TWMX All Access: Asterisk

Sponsored by:

For the last several years, the Asterisk logo has been a familiar fixture¿both for the Asterisk knee braces used by a variety of amateur and professional riders, and at professional events where the Asterisk Mobile Medical Unit is always a welcome sight.

On a recent visit to their Foothill Ranch, CA, headquarters we met up with Billy Frank, who in addition to CAD/CAM design and toolmaking, also runs the injection molding plastics department.

After asking Billy to give up a little background on Asterisk, he said, “There was big hole in the market, specifically in motocross. We all ride, and we all love motocross. At the time you either you went out and spent $1,200 for a custom-fit CTi, you were forced to buy something from a sporting goods store¿or you had to hurt your knee, and have your doctor prescribe a brace. Asterisk was started to make an affordable high-end off-the-shelf preventative knee brace. We wanted to make a brace that was as good as a CTi custom-fit brace that was adjustable to the end user, sold through the motorcycle shops, and was affordable. We’ve definitely achieved that.

Innovation Sports (which produces the CTi braces) is a medical company. If you get hurt, you go to a doctor and he can prescribe a knee brace. But Asterisk is here to help prevent having to do that. They are two completely separate companies. There’s common ownership between the two companies, but we actually pay rent here and the whole deal.”

It’s easy to see the difference in corporate culture throughout the building. The front office looks about as professional and efficient as a doctor’s office, while in the back where Danny Castillo also does CAD/CAM design, it’s definitely a little looser.

[IMAGE 1]

According to Billy, “Sometimes Danny and I work collectively, but most of the time we work on separate projects.”

So how did Billy get started on his current career path? It wasn’t exactly planned out. “I actually used to race professionally. I retired in ’88 and worked as a plumber for four years. Then I came to work for Innovation Sports in ’91 as a welder¿they needed a very specific finite welding, so I did that. Innovation had just started getting into injection molding and no one knew how to run it, so I went to class for like two days and just figured it out on my own, basically.”

“About seven years later, the design engineer at the time for Innovation Sports left the company and there was no one to do it. I’d never sat down behind a computer or anything, and Jim Castillo asked me, “Do you want to try it?” It was basically like the pilot of an airplane was missing, you don’t know how to fly a plane, and all of a sudden you have to fly the plane with passengers and stuff. It was a very stressful time and was basically 24/7, just trying to learn it on my own. There was no class or anything on the software that I use, but there’s no classes on it, no books¿they had a hotline you’d call that wasn’t so hot. You’d get a hold of a person, you don’t know how to do this, and it’s 2:00 AM and you’re trying to get in touch with someone. That was no fun, but I eventually got the hang of it.”

“In ’98, Jim came to seval of us with the idea of what he wanted to do with Asterisk, and wanted to know if he wanted to basically start up this company with him and help get it going. We were all for it, and started working on it a couple months later. We basically quit Innovation and went to work for Asterisk. That was five years ago, coming up on April 1st.”

“We’ve done a lot of stuff that’s never been done before, especially in the knee brace industry. Getting the design going and testing all the stuff and proving concepts. We worked really close together for two years, and we couldn’t have done it without everyone working hard. Back then we were pulling 24-hour shifts trying to get stuff done. It was hard, but it was worth it.”

Billy set up a demo of some of what goes into just one component of the Asterisk braces, and considering there are over 200 parts in each brace, it’s easy to see why it took so long to develop. “It’s quite involved, and all those pieces are necessary for the function of it. Everything from the cuffs to the way the hinge works is all brand new stuff that’s never been done before. It took us literally two years of design and testing before we released the brace.”

“Danny, Jim and myself, we come up with the design of the part that we want, and then go back and model it in the computer.”

[IMAGE 2]

“A lot of times it’s a lot different looking in real life than it is on a computer. So the stereo lithography machine that we have basically takes a part that we design and allows us to prototype it before we cut a hard tool.”

“It’s sort of similar to what a CAT scan does. It slices it into less than the thickness of your hair, and then basically prints the part in a powder layer by layer until it’s done. It’s like printing it in 3D. Whatever you can design or make within a certain size, it’ll print. You could actually make a ball inside of a ball¿something that you can’t physically make in real life.”

“It works really well, and you can check fit. There are different resins we can use, like if a part needs to be pliable or rock-hard. They’re working parts, that allow you to check fit, but they’re not strong enough to take a load. It helps tremendously if we want to change something or if we just want to see what it looks like, we can literally have a part in less than an hour¿or sometimes four or five hours depending on the size of the part.”

[IMAGE 3]

[IMAGE 4]

“If we’re satisfied with the general fit and the look of it, we’ll either go straight into a production tool, or cut a prototype and shoot an actual plastic part to test it before we start the production tool.”

