Andrew Smith was in France when he first thought of implanting his surfboards with microchips. "It was about seven years ago," he says. "I pulled into a gas station with all of my boards strapped to the roof of the truck. I filled up with gas, went in to pay, and when I came out the boards were gone. I thought to myself, 'How many times has this happened to someone on a surf trip? And do those people ever see their boards again?'"
At the time, Smith was already familiar with the concept of microchipping pets with contact information, allowing a vet or a shelter to scan and return lost animals to their owners. As a former shaper, he set out to create the same type of high-tech "dog tag" for surfboards and founded SBT, short for "surfboard tracker," after he returned home to Wales.
Smith soon realized, however, that anyone willing to steal a surfboard was also unlikely to resell it to a shop equipped with a scanner. And anyone who'd bought or "found" a hot board was probably more motivated to ride it than return it. That's when he came up with a plan to use the connectivity allowed by technology to create an online database of surfboards and their design details, using the board itself as the hub between shapers and surfers.
Here's how it works: When a shaper receives a new order, they enter the dimensions of the board into SBT's online database, then use the software to track its production through the shaping and glassing process. Every aspect of the design is entered, including the length, the model, the volume, which type of blank and foam was used, which fin system, the glass and resin, the bottom contours and rails, the tail configuration, etc. The shaper then embeds a chip into the board or glasses on a QR code that individually corresponds to its profile in the database. Shapers and surfers can then scan the code with their phone and access all the information pertaining to that particular board.
For Smith, this type of connectivity offers multiple advantages. Modern shapers need an automated system to manage their orders, while informed surfers have always based at least some of their purchasing decisions on a board's design characteristics. This simply moves the paper scraps we normally see tacked to the walls of shaping bays (SBT replicates this format, right down to the sketch often provided of a board's outline) and the dimensions (which we traditionally see in short form scribbled along a stringer) online.
It goes a bit further, however, since SBT also includes a social platform. This feature allows shapers and their customers to engage in direct dialogue, so if a surfer wants to order a new board in the future, they can use SBT's website to set up an inquiry. Their shaper can then view the database to see which boards that customer is already riding; if changes need to be made, they can chat online, compare notes, and dial in the new design.
"It's a good system for that kind of conversation," says Mike Whisnant, a shaper based in Florida who just began using SBT to stay connected with his client base, which ranges in location from just down the street to Singapore. "I have a surfer who moved from California to New Zealand recently and he can access all of his board files and familiarize himself with his dimensions. Then we can decide what needs to be changed to make his boards work for the conditions over there."
"What we're really trying to do," says Smith, "is build that type of communication between both parties. The shaper can reach out and keep his clients informed about his new models, and the surfer can get direct contact with the shaper. Beyond custom orders, you can also walk into a shop, scan a whole row of boards, and their information is right there on your phone—all the data."
Like any new tool, however, SBT has a learning curve for its users. Some shapers have expressed doubts about whether their clients will even embrace the technology—which can be seen as a high-tech solution to a low-tech system that may or may not even be broken. It's also unclear whether online communication can replace the relationship that's often fostered between shapers and surfers who exchange information and often surf together in person.
Larger shaping operations also seem hesitant to adopt SBT. Many already have their own automated order-tracking and design databases and this would represent additional cost (an average of $3 per board), which could add hundreds of thousands of dollars in overhead at a time when margins are still slim.
Still, Smith thinks that for smaller shapers in particular, and surfers who are interested in a personalized, automated experience with those types of labels, the upsides are obvious. "As an example," he says, "I was in the Maldives last year with a few of our shapers and one of them processed an order right on the deck of the boat. He sat in the middle of the Indian Ocean, got an inquiry via email, and was able to go into the SBT system and start the production process. Within three weeks, the board was ready for his customer in California. And when the guy picked it up and scanned it, they now could have a dialogue through that board. They were instantly connected."