The Next Big Thing In Putters

I first met Al Vikmanis, founder of Round 4 Putters, last fall shortly after hurricane Matthew.  His passion for putters was evident after just a few minutes of talking and looking over his lineup of milled putters.  When I received a text from him this spring stating something big was in the works, I was intrigued.  Then, late in July I received a secret video of the new product – 3D printed putter heads.  The video below is a refined version, but you’ll probably have the same reaction I did – ‘whoa, this is really cool’.

Al and I recently met to talk about the video and roll some putts with his prototypes.  Al was ready to tell the world about Round 4 3DP Design, and Plugged In Golf was the outlet he wanted to share it through.

Plugged In Golf:  First off Al, thanks for coming to Plugged In Golf first with this amazing new manufacturing process.  You kept telling me that you were working on a big project, but I had no idea you were looking to revolutionize how putters are made.  How did the concept come about?

Al Vikmanis:    My pleasure.  I’m a big fan of your website.

The original concept came to me when I was at the Consumer Electronics Show [CES] in Las Vegas last year.  CES is, I think, the largest trade show in the world and it’s where companies launch and advertise amazing new technology.  It’s filled with the coolest stuff you can imagine – drones, virtual reality, etc.  What you don’t see there are CNC mills.  That’s 40 year old technology.  But at CES I saw for the first time 3D printers that can print in metal.

I was blown away.  These printers use lasers to create solid metal objects of shapes and designs that are impossible to make with other production techniques.  My mind immediately started racing with ideas for how to use this technology to make better putters.  I knew then and there that it was the future of putter design and manufacturing.  So I set off on a quest to learn how to use this technology and incorporate it into our business.

PIGHence the name 3DP Design.

AV:   Yes.  3DP Design is our new line of 3D printed putters.  Our first commercial prototypes are now up on our website for sale, but there are more in the works.  I can’t tell you how excited we are to bring these to market.  This first batch is absolutely amazing, and we have a ton of new design concepts we’re exploring as we continue learning how to maximize the benefits of this production technique.  The future is very bright.

PIGThe video is mesmerizing, but explain a little more how 3D printing of powdered steel works?

AV:   The technology used in the video is called Direct Metal Laser Sintering [DMLS].  It uses a laser to melt powdered steel.  The printer lays down a fine layer of powdered steel, as thin as 0.0008”, and then the laser precisely melts the correct areas to build up a solid part.  After the laser completes a layer, the printer deposits another layer of powdered steel and the laser melts that steel on top of the previous layer.

To use an analogy more people are familiar with, imagine if you printed a picture of a putter on your regular paper and ink computer printer at home, then took that piece of paper and ran it through the printer again.  And again, and again, over and over.  Eventually that picture would get thicker and thicker and start to take on a 3-dimensional quality, like a putter made out of ink.  That’s what we’re doing here, but instead of ink on paper we’re layering steel on top of steel.  One putter can have a few thousand layers of steel.  The dimensional accuracy of these printers is just amazing.  And they make fully solid metal parts.

PIG:  What I’m seeing on these prototypes are shapes and right angle corners that just aren’t possible with traditional CNC machining.  Beyond aesthetics, what does that do for you, the designer?

AV:   Great question, and that really gets to the heart of what makes these putters better than what else is on the market.  You’re correct that this technology is capable of making shapes and designs that CNC milling cannot, such as pocketed corners, internal cavities, and intricate lattice structures.  That allows us more design freedom and we can be more aggressive in how we take weight out of certain areas of the putter and add more weight where we do want it in the form of tungsten.  That in turn allows us to massively improve the MOI while maintaining a traditional size and shape.

PIGAnd what does that mean for the end user, the golfer?

AV:   Higher MOI makes for a much more forgiving putter.

PIG:  MOI is a tough concept to understand, any insight from your years of studying putters and golfers using them?

AV:   Yes.  MOI is a measurement of how far a body’s mass is distributed away from its center of gravity.  The higher the MOI, the more a body resists twisting.  Higher MOI is beneficial in two ways: it helps make it easier to keep the putter face square during the stroke; and it helps impart more energy and hit the ball straighter on mishits.  MOI is a big concept in putters and is something I could talk about all day.

PIG:  Since I’m planning to play in about an hour, maybe we can revisit MOI in the near future – have a “Tech Talk with Al”.

AV:   That’s a great idea.  I’d be delighted to participate.

PIG:  So what is the MOI of these 3DP Design blade putters?

AV:  There are 2 prototype head shapes on our website – one is 5,500 and the other is 5,100 [g-cm2]

PIG:  How does that compare with other blades?