“Once we get the part done and we’re happy with the way it looks and everything fits properly, you split the part in half and make the tool for injection molding. You have to place the parts in the right place and the injector pins. Then we write the tool path that cuts the mold.”

[IMAGE 5]

“Once the part is designed in the computer we bring the file out here to where it’s machined.”

[IMAGE 6]

[IMAGE 7]

“We also shoot the parts here in the injection molding machine, so every single step is done in-house, except for a couple parts in the hinge that are stamped metal. We don’t do any metal stamping here, but everything else is done in-house, from start to finish.”

[IMAGE 8]

“A lot of the stuff we make is very intricate, and it also gives us the ability to make running changes. When we want to make something better, we can literally change it within a day or two, rather than six to eight weeks.”

“The frames are made with a RIM process¿that’s Reaction Injection Molding. It’s basically a two-part foam epoxy. The part’s a carbon braid where there’s a very thin liquid foam shot through the center of it. When it reacts it expands and pushes the carbon out to the walls of the mold. That way you have a foam core that makes it light and very strong.”

[IMAGE 9]

“It’s a lot of work afterward to make the part look good, but it’s a very strong and reliable part when it’s finished. Very tough and durable.”

[IMAGE 10]

[IMAGE 11]

“Once all the components are molded and the parts finished, everything goes to final assembly.”

[IMAGE 12]

“When we first started designing the brace, we’re all moto-heads, so it’s designed specifically for motocross. That’s the hardest sport there is, so if we designed it for motocross, for skiing or any other sport, they pale in comparison. We wanted to take everything we knew about bracing, the good and bad, and just try to make the best thing we could.”

“The patella cup protects your knee whether it’s straight or fully bent. It’s the first knee brace that’s done that. That’s really good when it comes to knocking your knee on the underside of the clutch perch.

“When we came to the patella cup we were like, ‘Whatever we do, we have to figure out how to do that.” That’s the worst thing. We’ve all done it, and all hated it, so we definitely wanted to solve that problem.”

[IMAGE 13]

“The liner system, the way the brace attaches to your leg is far superior than a strapping system. It gives you more surface area and it’s just a very powerful systems. It also makes the brace a lot more comfortable.”

With the lace liner, it’s easier to loosen the laces each time and tighten it up every time. I don’t feel that if it’s tight enough you’re able to click it in. You’re going to lose function or performance.

“The way that a knee brace works is a three-point system. You get the lateral support on the upper quad on the outside, the inside of your knee, and lower, it’s the outside of your calf. Those are the three rigid points that you want to fit for the knee brace to work properly. The thing with custom braces why they work so well with support is you can have that hard arm come all the way around the side of your quad because you know exactly the size of the measurements. All the off-the-shelf braces until this one came along you’ll see that they won’t wrap around the outside of the quad. They always stop earlier because they can’t determine that dimension.”

[IMAGE 14]

“Asterisk is a firm believer in a rigid frame brace. You have a rigid frame structure and a flexible structure. We’re definitely a firm believer in the rigid frame. Our tendon cuff is a semi-rigid plastic with two metal strips that are attached to the end, and two screws at the inside of the thigh. When you turn the screws¿say your quad is a little smaller¿you tighten the screws so you can fit a very small quad. The cuffs are a one-time adjustment, but if you lose weight or gain weight, you can adjust them again. Typically it’s a one-time adjustment. We tried to make as many adjustments as possible, and still keep the function in mind. The cuff is pliable, but once you set the adjustment, it functions like the rigid piece you’d get with a custom brace.”

“A lot of people think the hinges are loose because they move from side-to-side, but that’s actually the design of the hinge. It auto-aligns for the angle of their tibia to their quad. That’s one of the reasons why custom braces fit so well and feel so good is because it knows the angle of your leg. The Asterisk allows for that, and auto-aligns with a direct side-to-side motion, but it only moves side-to-side. Your knee joint being a ball and socket, there’s no side-to-side unless you get hit by a truck. But any other motion besides a direct side-to-side shear, the hinge locks. It doesn’t allow any abnormal motion. Anything out of the ordinary range of motion for your knee is locked out. It allows the lower frame to fit expands and pushes the carbon out to the walls of the mold. That way you have a foam core that makes it light and very strong.”

[IMAGE 9]

“It’s a lot of work afterward to make the part look good, but it’s a very strong and reliable part when it’s finished. Very tough and durable.”

[IMAGE 10]

[IMAGE 11]

“Once all the components are molded and the parts finished, everything goes to final assembly.”

[IMAGE 12]

“When we first started designing the brace, we’re all moto-heads, so it’s designed specifically for motocross. That’s the hardest sport there is, so if we designed it for motocross, for skiing or any other sport, they pale in comparison. We wanted to take everything we knew about bracing, the good and bad, and just try to make the best thing we could.”

