The NASA-funded Space Alliance Technology Outreach Program (SATOP) has helped the creator of an innovative portable athletic field boundary system streamline and speed his production process.
SATOP, administered in Texas through the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, provides free engineering assistance to small businesses with technical challenges through the expertise of the program’s 50 Alliance Partners, consisting of aerospace companies, universities and NASA field centers involved in the U.S. Space Program.
Texas entrepreneur John Frederick, founder of CS Platinum Sports, has patented a portable athletic field boundary system specifically for field sports. “Field lines are essential for almost all sports,” said Frederick. “Our flagship product is called ‘Port-a-Field.’ It is the only temporary, reusable field lining system on the market.”
After receiving the patent in 2000, it took Frederick three years to find suitable materials to make his product and to develop equipment that converted those materials into usable products. Once created, the product quickly took off, selling primarily to soccer coaches and physical education teachers. Within two years, Port-A-Field was being used in 41 different sports and shipped all over the world, “from New Deli to New Zealand,” according to Frederick.
However, because the polyethylene film used to make the boundary tape was custom-sized per sport, the manufacturing process was laborious. Frederick had created the cut-to-length equipment himself and modified the design numerous times. “By 2005, we were on version number 17 of our original cutting machine,” he said.
Frederick decided that to take his product to the next level, he needed a more automated and efficient process. He learned about SATOP through the Small Business Development Center at Angelina College and submitted a Request for Technical Assistance (RTA) to the program’s Houston center. SATOP matched Frederick’s RTA with Ray Puffer, director of industrial automation at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), a SATOP Gold level Alliance Partner.
“After gaining a clear understanding of the Port-A-Field product and the manufacturing process, I saw that they were using a time consuming, manual process to measure, label and cut the tape,” said Puffer. “I asked how could we create a machine that would automate the process to some extent? How could we design a more productive process?” Ultimately, under Puffer’s guidance, RPI designed a machine that could handle bigger rolls of tape, with the goal of increasing productivity.
Frederick was pleased with the design. “Within a few weeks of filling out the request, RPI had submitted their drawings with a key recommendation that we had not thought of,” said Frederick. “We quickly modified our field making machine by incorporating ‘dancers’ recommended by RPI, which eliminate the slack in the material created by the momentum of the rotation of large rolls of material. This allows us to increase both speed and accuracy, making the process much more efficient.”
Frederick praised SATOP and RPI’s efforts on his behalf. “Once you get people involved like SATOP who know what they are doing, you get unbelievably quick and sound results,” he said. “Ray Puffer and his team are experts and know things off the top of their heads that would take us weeks or months of research to figure out. Had I known about SATOP in 2000, I’m sure it would not have taken three years to identify and source suitable components and develop equipment to convert those materials into a commercially viable product.”
Now that the manufacturing process is more streamlined, Frederick is ready to put Port-A-Field under the feet of athletes around the world. “I truly believe that every P.E. teacher and coach in the world needs this product,” said Frederick. “SATOP’s engineering assistance has helped us build a better product, which will enable CS Platinum to grow t