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S&S Worldwide Inc. burst into the amusement ride market in 1994 with the Space Shot, the world’s first vertical amusement ride. Born from founder Stan Checketts’ bungee jumping roots, the Utah based company was on a mission to produce “thrilling, high-quality rides the entire family can enjoy”. Today, S&S has supplied more than 400 roller coasters, high-thrill rides, and family rides in over 30 countries, and is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of amusement rides and coasters. Recent roller coaster innovations include 4th Dimension coasters and the longitudinal spinning Free Fly coaster, for which S&S won the 2009 IAAPA “Best New Major Amusement Ride of the Year”.
Having done the fastest and the steepest, Blooloop caught up with S&S Vice President of Sales, Marketing and New Product Development, Kevin Rohwer (right), to see if we could take a little peek at what’s on the drawing board.
How to Make a Thrill Ride: The Design and Engineering Process
How do you encourage innovation in S&S’s engineering and design process?
The company founder, Stan Checketts, enjoyed creating “new ideas”. The tower ride was a homerun, but other ideas, not so much. However, that “creative” drive for new and unique ride experiences created a culture that has carried through to present day S&S, long after Stan’s departure from the organization in 2008. We know that we must have a little more creativity, a little better quality, and a lot of heart to stand out and be competitive and our challenge is to develop the technical depth in our team to support this spirit of innovation. Safety, quality, performance as specified and after-the-sale support are our creative priorities that generate good products for good customers in a great industry.
Can you tell us a bit about the design and engineering team?
We have 16 engineers/designers/drafting personnel. Most have greater than five years in the industry and with S&S; however, several have spent their entire careers within the industry. Al Schilke and Dody Bachtar (both P.E.s – Professional Engineers) are known in many engineering and technical circles within our industry. Al Schilke, one of the most gifted engineers/artisans when it comes to ride layout design and ride experiences, is a tremendous asset to S&S and can be credited for great coaster ride experiences. Being the mind behind the wildly popular 4th Dimension Coaster (Six Flags Magic Mountain, California, Fuji-Q, Japan and opening spring 2012, Dinosaur Park in China), Al has a talent for knowing how to position the body in a ride sequence that safely thrills and entertains the rider beyond the “typical” coaster experience.
How is the current talent pool for design and engineering – where are your skill-level standards versus the education/abilities/experience levels of the average person applying for work?
Respective to “structural” engineering, ride experience (layout) engineering and our patented Pneumatic “launch” products, we have some of the industries finest. Air-launch IS our technology, our core competency and our team behind this technology is superior. Nobody has built, sold and serviced more “launch” systems than S&S. Obviously that’s a big claim, but we can back this up with over 143 tower rides, 9 launch coasters and over 26 air-launched swings in the market today. We HAVE to know what we’re doing and our engineering talent MUST be the best. Hopefully our safety record demonstrates the engineering skill we have in Pneumatics.
Mechanically, we are doing well but we could always improve with greater depth; thus, we use independent firms out of California and Central Utah who have great industry experience with a roster of engineering talent, second to none. Our mechanical engineers are good and they have produced innovative, attractive and high-quality vehicles with beautiful, smooth ride experiences.
Now, if we speak of electrical engineering, that is our nemesis (evidenced in Nurburgring with a 3rd party engineering group). With vehicle controls being the nerve center to any coaster experience, we pay particular attention to quality electrical engineering. Utah is a hard market to attract top end “electrical” engineering talent with industry experience as “employees”. Therefore we have an Electrical Engineering Department, but we use the highly skilled talents of Birket Engineering, Set Point and Actemium for the final ride controls and commissioning. Having a black eye in Germany, this combination has proven very effective in our current projects/ride openings in China and Europe.
How do you integrate safety into the design process?
First, we master plan the entire ride and ride experience. Next, each of the engineering disciplines take their respective areas and model, simulate and perform all of the analysis possible to ensure safety and ride experience are guaranteed. Integral to this process is engineering the ride using software engineering packages, calculations and industry know-how to double-check stresses, loads, g-forces and pressures.
Once an engineering package is created, we then conduct a 3rd party review or “design-review” with the governing standards – i.e. TUV or CSEI. Today’s engineering can be complex, and documentation (engineering and chain of custody for parts in a QA process) is critical and review by a 3rd party is always insightful, helpful and minimizes mistakes or over-sights. In addition to the ASTM guidelines and norms we must follow as an American Supplier, we engineer products to meet EN and Chinese norms and certify through both the TUV and the Chinese CSEI inspectors and reviewers.