AV:  A typical Anser-style blade has an MOI in the high 3000 range.  So we have achieved a 35%+ increase in MOI within the same dimensions of a traditional size blade.  To put things in perspective, these blades compete with some of the larger “super-MOI” mallets that are popular today.  The TaylorMade Spider has an MOI of 4900.  The Toulon Indianapolis has an MOI of 5400.  Both of those putters are huge by comparison to a traditional blade.  Our new 3DP Design blades are in this same range of MOI, yet are totally traditional in shape and dimension.  This gives a sense of just how much MOI we’ve been able to add to these putters without expanding their size.

As far as we’re aware, this is the highest MOI available in this size of blade on the market.  This is innovation – using new technology to make something better.

PIG:  Innovation that benefits the regular golfer.

AV:  We think there’s a market for this amongst players who have used normal sized blades their whole lives.  They can see how technology is changing golf and want a more forgiving putter but when they try the new giant super-MOI putter shapes at their local golf store they just can’t adjust to the way they look.  Our new 3DP Design blades will give them that forgiveness without requiring them to compromise their tastes and preferences.

PIG:  One thing I like doing while testing putters is purposely hit off the heel and the toe.  I can attest that these prototypes are extremely forgiving.

AV:  Thanks.  That’s exactly what we set out to do – make a better, more forgiving, normal-sized putter.

We’ll add more and different shapes and styles of putters to our 3DP Design line soon, including mallets, but we started with blades due to their popularity and we’re thrilled with how these blades perform.  3D printing is capable of improving putter design in innumerable ways across all types of putter designs.  The only issue we face in making additional designs is that larger shapes tend to cost more to print and this technology is still very expensive.

PIG: So where does that put the price point for 3DP Design putters?

AV:  Before I give a number, let me first give a brief analogy.  I remember the first time I saw a flat-panel plasma TV.  It was almost exactly 20 years ago and I was at Harrod’s department store in London.  It was a 42” 480p plasma TV and it cost £7,000, about $11,000 at the time.  I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen.  6 years later I bought my first flat screen TV.  It was also a 42” 480p plasma TV, but it cost only $3,500.  Today you can buy a 42” 1080p LED TV for about $200.

We don’t claim to be the first 3D printed putter.  While the idea came to me independently, subsequent research led me to discover that Ping created one using DMLS technology more than 2 years ago.  It doesn’t appear that they really took advantage of the unique capabilities of 3D printing vs. other manufacturing methods, but they made a playable putter.  And they reportedly planned to price it at about $7,500-$9,000, though I’m not sure that they ever actually brought it to market.

Our steel 3DP Design prototypes that are currently for sale on our website are priced at $800.  Over time as our efficiency improves and 3D printing technology continues to develop and drop in price our putter prices should only get lower.  But when and how quickly that happens is anyone’s guess.  I fully expect other putter companies to compete in this space and help drive prices down.

To be clear, the price is driven by the cost of printing.  People who are familiar with this technology will recognize that this is where the DMLS printing market currently is.  It’s a competitive space but a DMLS printer costs roughly $1 million.  While there is definitely a fad in the golf equipment industry right now to sell ever more expensive gear, our goal in developing this product was purely to innovate.  And we have the MOI figures to prove why our product is better than the competition.  That’s something you don’t see in the iron space and all the articles on the web about X club vs. Y club and is it really worth the difference in price.  Our putters are objectively and measurably better than their direct competitors in terms of MOI and forgiveness.

PIG:  Ok, I’ve rolled putts with several of the prototypes.  I was telling you what each sounded like and how the face felt and you chuckled.  Fill me in.

AV:  You said something about how one model felt hotter or softer than another.  These putters are all made of stainless steel, which is hard and strong.  The force involved in hitting a putt is very small.  The face of the putter isn’t flexing.  But you’re completely right that these putter models do feel slightly different, and that’s because they sound slightly different.  In putters, sound is feel.  When a putter strikes a ball, there is vibration and resonance and different putter designs resonate differently and at different frequencies.  An extreme example of this is a putter with a sound slot cut through the sole.  Those tend to be very high-pitched which most people perceive as being softer.

Sound and feel is actually a key design issue for us.  We want our putters to sound and feel bright yet solid, with good audible feedback but not feel too soft.  Kind of a “Goldilocks” zone, if you will.  An example of how design impacts sound and feel is the rails along the bottom of the sole. We like the way they look, but their genesis was in tuning the sole of the putter.  The back flange of a putter is a major source of resonance and its thickness directly affects the pitch of the impact sound. We wanted to strip weight out of the putter wherever possible to improve the MOI, and those rails help increase the stiffness of the flange and tune the sound while adding less weight.

PIG:  Wow, that was enlightening.  But obviously some brands use inserts and face milling to also influence feel.  Any plans to incorporate that into Round 4 3DP?

