U engineering team develops bobsled training treadmill

by Brad Ellingson

In bobsledding, a good start is crucial to winning the race.

No one knows this better than former Olympic luger and World Cup bobsledder Bonny Warner, who set out last spring to find a way to improve U.S. bobsledders’ starting times.

Art Erdman, a University mechanical engineering professor, gave her the answer she was looking for last March on a napkin over coffee.

Erdman handed her a diagram of a specialized treadmill, which simulates bobsledding for training purposes.

“It’s kind of like a treadmill on steroids,” said Marge Hartfel, a University alumna who introduced Warner and Erdman. “It’s a treadmill you wouldn’t find in people’s homes.”

Along with Warner, Olympic athletes Mike Dionne, Todd Hays and gold medal winner Vonetta Flowers have used the treadmill.

After meeting with Warner, Erdman began calling people to help fund the project. He recruited more than 20 participants to work and conduct research for the treadmill.

“We got on the phone and pretty much everyone said yes,” Erdman said.

Dubbed the Minnesota gold team, Erdman’s researchers functioned as a team, working for free and spending several hours turning the treadmill into a finished product.

In total, the project took three months to complete.

“What we did in that amount of time was a miracle,” Erdman said.

Mark Wacker, a University mechanical engineering senior, helped work on the development of data analysis for the treadmill.

“It was a good experience,” Wacker said. “Also, getting to work with some Olympic athletes was incredible.”

Erdman said the treadmill measures push force with the use of force transducers, which turn the force into actual data.

“It’s a matter of making that treadmill act like a bobsled,” said Troy Nickel, director of research and development for EnduraTEC.

Hartfel said many Olympic athletes realize the importance of using sport science for training, and often people behind the scenes are integral in helping the athletes.

“It’s like being an actor on a stage,” Hartfel said. “There’s a bunch of people behind the scenes that you don’t see helping with their performances.”

Staff from EnduraTEC Systems – a Minnetonka-based company – and Aspen Research out of White Bear Lake contributed time and resources for the project.

Erdman said estimated costs totaled more than $100,000.

EnduraTEC created software called WINTEST to transfer data from the treadmill to a computer.

In addition, Aspen was instrumental in the design phase of the project.

“We’re looking forward to continuing on this project,” said Jim Fairman, vice president of Aspen Research. “I think there’s lots of opportunity left, and we would be excited about participating further.”