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Santa Cruz Startup 3D Prints Surfboards From Recycled Hospital Trays

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Swellcycle founder Patricio Guerrero works on a surfboard in his garage in Santa Cruz in October 2023. The 3D-printed boards are mostly hollow and made from recycled PETG plastic.  (Erin Malsbury/KAZU)

Ever since Hawaiian princes first brought surfing to Santa Cruz in 1885, the city has been on the cutting edge of a lot of surfing technology. It’s where surfers first began using wetsuits in the 1950s and a decade later, where builders first used CNC machines to automatically shape surfboards. Now, a new local company is contributing to that history of innovation while also making the sport more environmentally friendly: It’s using a 3D printer to craft surfboards out of recycled hospital trays.

In a Santa Cruz garage, a huge homemade metal machine lays a clear plastic filament down, row by row. This 3D printer uses a digital file to create a three-dimensional object. Over the next couple of days, the rows will form a surfboard.

“This was the first board that kind of sparked the drive for everything else,” said Patricio Guerrero, pulling a finished board out of a rack next to the printer.

The surfboard is hollow and translucent, with a diamond-shaped lattice pattern running through it. It almost looks like frosted glass, but it’s not much heavier than a normal surfboard.

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Beginnings

Guerrero started printing surfboards in his garage in the fall of 2022 and tested the first one at Steamer Lane, one of the most famous surf spots in Santa Cruz. People have been surfing there since the 1930s, and Steamer Lane has seen plenty of homemade boards. But this was the first made from a 3D printer.

“I was super nervous,” Guerrero recalled. “Man, maybe I’ll just jump in the water, and the whole thing will just break right under me.”

But the board worked, and Guerrero ended up surfing for two hours. From there, he started printing more surfboards. He began using recycled materials and founded a startup, which he called Swellcycle.

Patricio Guerrero holds an early version of a Swellcycle 3D printed board in his garage in October 2023. (Erin Malsbury/KAZU)

A wasteful industry

Surfboards are an estimated $13 billion global industry. It’s hard to say exactly how many boards are made each year. They’re made by big manufacturers but also by hobbyists in their garages. The best estimate is somewhere in the tens of millions.

The majority of those millions of boards are not environmentally friendly. Most surfboards start as a plastic foam block — called a blank — with a thin piece of wood running down the middle. They’re then sanded down to a desired shape and covered in fiberglass and plastic resin.

The foam cores in most surfboards can’t easily be recycled, and they don’t biodegrade. Old or broken surfboards usually end up in landfills, where they crumble into smaller and smaller pieces that can pollute water and soil.

But 3D-printed boards don’t need foam. They’re mostly hollow, and they can be made from recycled plastic.

“You can basically melt it down and create a filament that then you feed into your printer,” Guerrero said. For Swellcycle, he started ordering filament made from recycled hospital trays.

Soon, Guerrero recruited a business partner to design the boards and started sending them to local surfboard shapers for the final fiberglassing.

Santa Cruz surfboard shaper Vince Broglio was the first to work with one of Guerrero’s boards. Throughout his nearly 40-year career, he has mostly worked with typical foam boards.

“You’ll have two different types of blanks, ones of polyurethane and ones EPS, expandable foam,” he said. “Hand-shaping a blank that will take me about two hours.”

Broglio’s shaping room is a two-room shack with an ocean view. The walls are lined with photos of waves, and shelves are packed with materials like fiberglass, carbon fiber and plastic resins.

In one room, Broglio uses a planar to shape a foam blank, which he then sands by hand. The other room is for putting fiberglass and resin coatings on boards. It smells strongly of plastic resin.

A nearly finished foam surfboard is ready for fiberglassing and the final resin coating in Vince Broglio’s shaping room in October 2023. (Erin Malsbury/KAZU)

“When you’re laminating a board or ‘glassing,’ you’re putting the fiberglass and resin on the board and putting out a finished product,” Broglio said.

He said glassing one of the 3D-printed boards wasn’t very different than working with a normal surfboard.

“It looked really cool when it was done, you know, see-through board and all that.”

Broglio said it could be hard for surf culture to accept new things, but that 3D printing is just another tool.

“I know there’s going to be guys [who say], ‘Oh my God, the soul of it’s gone,’ but, you know, you got to have somebody that knows surfing that’s been shaping and all that to design the board in the first place.”

Introducing something new

Swellcycle prototyped more boards and kept working with local shapers. Eventually, big wave surfer Tyler Fox tried one out.

“The sustainability element — that these boards are using recycled plastics and they can also get recycled at the end of their life cycle — was something that really excited me,” he said.

Fox said the boards also catch people’s eye in the water.

“Midday, where the sun’s shining right through it on a green wave, it just glows. It’s like you’re on a glowing hovercraft, and it’s pretty neat to see how excited people get,” he said.

The Swellcycle team experiments with a variety of board shapes and plans to eventually sell several different models in October 2023. (Erin Malsbury/KAZU)

On a sunny morning on the cliff above the surf spot Steamer Lane, people gathered around the printed surfboards.

“Dude, it’s trippy how it’s kind of see-through,” said one surfer who stopped to ask the Swellcycle team questions.

“It feels great,” said surfer Antonio Ramirez, who had just finished trying one out in the water. “I love it. It was smooth, fast and loose.”

The 3D-printed boards have also earned the approval of local legend Bob Pearson, who founded Pearson-Arrow surfboards in the 1960s. He now ships boards to pro surfers around the world.

At the massive Pearson Arrow Factory in Santa Cruz, he points out boards destined for Japan and Hawaii. There are potato chip-thin 6-foot-long shortboards and thick, sharply-pointed 10-foot boards for big waves.

“We make six boards a day,” Pearson said. “We’ve been doing that for years. We’ve made well over 100,000 boards.”

He said the current process has room for improvement.

“We do them out of polyurethane and EPS — expanded polystyrene, and there’s a lot of waste. That waste goes to landfill. That’s not a good thing.”

When the Swellcycle team first approached him, Pearson was skeptical.

“A lot of people bring things in that are really funky,” he said. “They showed it to me, and I was impressed. Very impressed.”

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Pearson compares the 3D printing technology to when he started using a CNC machine — which automatically sands a board to match a shape designed on a computer. He remembers how people criticized him for not doing everything by hand.

“I was one of the first guys to have these in the world, and I got all kinds of crap for having a CNC machine because people didn’t know what the hell it was,” Pearson said. “[They said] it takes a soul out of it, and everyone was badmouthing it. And it’s amazing how many people who were badmouthing it now are utilizing them.”

A few of the Swellcycle boards have been finished at this factory, and Pearson thinks there’s a place in the market for them.

“I was stoked, stoked from day one,” he said. “Great idea. 3D printing a surfboard. Unreal.”

The Swellcycle team recently moved out of Guerrero’s garage into a solar-powered warehouse in Santa Cruz. And they just unveiled a 10-foot longboard, opening up their market to newer surfers and people who prefer bigger boards.

Now, they’re looking for surfers to try out the boards and provide long-term feedback. It’ll be the first real test of whether the surfing community is ready for something new.

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