The extreme engineering of a fold-up BMX ramp

14 Sep 2016

Still from ‘Jumpack – Get Air Anywhere’. Image: Jumpack – Get Air Anywhere/YouTube

If you were a former BMX and mountain bike champion, and a qualified engineer with a compulsion to invent new things, what would you create? Emily McDaid finds out.

Given his background, it should come as little surprise that Phil McIntosh invented Jumpack, a wearable extreme sports ramp that allows skateboarders, BMXers and even snowboarders to ‘get air anywhere’.

The three-section ramp folds, Transformer-style, into a backpack that can come along for the ride.

Future Human

Inspirefest 2017

Inspiration struck Jumpack partner and designer McIntosh in a park in Omagh, as he watched three young BMXers attempting to build a ramp from a sheet of plywood loaded with bricks.

“I thought, ‘I was doing the same thing in 1976. Surely, there must be a better way by now.’”

He quickly went back to his garage and, joined by friend Mike Crowe, knocked up the first prototype using legs off a camping table.

Urban attack

The product is far more sophisticated three years on, and it’s now ready for large-scale manufacture, with interest from some of the UK’s largest retailers.

Jumpack is manufactured using glass-filled nylon. “We went around the block a few times to select the perfect material, but we kept coming back to the same composite – Nylon 66 – which ticks all the boxes in terms of weight, strength and, especially, cost,” said McIntosh.

Jumpack ramp

The Jumpack ramp in position, with a mounted GoPro to capture the BMX action

The idea for Jumpack was that it would completely change the way street riders could engage in ‘urban attack’ style riding, where kids show up at any location and quickly perform wall rides, jump steps and grind railings before they’re told to leave by security.

“So few kids have access to a skate park and, for most of them, their BMX or skateboard is their only mode of transport. I rode for 30 years and never used a skate park,” said McIntosh.

“I want to inspire kids to view their environment with new eyes, to see opportunities and challenges that would not exist without Jumpack. This can completely change urban extreme sports.”

Complex patented design

McIntosh was very candid about the manufacturing challenges inherent in a sports product of this nature.

First, the product needed to be one single piece, so that parts couldn’t be left behind or lost. It needed to be super easy to deploy, since urban attack is all about getting in and getting out.

If you fold curved surfaces, they turn into an awkward oval shape, so Jumpack needed to fold nearly flat or ‘spoon-like’ to achieve a backpack shape. Additionally, the weight couldn’t be more than 6-7kg.

“We weighed kids’ school bags to see what they were comfortable carrying,” McIntosh explained. This weight goal ended up inspiring many innovative workarounds.

Jumpack also needed to stick to the ground, so the horizontal motion of the bike didn’t push the ramp. “The energy of the rider hitting the ramp needed to be absorbed, and this proved to be very difficult,” said McIntosh.

Finally, the ramp had to be adjustable to accommodate young or inexperienced riders.

Jumpack portable skating ramp

Jumpack packed away in its harness

McIntosh and Crowe walked away from a few different manufacturing companies with these challenges ringing in their ears, and it wasn’t easy to come up with solutions. It also wasn’t easy to find a designer that could satisfy the stringent requirements.

But, with his own ingenuity, McIntosh came up with some clever solutions.

“To get the curved surfaces to spoon, we created a whole new type of hinge that didn’t exist before: a telescopic, spring-loaded pivoting hinge. This hinge is covered in detail in our patent,” he said.

To keep the weight down, there were some ‘luxury’ composites available, but McIntosh wouldn’t consider them.

“This couldn’t be a product only for Christmas. Kids need to be able to afford it. So we went with the more affordable glass-filled nylon,” he said.

For the final sticking point – making the ramp stick – it came down to a bright idea.

“Probably our biggest moment of innovation was when we realised that we needed to use energy-absorbing gas struts on the legs – the kind of struts on a car’s boot,” said McIntosh.

“The struts would absorb the horizontal impact of the bike wheel on the ramp. The ramp now sticks, even to a slippery, polished wooden floor.”

Practice and dedication

It was critical that the prototype go through rigorous testing, and Sligo-based aerospace company Verus Engineering conducted a virtual analysis, called ‘finite element analysis’, to ensure the product wouldn’t break. This analysis showed that the Jumpack design is strong enough to take whatever riders throw at it.

Now, Jumpack needs capital to push development of the product. “£70,000 would enable us to purchase the injection-moulding tools we need,” said McIntosh.

The innovation is protected by patents in Russia, the US and Europe. Because McIntosh and Crowe added GoPro mounts to the ramp, allowing users to capture footage of their tricks and stunts, Jumpack was offered a place on GoPro’s secretive Strategic Product Partnership Programme.

Phil McIntosh, Jumpack

Creator Phil McIntosh wears the Jumpack on his bike

In the end, McIntosh credits his entrepreneurial drive to his BMX background. “It might just look like kids learning tricks on bikes, but becoming good at a sport at a young age, through practice and dedication, teaches you what it takes to succeed in other areas of life.”

By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland