Photo/Courtesy 121C Boards
In the 1940s, shaggy-haired California surfers decided to switch from riding waves to riding concrete, attaching roller skate wheels to wooden crates in order to carve up the streets.
By the early 1960s, a small number of surfing manufacturers in Southern California such as Jack’s, Kips’, Hobie, Bing’s and Makaha started building skateboards that resembled small surfboards.
From there, the modern skate deck surfaced and evolved with the times. Riding one of these represented freedom and an escape from the forces that kept us tied to the ground.
The next evolution in skateboard design comes from 121C, a start-up founded by USC Viterbi Aerospace Engineering student Ryan Olliges with help from USC Marshall professor Greg Autry. Together, they are introducing rocket technology to skateboarding, revolutionizing the way skate decks are made.
According to NASA, engineers have been using carbon fiber materials in rocket ship designs in order to reduce the weight of the ship, increase safety and lower the cost of space flight.
Automobile makers have followed suit to design lighter cars that use less fuel.
Composites World’s Carbon Fiber 2013 conference reported 6.6 million lbs. of carbon fiber is annually scrapped as companies deem the leftovers from cars and rocket ships inapplicable to their products.
As an aerospace engineering student, Olliges saw the amount of carbon fiber waste generated every year mount into a pressing industry problem. There was enough scrap material out there that he could get his hands on and start making skateboards.
In his freshman year, he worked in the USC Rocket Lab focusing on recycling carbon fiber. For eight months he built and perfected a press machine that could convert excess carbon fiber into skate decks.
“I noticed a lot of these labs were wasting a ton of carbon fiber,” Olliges said. “I started making these skateboards for fun, but then labs started donating me their excess materials.”
Olliges then enrolled in the joint Viterbi-Marshall entrepreneurial program for engineers where he met Autry.
“Ryan came to me with a skateboard created out of material in a rocket lab that wasn’t going to be utilized,” Autry said of their first encounter. “A skate deck is pretty simple to create, and it’s a great way to take wasted material and do something constructive with it.”
Numerous aerospace labs opened their doors and Olliges began collecting roughly 100 lbs. of carbon fiber per week to press into skateboards.
He made the rounds with his pickup, collecting spare carbon fiber in large plastic bags. Each flexible sheet comes in different shapes and sizes. His workflow was similar to a 3D printer’s. He’d layer each sheet until he reached 20-25 layers, pressing the contours into shape. The final skateboard design was done with a water cutter.
“These new skateboards accompany the high tech industry as wooden skateboards break, peel and splinter easily,” Olliges said. “Essentially, they’ve become antiquated.”
Autry and Olliges tested the durability of these carbon fiber skateboards by running over the decks with a 2-ton truck and shooting them with a handgun. They didn’t break.
“For something so lightweight, they’re really unbreakable,” Olliges said. “These skateboards are part of the aerospace industry. You’re literally riding on a rocket ship.”
It’s a given that recycling carbon fiber carries tremendous environmental benefits.
According to Boeing Environmental Technotes, carbon fiber is coated with an epoxy called hexavalent chromium, which is considered by the EPA to be a hazardous waste.
If it isn’t discarded of in a landfill properly, the hexavalent chromium can leak into the soil and poison the environment. The EPA estimates the cost of disposing hazardous waste materials is 20 times the cost of non-hazardous materials.
121C is solving this problem as it teamed up with the USC School of Cinematic Arts to launch a Kickstarter campaign that promoted their incoming Pinny boards and downhill boards, similar to mid-sized longboards. The campaign raised $40,000 and generated plenty of excitement among customers.
The company is expanding, currently collecting 2,300 lbs. of carbon fiber per week. Olliges wants to begin designing wakeboards, skimboards, tables, briefcases and phone covers.
“The possibilities are endless,” Olliges said.