Engineered in Baltimore: Meet STX Designer Austin Brown

Thanks to research and development, there have been significant innovations in lacrosse lately. I sat down with our Design Manager Austin Brown to talk about how he got started in sports design, the out-of-the-box places he gets inspiration from and where he sees the future of lacrosse going.

Nate Cundy: How did you get your start in the field?

Austin Brown: Art. I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember. I used to fill sketchbooks with monsters and dirt bikes as a kid. Later on, I got more interested in drawing things that could work. I was incredibly fortunate to have a high school art teacher that let me hang out in his room for a good portion every day drawing and making things. I’d sketch up mountain bike suspension concepts and then make cardboard mock-ups to test the linkage paths. I didn’t know it at the time, but what I was doing was Industrial Design! My art teacher encouraged the work and introduced the profession to me, so I studied it in college and kept designing and making stuff. While there, and after, I got focused on sports equipment. I gained experience with football, baseball, softball and some others. The transition to R&D at STX was pretty natural, so here we are!

Austin's interest in art led him to a career in industrial design and sports development.

NC: Where do you get your design inspiration?

AB: I get inspiration from all over the place. Cars, bikes, skate, snow sports, and moto are some of the usual culprits. My team inspires me. We’re all interested in the latest, coolest stuff, so we share our discoveries daily. We visited the Great American Outdoor Show recently to collect photos and ideas. We saw everything from chainsaws to live owls. There’s a unique interpretation that can be had from anything you look at, so we go to a few trade shows every year to gain non-lacrosse insights. Some of our best ideas come from unrelated areas. The kids that use our gear definitely inspire me, especially the stringers. It’s awesome to see the creativity that comes from stringers that are as in-tune with their sticks as I am with designing the sticks. When you get to incorporate an idea from those guys into a design so that they can perform better… that’s what it’s all about – their performance.

Austin uses CAD programs and 3D printing to design, develop and test new STX products.

NC: How is R&D in the sports field changing?

AB: 3D printing is improving rapidly. It has a huge influence on our process these days because we can literally print usable lacrosse heads and padding parts. We can print a part in our lab, take it out to some local players, and be back making improvements that day. Our engineers run CAD simulations, which are powerful tools as well. Before we ever invest in tooling,  I know how much a part will weigh, how stiff it is and where or how it might eventually fail. We can address these issues before we ever cut an expensive tool, so it’s a far more predictable process than it was even a few years ago. As helpful and cool as that stuff is, though, we still cut, glue and staple stuff together.  This is the part of the process that doesn’t change much because it’s so valuable to discuss rough ideas with the players. They still get to make the call on our products. If they don’t like it, we’ve got more work to do. We do have pretty sweet staplers now, though….

NC: How does the athlete help the R&D process?

AB: The athletes don’t just help, they enable our process. They steer us in the right direction and keep us connected. I’m not designing equipment for me. I design it for the player, so we have to stay in touch with them to get the most real-time info on their preferences as possible. The sports we participate in evolve all the time and we rely on these guys to tell us what they need to compete. They beat up our prototypes and give us feedback throughout the process. They use our finished products long-term and help us create next generations of product. Without frequent feedback, I’d be shooting in the dark. Their validation is the most critical part of the process. We can run simulations and lab tests to exhaustion, but the player will almost always point to some final improvements that push our projects over the threshold from good to great.

NC: What has been your favorite piece of STX equipment that you’ve helped to design? 

AB: I’ll mention a few because I think it’s worth making a distinction here. Some of my favorite projects are ones where I can give the player craftsmanship and something cool to discover.  I included some awesome finish details in the Surgeon 500 head that you get when you take a close look. Other favorites are the ones where an opportunity falls into place. It’s perfect when the defensive guys ask for a specific “D” head and we can pioneer the category of defensive heads with the Hammer U. That’s easy, though, because I just designed what they asked for.

The absolute favorite projects are ones that have to overcome design and manufacturing challenges to be great. The Surgeon 500 glove was one of those projects. Lacrosse gloves are such a complex product because there are literally hundreds parts that an actual human being (a ridiculously skilled one) manipulates and stiches into a complete glove.  The design came together quickly, but it took well over a year after design to develop. There were many hurdles and we didn’t get to include everything we came up with, but it’s an incredible glove and we’ll just roll those extra features into future gloves. The Surgeon 500 glove is the lacrosse glove I always wanted to design.  

Austin helped develop the Surgeon 500 glove, which is designed for the elite precision athlete.

NC: What is your all-time favorite sports innovation?

AB: Twin tipped skis! I’ve been skiing the same local mountains for most of my life.  When twin tips came around, we skied them forwards, backwards, and sideways. It was like those mountains were new again. I think their introduction legitimized “fun” as an actual performance aspect in skis. I don’t know how exactly you quantify that, but they’re just plain fun.

NC: Where do you see lacrosse going over the next 5-10 years?

CL: Naturally, the players will always strive to gain an advantage because they are competitive. That’s how any sport is. They’ll continue to need to hold onto the ball tighter, shoot faster, check harder, etc. We will continue to strive to give them an advantage through innovation and the athletes will gain by getting stronger, faster, and more dialed. I think the rules will continue to evolve in an effort keep the game exciting, safe, and fair. The 2018 adoption of NCAA specs at the high school level will encourage even more creative stringing, which is awesome and is already happening. The way that any sport evolves is part of its beauty. The rules will push the players and us to be more creative. In turn, the rules will be pushed and updated. So, the cycle of ever increasing performance should continue. Lacrosse is one of the most personalized, creative sports out there and the players are really in tune with their gear. They dial their stick, their look, and their performance so that everything balances perfectly.  It’s cool to think about what player preference might look like 10 years from now. I bet it’s different from what it looks like now, and I know the players will be performing at an even higher level than ever.

Now that you got a peek into the R&D process, go behind the scenes with us for a photoshoot here.