AV:   Yes.  As far as I understand it, the origins of face milling were an effort to make the face of a putter perfectly flat.  Our current prototypes already have perfectly flat faces due to how they are cut off the build plate.  The 3D printer starts with a steel plate and the parts are printed on top of it.  So at the end of the printing process you have one big block of steel with a bunch of parts sticking out of it that need to be cut off.  We print these putters face down on the build plate.  They are then cut off with a wire EDM process that leaves the faces perfectly flat, just like a CNC mill would.  They don’t have the circular cuts that machinists often leave on putter faces to indicate that they were milled, but they’re perfectly flat.

Our product development path right now has us experimenting with face inserts as we look to optimize the printing process and improve our production costs.  There’s no telling where that will end up, but it’s something we’re exploring.

As for milling the face to influence feel, I’m going to take an opportunity here to make a provocative statement.  Face milling has a minimal effect on the feel of a putter and is largely a gimmick.  When I see claims about how deeper milling or a certain special milling pattern helps make a putter feel softer, I scoff.  First, companies never seem to produce the same putter with different milling and let people test it.  Second, if people want a “softer” putter, they can buy a putter with a plastic insert – those actually are softer.  Third, sound is feel.  Changes in the structural shape of a steel putter can have a much bigger influence on the sound and feel of a putter than just cutting the grooves in the face a hundredth of an inch deeper.

There are too many gimmicks and marketing myths in this business.  We’re not big on gimmicks at Round 4.  We just want to make better putters.

PIG:  That’s refreshing to hear.  As my mind keeps racing, I’m intrigued with the thought that you can print any text, or design literally anywhere on the putter.  No more ugly, harsh stamps after the fact for customization.  That has a lot of value with virtually no additional manufacturing costs right?

AV:   Absolutely.  It’s amazing to think of all the possibilities that are opened with this technology.  Mass customization is right around the corner.  We need to build up some volume before we start offering customizations on that level, but it will happen soon.  And not just engraving names and such, but imagine printing to an exact loft rather than bending the neck to custom fit a putter.  The possibilities are limitless and super cool.

PIG:  I know we’ve covered a lot here.  Anything else you think the reader needs to know at this juncture?

AV:   Just to keep an eye out for our new product offerings.  Our product development pipeline has some unbelievably cool stuff in it and we’re doing our best to bring it to market as fast as we can.

PIG:  Is 3D printing the way of the future for all putters?

AV:   Potentially, yes.  I can easily see it taking over the top end of the market due to the ability to create superior geometry and higher MOI with 3D printing, plus the customization possibilities are just too cool.   Right now, aside from cost, the only advantage a CNC milled putter has over a 3D printed putter is that it has sharper surface finishes.  Personally, I like the layered surface look of the 3D printed putters and think its cool to have something that looks a little different than everything else on the market.  But if one really wanted to, they could 3D print a putter to create optimal internal geometry and then put it in a CNC mill to machine the external surfaces.  It would be purely cosmetic and only add to the production cost.  We’re not interested in doing that but someone who just wants to sell the most expensive putter on the market probably will do it eventually.

But I can also see how 3D printing could take over the lower priced end of the market too.  And I hope to have more to say about that in the near future.

PIG:  We look forward to telling our readers about that, whatever, and whenever that is.  So when can we expect to see production putters available in the marketplace?

AV:   We have a few prototypes [4] printed in stainless steel available on our website right now.  There are 2 different head shapes [both blades], each available with a flowneck or a plumber’s neck.  These are true prototypes – they have logos engraved on their faces but nothing on the soles.  The models don’t even have names yet.  Plus the lettering on the logo in the back cavity is raised rather than engraved, a cool look that isn’t possible with CNC milling, and will likely be a little different in our next batch.  So these are truly one-of-a-kind pieces. Check them out on our website at www.Round4Putters.com.  We are working hard on our next batch of 3DP Design putters and will hopefully have more for sale soon, but it will be several weeks at best – maybe longer.  Readers can join our email list if they’d like to be notified of new product availability. And we could potentially do some pre-orders if people want to reserve putters from upcoming production runs.

PIG: Al, thanks again for sharing this exciting news with Plugged In Golf.  I can’t wait to get a production model of 3DP Design in my hands for extended testing.  It’s always fun to talk with you and I’m excited to see the growth of Round 4 Putters.

AV:  Thanks Matt.  Always fun to talk with you too.  And I hope to be in touch soon with even more cool new product news.

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Matt Meeker

Matt lives in sunny Orlando with his wife who allows his golf obsession to stretch the limits of normalcy. He's also a proud coach with The First Tee of Central Florida who loves teaching kids about golf and life skills.

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