraps as much as possible. We had to wait until our small testing pool was empty of people in order to have a trial.


Much of the initial prototype testing was based around getting the size right for different users and perfecting the handholds. We were immediately comfortable that the shape was right. But then applying science directly to design can work well in some cases. The first models were cut by a local CNC machine, spending many hours cutting the foam 0.2mm at a time. See the video at the top. But we knew this wasn’t the way Torpo could be mass processed to get its benefits to the world of swimmers.


Initially, we tried to make the first production prototypes out of EPP (expanded polypropylene foam). CNC’ing the material worked but badly. Mass production would provide cheap but poor quality results.


The finish was only really good enough for packaging products. It is excellent for this, but not a swimming float.

We found a small foam production company in Dorset, not too far away from our Bath base. The owner and foam expert here made high quality prototypes and production pieces for varied products including safety pieces in top of the range cricket helmets, lifeboat safety equipment, and kayak seats. This process involved heat moulding foam sheets. High-quality foam could be placed in a two-piece mould. In some ways, this worked very well giving a good quality finish. Though the piece was hollow which created a challenge, was difficult to accurately join together and the handholds were difficult to get right.


This work continued for over a year, with many iterations and minor design changes. It was dawning on us that such a similar shape in foam had never been made before in any form, let alone a swimming float. The handholds were causing big problems for the manufacturing process. Eventually, we needed to find another way. There were meetings with other UK-based companies, but their process was either too expensive or unable to make Torpo to the required quality.


A local marketing contact worked with a manufacturing company in China making foam paddle boards amongst other things. Many months were spent updating drawings and then creating a new mould in China. But the process was the same as in Dorset with similar problems. Unfortunately, Chinese confidence couldn’t easily overcome the issues and we had to look at yet another solution.


An unsuccessful early Torpo prototype mould
One of the less successful prototypes

We came across a company in Italy making injection moulded foam products. This option had been considered before though we were unaware that Torpo could be made using this method. We arranged a meeting at their headquarters near Ancona during a gap in the European lockdown restrictions last year.


The meeting was a resounding success. The family-owned company produced the highest quality products for some of the most well-known fashion brands in the world, with their prime market being moulded soles for trainers and fashion shoes. We learned that part of Italy has been for generations the center of the highest quality shoe manufacture in Italy and the world. The company has branched out into non-shoe based products and do already make a swimming kickboard for an international swimming brand. Hence there was great confidence in their ability. They were able to give the quality we required, in the sustainable XL Extralight foam which has excellent anti-microbial, anti-fungal and anti-allergenic properties. We could choose any colour we desired, so we created a colour that has become the standard for the initial pieces.


This has given us the opportunity to expand the range of Torpo after the initial T500 is launched. Junior and different size versions will follow. Very careful study of required volume and density resulted in the foam which is used in the production Torpo, so it sits in the water deep enough to be used for single arm drills yet buoyant enough to give support whilst kicking.


During this time, we had enlisted a new designer with a great CV. His ability to take scientific requirements to design detail and into production was second to none. He worked on all the advanced drawings with the Italian company and has turned Torpo into an iconic design piece, as well as a high-quality swimming aid. We have considered entering the prestigious Red Dot design award so Torpo can be judged by the international design world and maybe exhibited in design museums worldwide; that is for next year.



Nine Torpo protoypes showcasing the design evolution
The many forms of Torpo prototype

There are so many lessons that we have learned from the making of Torpo. Some lessons are business ones, others about design and production methods. But the overriding lesson is about people. People are not perfect, but through acceptance of error and mistakes, we can learn to improve and strive towards perfection. And creating a team of the best people is what makes success, in swimming, in business, and in life.


It has been a journey and the journey is far from over. We are only just arriving at the first station with the world’s railways ahead of us. The founder of Torpo, detailed more in the previous blog post, is primarily a swimming teacher. The ethos of Torpo the company is to create products that improve the way people swim throughout the world and also to encourage people of all creeds and colours to swim. Please follow this incredible journey.


 


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