“The patella cup protects your knee whether it’s straight or fully bent. It’s the first knee brace that’s done that. That’s really good when it comes to knocking your knee on the underside of the clutch perch.

“When we came to the patella cup we were like, ‘Whatever we do, we have to figure out how to do that.” That’s the worst thing. We’ve all done it, and all hated it, so we definitely wanted to solve that problem.”

[IMAGE 13]

“The liner system, the way the brace attaches to your leg is far superior than a strapping system. It gives you more surface area and it’s just a very powerful systems. It also makes the brace a lot more comfortable.”

With the lace liner, it’s easier to loosen the laces each time and tighten it up every time. I don’t feel that if it’s tight enough you’re able to click it in. You’re going to lose function or performance.

“The way that a knee brace works is a three-point system. You get the lateral support on the upper quad on the outside, the inside of your knee, and lower, it’s the outside of your calf. Those are the three rigid points that you want to fit for the knee brace to work properly. The thing with custom braces why they work so well with support is you can have that hard arm come all the way around the side of your quad because you know exactly the size of the measurements. All the off-the-shelf braces until this one came along you’ll see that they won’t wrap around the outside of the quad. They always stop earlier because they can’t determine that dimension.”

[IMAGE 14]

“Asterisk is a firm believer in a rigid frame brace. You have a rigid frame structure and a flexible structure. We’re definitely a firm believer in the rigid frame. Our tendon cuff is a semi-rigid plastic with two metal strips that are attached to the end, and two screws at the inside of the thigh. When you turn the screws¿say your quad is a little smaller¿you tighten the screws so you can fit a very small quad. The cuffs are a one-time adjustment, but if you lose weight or gain weight, you can adjust them again. Typically it’s a one-time adjustment. We tried to make as many adjustments as possible, and still keep the function in mind. The cuff is pliable, but once you set the adjustment, it functions like the rigid piece you’d get with a custom brace.”

“A lot of people think the hinges are loose because they move from side-to-side, but that’s actually the design of the hinge. It auto-aligns for the angle of their tibia to their quad. That’s one of the reasons why custom braces fit so well and feel so good is because it knows the angle of your leg. The Asterisk allows for that, and auto-aligns with a direct side-to-side motion, but it only moves side-to-side. Your knee joint being a ball and socket, there’s no side-to-side unless you get hit by a truck. But any other motion besides a direct side-to-side shear, the hinge locks. It doesn’t allow any abnormal motion. Anything out of the ordinary range of motion for your knee is locked out. It allows the lower frame to float a little bit, but that’s it. Any other motion and it stops. That’s very unique.”

While roaming around and watching production, it was apparent that they were running at full capacity, something confirmed by Billy. “This is definitely our busy season, plus we’ve expanded distribution into Europe.”

“We priced the braces as a set for $549. They are available individually, but we encourage the sets because no one has a favorite knee.”

“We do fair market pricing with all the dealers, so what you’re getting for that price is a lot of brace. We sell either direct to dealers or direct to consumers. We don’t have distributors¿there’s just not enough margin. We have a pretty deep dealer network. We’re constantly working on that, to get into more and more shops. We do a fair market price because we want the mom and pop shop in a small town to be able to compete with some of the online stores. We monitor that very closely because we want to help everyone play on the same field.”

Wrapping up, the question was posed to Billy about what’s next for Asterisk. He smiled and said, “We’re going to make other products, but I have no recollection of what the next one might be.” Secret (and jokes) aside, we can’t wait to see what’s next.

Contact:

Asterisk
19762 Pauling
Foothill Ranch, CA  92610
(800) 459-2999
www.asterisk.com

Sponsored by:
to float a little bit, but that’s it. Any other motion and it stops. That’s very unique.”

While roaming around and watching production, it was apparent that they were running at full capacity, something confirmed by Billy. “This is definitely our busy season, plus we’ve expanded distribution into Europe.”

“We priced the braces as a set for $549. They are available individually, but we encourage the sets because no one has a favorite knee.”

“We do fair market pricing with all the dealers, so what you’re getting for that price is a lot of brace. We sell either direct to dealers or direct to consumers. We don’t have distributors¿there’s just not enough margin. We have a pretty deep dealer network. We’re constantly working on that, to get into more and more shops. We do a fair market price because we want the mom and pop shop in a small town to be able to compete with some of the online stores. We monitor that very closely because we want to help everyone play on the same field.”

Wrapping up, the question was posed to Billy about what’s next for Asterisk. He smiled and said, “We’re going to make other products, but I have no recollection of what the next one might be.” Secret (and jokes) aside, we can’t wait to see what’s next.

Contact:

Asterisk
19762 Pauling
Foothill Ranch, CA  92610
(800) 459-2999
www.asterisk.com

Sponsored by: