Where next with innovation in synthetic turf surfaces?

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article_11Many companies call themselves innovators, but very few actually understand what innovation is about. In this article I look at how synthetic turf has developed since its inception and suggest a couple of areas it can move towards.

First there came a need, and then there was a realisation that this was an opportunity. In fact the opportunity was massive, and still is. Simple really, take on natural turf in sports that traditionally play on grass and provide better surfaces that often look like the real thing, but undoubtedly offer much more in every sense.

Over the years there have been many new variations of synthetic turf, making it appropriate for a variety of sports. Hockey took to it first in the UK when First Generation products, such as Plasticturf, Poligras and Club Turf, were laid at major sporting centres such as Lilleshall, Bisham Abbey and Crystal Palace. But this product was too expensive for general use being completely made from fibres and requiring water to aid performance, so a lower cost version was needed. This is now referred to as Second Generation, but at the time was known as sand filled. Its purpose was to offer an “all in one” surface, capable of sustaining a reasonable level of hockey whilst supporting tennis and football use.

The sand filled surfaces became very popular firstly with public schools, then local authorities. Shorter pile lengths were adopted by tennis, with great success at clubs and private courts, and even longer versions were tried for football. But no further development happened of note for many years, and the UK market continued to accept a multi use surface rather than aspire to a better performing one.

In the late 90’s from France came the first major improvement for many years. I discount the early days of monofilament because this was a yarn change not a design improvement, and in fact some monofilament, sand filled pitches were atrocious. The development was to use curly yarn in a tight tufting pattern at a shorter pile height. Experts from rival companies scoffed at this development, but very quickly realised its merits and copied the new sand dressed or sand obscured surface. The benefits were clearly all hockey’s, as it looked like a First Generation pitch with the sand completely hidden in the depths of the fibre, and it offered a far better game.

Next from Canada came the long pile turf which has revolutionised our industry. Football now had its own surface and Third Generation had arrived, and with a massive impact. For hockey this was not good news. Investment as well as choice saw more 3G pitches installed than 2G and perhaps the arrogance of hockey prevented a swifter reaction to this new threat. In fact hockey did very little to combat the loss of surfaces capable of sustaining hockey, even opposing the first development that tried to combine the two.

This product was a 40mm surface using curly yarns but containing a sand and rubber infill, just like 3G. The benefit though was that you could play recreational or curriculum hockey on it. Soon this surface was chosen by schools and councils wishing to have the financial benefits of football use and enough performance to satisfy the multi use requirements for the investors. Quickly people have realised that whilst this type of surface plays OK for football and meets basic hockey standards the better players want a proper 3G for football and a proper 2G for hockey.

So we are stuck with a question. How do you offer a surface that is an improvement on 2G for hockey yet offers an acceptable performance for football?

To develop a new concept takes time, experience and a lot of testing. It also takes understanding of what the market wants. Surprisingly down the years there have been very few innovations in synthetic turf that have made significant differences. New types of yarn, different polymers and shapes, come and go, but this isn’t true innovation, just tweaking what is already there.

As someone who has seen many different surfaces over the years I can tell you there is little difference between the products made by one producer and that of another. In truth to save on cost surfaces often have fibre removed to lighten and therefore cheapen the product. Contrary to this, quite often the performance of a surface increases when it is denser. Take the sand dressed products and you will see an increase in durability and improvement in playing characteristics with surfaces around 1800g per sqm face weight, yet many purchasers will chose products around 1500g per sqm because they are lower in cost.

The same is true with 3G. One of the world’s leading manufacturers offers a product with around 800g per sqm at 40mm pile height, yet can still meet the tests set by football authority to determine performance. The surface resembles a rubber beach rather than a natural turf pitch. Add more yarn, use a stabilising base yarn and suddenly the rubber is kept below the top and the pitch is green and as pleasant to play on as a Premier League pitch. But the extra yarn almost doubles the weight of the surface, thereby increasing the cost. And there lies the dilemma.

So what next? Well the first innovation for a number of years to grip hockey will be a longer version of the sand dressed. This will allow more sand to add greater stability, yet leave more yarn exposed to keep the surface true and fast for the hockey player. The upside for football is the extra height will enable rubber studs to be used, the ball roll to be better than on shorter pile heights, and offer even greater durability for the investor to seek a return on his funding. Watch out for the new Rhino-Turf Predator.

Elsewhere a return to woven surfaces is being touted and this has some merit, although the extra cost and limitations offered by weaving is possibly too severe a handicap to make this a serious threat. Perhaps a return to First Generation fully synthetic surfaces which were either knitted or woven, may come about for football, especially with markets such as Switzerland hostile to infills. Expect to see woven surfaces at the FSB Show later this year touted as the next big thing, probably marketed as 4G but in truth a return to 1G. I think a few old salesmen from the 70’s may have a little chuckle at this, and the phrase “re-inventing the wheel” may be heard.

Innovation, as claimed by many manufacturers, may well remain something of a myth, but a necessary claim for the marketers to differentiate their companies from their rivals. As history shows the day after innovation is the first day the copiers react. Perhaps it is time for the governing bodies such as WR and FIH, to take real control and dictate the innovation of surfaces in their sports.

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