The Magic Formula: Giving the Customer What They Want
How do you make sure you are giving the customers what they want – both operators (eg compact footprint rides like El Loco) and thrill seekers?
This is the magical formula, isn’t it?
Basically we look at ride innovation – assuming safety first – footprint, ride experience and capacity and price point. Price points are relative and much like a moving dartboard. Each customer has their price-point (budget) and expects a product that will give maximum ride experience to as many people as possible for as little money as possible, and then deliver after-the-sale service excellence. It’s a natural business mindset.
S&S have a portfolio of rides that cater to the whole family. How important is the concept from Stan Checketts “thrilling, high-quality rides the entire family can enjoy” and how do you achieve it?
Stan’s idea of thrilling the “whole” family is different than what you or I, or the industry as a whole would define as “family-thrill.” I often use the bell-shaped curve as a visual illustration for our team when we discuss “thrill” and/or product market penetration. The highest point of that bell-shaped curve is literally the magical formula I spoke of in the question before. How does one do it and end up there consistently? That is the multi-million-dollar question.
The tallest (biggest) part of that bell-shaped curve defines “the family” as we might discuss it – the point in which the most people can ride. To the far left end of the curve you have rides that are the children’s rides. To the far right are the extreme rides, limited generally by height and a daring soul.
Take what the world might define as family in the bell-shaped curve and Stan’s curve would definitely be skewed to the right! The tower ride, it’s a “family ride” right? OK … as long as you’re 48” (1.2m) to 52” (1.3m) tall. S&S’ post-Stan philosophy of “family” rides is defined as ride experiences that anyone 40” (1M) and above can safely ride (restraint perspective) and handle emotionally. That science is all part of the magical formula and is a matter of opinion debated across the industry. For S&S, we live in Utah where we’re known for having large families. When we create a “family” ride, especially one that can be pre-built here in Utah first, before market, we always bring our families to the facility, ride the ride and measure and note everyone’s feelings and reactions. Science? No. But we do get a pretty good feel for the reactions our rides will receive.
Our product philosophy is to build some rides for children and some for the teenager and thrill seeker…those are the easy ones. Whereas, “What is a family ride?” is always a discussion point in our company and with customers.
S&S makes rides for attractions all over the world. Have you found any cultural differences in the demand for your rides or is the thrill of a coaster universal?
This is, of course, my opinion, but I would say that no matter the race or culture, we all have that “kid” in us and we all enjoy having fun. No culture or race has an exclusive on this. We have been blessed to have customers in North America, Europe and Asia. A smile is a smile, a laugh a laugh, no matter the color of the skin or the country we live in. The comments of “that ride was awesome, fun, scary, thrilling” etc mean the same thing no matter the language spoken.
You’ve done the fastest, the steepest, 4D and free flight. Can you share any new concepts that are on the drawing board?
This year at IAAPA we will be unveiling a new children’s/“family” small ride. We’re excited about the product. It’s inexpensive, it’s very visual, it’s interactive, small footprint and we hope our next Frog Hopper type of ride.
As for a thrill coaster…yes, we have a new concept but you will not see it out in the open. We are reserving this for certain past customers and/or strategic opportunities. It is a thrill version of our Free Fly “family” coaster, capable of a truly unique ride sensation never before experienced and exclusive to S&S, since we’ve patented the mechanical piece that creates the ride experience.
This coaster is a perfect example of the earlier question regarding engineering talent. Our team came up with the creative concept and idea. We vetted the idea with significant people in the industry last year at IAAPA and over the year. We took the engineering as far as our capabilities could take us, and we have partnered with an engineering firm in Southern California that specializes in aerospace and government contracts, and have additional tools and engineering resources we don’t. This union has created a feasibility study and product analysis I doubt has ever been done before.
When you see the ride it will be obvious to you why we have teamed, not only with the firm in Southern California, but also with a group here in Utah. The product and its ride experience necessitate a “cream-of-the-crop” group of engineers and a teaming of core competencies. Knowing that the industry looks at S&S as the new-guy-on-the-block to the “general” coaster market, and knowing that the ride concept, which has a “4th-dimension type ride experience” but at half the cost of a 4D coaster, is extreme and thrilling beyond previous experience, we made a conscious decision to bring in the best talent, worldwide, to create, engineer and validate not only the ride, but also the effects the ride experience has on the human body.
Failure is NOT an option; safety cannot be assumed; ride performance and run time must be the best, thus, we’ve had to break the mold of S&S R&D engineering from the past and create a “stacked” team. The industry deserves it, the riders deserve it, and in truth, S&S deserves it.
