After recklessly plunging into a murky pool of contention with my last UniBlog, time to break surface and gasp for air! But, before I start on a less breath-taking topic than “The Price of Fame”, I’d like to echo one of my own posts that followed that blog by thanking everyone that commented and hence made it, as I said, “much my liveliest”.
In recognition of that, it behoves me to keep my promise here and start answering some of the points that were raised. Apart from anything else, it saves me expending my ever-decreasing stock of brain cells on having to come up with a new topic!
So I’ll begin by responding to a rather tongue-in-cheek enquiry from American Mad John, who wonders if Sigma XL darts have reportedly been held up in Customs because I’ve violated “British National Security by exporting sensitive technology”. Not sure about that, John, but I did once work for a badminton company whose export of “shuttlecocks” was held up when US Customs thought they might be some sort of sexual aid. Maybe there’s some similar linguistic problem here with the XL suffix!
But now to more seemly matters. Another John, John Khong from Singapore, might be a self-confessed “sucker for Unicorn”, but still thinks it should adopt a more adventurous Eastern-type approach to R&D. He reckons the Sigma range is hardly a radical change of design and wants us to “be bold” and “come up with something fantastic” – something more innovative and breath-taking than this blog, then!
Well, we do try, and I’m hoping those fairly radical and innovative Sigma XLs will indeed prove both fantastic and breath-taking! But seeking design change for the sake of it can just end up with gimmicks rather than truly worthwhile innovations.
A key factor here is that, as I’ve always said, the aerodynamic efficiency of a dart is less important than its ergonomic qualities - meaning it has to feel “right” in a player’s hand. And, as the design of players is pretty much the same as in 1937 when Frank Lowy, Unicorn’s founding father, came up with his first “Silver Comets”, it’s understandable that the design of dart barrels hasn’t basically changed much either.
And it’s not only players’ anatomy that’s unchanging (although, contrary to the prejudiced contentions of a few ill-informed media critics, this has moved on since Neanderthal days!), so are the physical laws governing dart flight. Hence it’s not just the Silver Comets’ barrels that look similar to modern designs, it’s the entire set-up.
A similar consideration applies to many products, both inside and outside the field of sport. W G Grace, born in 1848, would easily relate to the very latest computer-aided-manufacture DXM cricket bat from Unicorn’s sister company Gunn & Moore (still even made in his favourite wood, willow). And, for a more aerodynamic example, the configuration of the Bleriot XI monoplane which flew the Channel in 1909 has much in common with that of a modern Cessna Skycatcher, designed nearly a century later.
But, unlike human anatomy and the laws of physics, engineering techniques and scientific knowledge do evolve quickly. Improvements in manufacturing processes allow the Skycatcher to use aluminium (banned for cricket bats since 1980, incidentally!) in place of the Bleriot’s wood-and-fabric to form a shape that, although broadly similar, has far better aerodynamic properties.
Which neatly brings me back to John Khong’s accusation that Sigma darts aren’t that different. They might not look it, but that’s because they have to obey the same laws of flight as other darts and suit the grip of as many of the same players as possible, all of which means being not too unconventional. So Sigmas weren’t designed to be a bit different, they were just designed to be – aerodynamically at least - a bit better!
And that goal dictated subtle but important design details, such as heavier Sigmas being shorter than lighter ones, which is unusual but allows them to maintain the same flight characteristics across the weight range. The precise curvature of the barrels is also important, which links to a point that David Hartley made about Sigma prototypes being around in the 1980s. They were indeed, David, but such design details meant that it needed more recent advances in dart manufacturing processes to allow them to be mass-produced at a cost that’s affordable (albeit, as we’ve seen, arguably!).
So on to Mark Heggie’s question as to why, if they are better aerodynamically, only Andy Hamilton amongst Unicorn professionals uses Sigma-type darts and why Phil Taylor stopped. Well, I’ve explained before how Phil surprised us all by discarding his very different Purists in favour of Sigmas’ superior aerodynamics and how he subsequently found the grip on some similar John Lowe darts (why they’re similar I’ve also explained before) suited him better, which lead to his current Phase 5s.
And this goes back to the point I made earlier about a dart’s ergonomics being more important than its aerodynamics. Unicorn professionals can use darts which are custom-built to their personal specification, including grip and shape. The chances of that specification happening to coincide with any one particular design of dart is relatively small. In fact, in the case of Sigmas, it’s perhaps made smaller still as those slightly curved barrels (more noticeable in the heavier weights), which are integral to their aerodynamic optimality, may not suit quite as many players as would parallel.
So, I guess at this point Mark might say that, given most Unicorn professionals don’t use Sigmas, why should he? And my answer to that is two-fold. Firstly, if a Unicorn professional gets a set of darts made to their own specifications and they turn out not to suit them, they just try again, no charge. For an amateur this could prove an expensive process (yes, before anyone says it, even more expensive than Sigmas!).
Secondly, professionals have enough practice time (and free equipment!) to enable them to have a reasonable shot at optimising their dart set-up themselves by trial and error (easier if you are very good). Moreover, those sponsored by Unicorn can even ask for my help with the task, as quite a few have. Although Unicorn has done its best to offer all its customers an automated version of the same facility through UniLab Optimiser, you can’t beat that personal touch!
But if the grip and shape of a Sigma doesn’t suit you, it doesn’t suit you and no amount of improved aerodynamics will make up for that. At least now there’s the Sigma XL to improve the chances that a least one in the range will suit you!
And, on that hopeful note, that’s all from me this time. Apologies to those whose questions I haven’t got round to yet – I haven’t even mentioned our old friend Warren’s Rosso coating comment or covered all of Singaporean John’s points, although he can rest assured that his desire for a soft tip Sigma XL, whilst not as straightforward to fulfil as one might imagine, has at least set me thinking….