SCHENECTADY — To see whether a new netting system would protect baseball fans from foul balls, a Schenectady firm rigged up a pitching machine to fire 5,000 balls at it.
The net ultimately failed after being hit in the same spot 4,700 times by fastballs going more than 100 mph, but it passed the test: It’s all but inconceivable that 4,700 line drives will hit the same section of net in an actual baseball stadium.
The trial by fire at Innovative Test Solutions this winter was the culmination of five years of testing of Ultra Cross Knotless Netting, a product of another New York firm, Sportsfield Specialties.
“We’ve been working with them for quite a long time,” said Lou Fiorini, co-founder and director of operations at Innovative. “They wanted to do a real-world test on their netting.”
A baseball squarely slugged by a strong hitter can have an exit velocity off the bat of 100 mph or more and can cause serious injury if it veers into the stands toward an unprepared spectator.
Such accidents happen dozens of times each year at major league stadiums, often enough that Major League Baseball in 2016 recommended that clubs extend their safety netting farther from home plate, said Keegan Mullholland, director of projects for Sportsfield.
“More recently we’ve seen a push well beyond what Major League Baseball recommended,” he said. Some clubs are going as far out as the foul poles in the outfield.
Ultra Cross is now installed in 24 major league ballfields, including Yankee Stadium, as well as in minor league stadiums such as the Joseph Bruno Stadium in Troy.
What is now Ultra Cross Knotless Netting started off as a fishing net developed by NETSystems and made with Dyneema, a synthetic material that is stronger per gram than steel but light enough to float.
Using a braid instead of knots — which can cut the strength of the strands by 30% to 60% — allows the net to be made with strands only 1.2mm thick, thus reducing the drag as it’s pulled through the water to catch fish.
“The same characteristics also make it good for sports netting because it’s see-through,” Mulholland said. “We’re able to get away with a lower-profile diameter than our competitors but still maintain superior strength.”
MLB doesn’t specify the supplier of the netting it recommends, and Sportsfield has competitors. To differentiate its product from the competition, Sportsfield turned to Innovative to quantify the strength.
Innovative started with simple tests to determine the strength of the material. (Answer: a single strand can support about 300 pounds.)
Then it progressed to more complicated tests, culminating in the pitching machine in February.
That baseball leaving the bat at 100 mph will start to lose speed before it reaches the seats behind the dugout, thanks to air resistance. How much it slows down would vary by circumstance, so Innovative placed the pitching machine just 10 feet from the net, so every ball that hit the net would still be going 100 mph or more upon impact.
“What we did was by making the distance short, it gives us the worst-case scenario,” Fiorini said. “If it can survive this, it can survive anything. I’ve actually had competitors contact me and want to do the same test.”
THE TESTING GROUND
This kind of testing process is one of Innovative’s specialties. If there’s not an established playbook or protocol, he and the other engineers have to write their own.
“I deem myself a practical engineer,” said Fiorini, a mechanical engineer by training. “I can envision it and design it without using my PC.”
The other engineers have the same mindset, whatever their specialty.
They can test components to help shape the design of a prototype or they can test the prototype to see its strengths and or weaknesses.
If a latch on an airliner needs to withstand opening and closing 10,000 times, they’ll build a machine to open and close it 10,000 times.Then, they’ll take apart the latch and measure the components to document how they’ve worn down.
That’s relatively simple.
A more challenging project is testing a heat-resistant tile and heating one side to 3,000 degrees without directly heating the other side, then accurately measuring the surface temperature on both sides.
Aerospace and power generation, not sports nets, are their common fields. But the work is similar, even if the details are not.
“We get customers contacting me, usually they understand what they’re after,” Fiorini said. “Or they don’t understand and they use us to guide them.”
Innovative Test Solutions was founded in 2004 and has 16 employees.
THE PLAYING FIELD
As its name implies. Sportsfield Specialties is focused on sports venue infrastructure.
For its Ultra Cross nets, it secured exclusive rights from NETSystems for use in North American baseball parks.
“We found the product and saw how good it would be for our applications,” Mulholland said.
Sportsfield buys the netting in mass quantity, cuts it to size, then weaves borders onto it to suit the application.
Other net systems include scoreboard protectors and specialty products for sports other than baseball; football and soccer safety nets have a 4-inch mesh rather than the 1.75-inch mesh of the baseball net.
Other products include wall padding, modular dugouts and goalposts — 30 NFL stadiums have Sportsfield goalposts in their end zones, Mullholland said.
The company was founded in 1998 and is headquartered in Delhi, Delaware County. Its 175 employees manufacture all of the company’s products in more than 500,000 square feet of production space.
Soft goods such as nets are made in Salisbury, North Carolina, and hard goods such as goalposts are made in Delhi.
Mulholland said negative marketing by one of Sportsfield’s competitors was part of the impetus for the years-long testing process at Innovative. He liked that Innovative was semi-local to Delhi and he liked the way its engineers approached the project.
Because Innovative is an accredited third-party tester, Sportsfield is able to add another point to its sales pitch.
“Almost 5,000 impacts from 10 feet away at 100 mph — and that’s never going to happen,” Mulholland said.
Fiorini, a big fan of baseball, said the net project was fun to work on. Unlike many of Innovative’s test subjects, it is not buried inside of something else and invisible to the public.
“I can say to people, ‘Hey, I tested that.'”