Introducing a new product, especially one of the calibre we are introducing, S&S is making a statement: beyond being creative, we know what we’re doing and will take every measure to ensure our quality rides are safe, with excellent run time and a low cost of maintenance. Every manufacturer has had their own issues, I call it a skinned shin or black eye. No manufacturer is perfect and, of course, S&S is no exception. We’ve had our technical growing pains, like anyone. However, in our defense, when you approach the right-hand side of that bell-shaped curve – the extreme ride – you often play in unchartered waters.
When S&S got into the coaster market with the acquisition of Arrow, we knew that we couldn’t be effective at a “me-too” type of ride. We had to engineer wheel carriers that dramatically reduced maintenance costs; we have proved that in our El Loco and Free Fly and the New X2 4D Trains at Six Flags Magic Mountain. We had to demonstrate that we had nice looking industrial designed vehicles, that a park would be proud of the ride; we have proved that again in the El Loco and Launch coasters.
So, when you take product innovation into a realm where few, if any, have gone you end up being the explorer and you find new things. As an example, with our new Air-Launch coasters in China we combine elements never before used in coasters. Mix it up with speed, height and a very strict CSEI permitting process and you find some “gotcha’s” that would not have been evident if we would have stayed with the run-of-the-mill elements and reduced the speed by 10 mph (16 kph). Did we build what the client wanted? Absolutely and then some. Did we run into some issues that needed to be addressed? We sure did. However, the important thing was that S&S could identify, address and service those “gotcha’s”, and the ride is running beautifully.
As an interesting note, the “gotcha’s” weren’t “gotcha’s” by ASTM standards. The CSEI, in their efforts to maximize safety, held us to a bar that is one of the highest bars, if not the highest, that the industry has to offer. S&S learned. Much like we will give credit to Six Flags’ Larry Chickola for the excellence in SFMM’s X2 trains, we must give credit where credit is due to the Chinese CSEI for their high standards. It has helped S&S mature and better ourselves on the right-hand side of the bell curve.
What do you feel will be the near-future trends in ride design, for example lower speed/family friendly, interactive components, systems employing multi-axis movements such as Free Flight, etc?
In our economic times, the real challenge will be delivering rides at a price the park can economically justify. There is zero argument that the 4D coaster is an engineering marvel and great ride experience. But it’s very expensive and difficult for a park to economically justify the purchase of a 4D Coaster. For the time it was created ….fine. But for today’s economic justification, respective to capacity and overall cost? For the right park it’s the right product; but for the masses, it doesn’t work. We know that. We’re proud of the product but we don’t want to repeat a great ride that no one can afford or justify. Rides that are thrilling, interactive and at a price that makes sense ..that’s the big sale – in my opinion.
We’ve talked a lot in this interview about “family rides”. It’s needed in our industry; parks want a variety. It’s what S&S is focused on “in-balance” with the full bell-shaped curve of products. Innovation, something new and not recycled from what already exists is what we feel the market wants. However, the challenge is that park owners and managers want to see, touch and ride a new ride before they buy it. So, how do you bring innovation and new product development to the industry? It’s an interesting question we have that we have no answer to other than to work with customers and company financiers to develop mutually rewarding relationships.
Pleading the 5th: Company News
What did IAAPA’s prestigious Impact Award in 2009 mean to S&S?
Oh wow, great question. Of course it’s an honor; we appreciate the industry and the IAAPA committee that presented that award to us. I think the more important question is what did we learn from receiving that award? To us, what we’ve learned since then is if you’re going to be on the radar screen with awards and acknowledgments, you have to add an extra measure of performance!
How do you manage liability issues affecting contracts – is the balance of responsibility between manufacturer and client changing?
Spend more time with the park discussing the deliverables, schedule and mutual expectations. When we miss, we hold ourselves accountable and make it right with the park …there is no other option!
Having acquired the majority shareholding what difference will it make having Larsen MacColl as majority shareholder instead of Stan Checketts? Will it bring additional investment/ a new strategy? (see: Amusement Rides: S&S Worldwide, Inc. Announces Ownership Changes)
For the most part, let me pass on this question for the moment. Financial companies, like Larsen MacColl, are companies interested in moving a company in and out of investment portfolios. It’s well known that LMP wants to sell their shares of S&S and we are right in the middle of that process. Financially we are sound, but we will have new partners in the near future. Like I said, more on that to come.
What’s S&S’s strategy for the future?
If I tell you that, I’d have to deny it or kill you! Just kidding. But in truth, this is very confidential to us and as we say in the USA, “I plead the 5th”.