Strength, Not Stress

Brian Sandalow, Associate Editor

Ryan Birt had a vision for more comfortable workouts. It was realized with a cast iron product called the Birt Plate. But it wasn’t an easy or quick trip.

Birt, a former college football player and wrestler at Upper Iowa University, suffered an elbow injury on the gridiron. Football weight training consisted of powerlifts and Olympic lifts, which was difficult because Birt couldn’t straighten his arm. Instead, Birt did plate workouts (lifting without a bar) because it was easier on his arm.

During wrestling season, Birt’s coach required the team to do plate workouts in a sauna, but there was no way for Birt to hold onto the weight. The circular plates also weren’t ergonomically sound, and there wasn’t a way to have a full range of motion.

“It hurt my joints,” Birt said.

Birt told his coach how much the workouts hurt. The coach told Birt to “suck it up” or find a better way to do them. One night in 1998, Birt sat up in bed and “had a vision” for how he could improve his workouts and get full range of motion. He had an idea for a plate that was ergonomically sound, one that he could grip and move around his body without putting pressure on his joints.

“I just started putting the idea together,” Birt said. “It popped in my head and the rest was history.”

Birt, still a student at the time, tried making his idea a reality and even asked his brother at a forging company to make a plate for him. Birt, however, struggled to transfer his idea to paper and his brother sent him a crude wooden prototype that didn’t really capture the vision.

After graduation, Birt began his teaching and coaching career and life got busy. While the idea didn’t come to fruition it never left Birt, who went on to become the head wrestling coach at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois. Birt was recruiting a potential wrestler for then-employer Loras College and told the recruit’s father, Dan Butler, about his idea for a new plate design.

Butler liked the idea and worked with Birt, who eventually made an accurate wooden prototype of the H-shaped weight with grips and a circular hole in the middle. The duo had a CNC machine cut one from a CAD drawing, and eventually the cast iron Birt Plate was born.

“One night we were sitting down and he tells me his idea,” Butler said to the Decatur Herald-Review. “I drew it on a napkin and then to the legal pad.”

Butler and his family then worked to create a name but one stood out.

“We decided ‘Birt’ was just strange enough to stick,” he said to the newspaper.

Birt moved onto Millikin in 2015 and has built a strong Division III wrestling program that recently had three All-American wrestlers. He’s equally optimistic about his invention, for which he has three patents.

“The sky’s the limit with where we can take it,” Birt said.

From Idea to Reality
Butler, the president of a petroleum supply company in Decatur, knew of pattern shop Micro Tek and he took Birt’s ideas and drawings to owner Robin Shively.

“We made an agreement and he decided he would throw his business our way,” Shively said.

Birt and a Micro Tek CAD designer worked on drawing the product. They made adjustments and moved pieces around, making sure to keep the BIRT PLATE lettering legible. One challenge was producing drawings for more than one size of a plate, while keeping the dimensions and look the same. Birt only had sketches of a single weight, but he needed a range from 5-60 lbs.

Even with Micro Tek’s expertise, that wasn’t always an easy task.

Shively said it was challenging to keep the section thicknesses they needed as the weights of the plates were changed. Micro Tek and Birt needed a section thickness that was strong in important areas of the Birt Plate, even for the lighter 10- or 15- lb. plates, instead of the 60-lb. plates, where Shively said “everything’s massive.”

“Trying to keep everything in perspective as we shrank the drawing or expanded the drawing and tweaked it to make sure we kept our fillet sizes correct so the casting would remain strong, and section thicknesses in some stress areas to make sure that the casting didn’t break. That was our biggest challenge” Shively said. “So was moving the graphics around on the weight itself, as we expanded or contracted the size of the CAD drawing for the different weights, to make sure the lettering looked really good and sharp. That was very important.”

Despite Birt wading into the unfamiliar territories of business and casting and manufacturing, he found himself with people who understood him.

The CAD designer who worked with Birt at Micro Tek is a bodybuilder, so he knew what he’d like and buy as a customer, something that was important to Birt.

“The design process took them a while,” Shively said.

“We cut a few pieces out of wood to see how it felt in our hands and how it might work. We toyed with it until we got it just right.”

Not only could Micro Tek help create prototypes and patterns for the product, but Shively helped direct Birt to multiple green sand foundries.

Micro Tek and the chosen casting supplier already enjoyed a successful professional relationship. That helped when any challenges or issues came up during the casting process.

“They’ve done a great job making these castings for Ryan as he needs them,” Shively said.

Casting this product had several advantages.

“Being myself and another guy starting this up and trying to do it with little to no funding, casting was the first thing we thought of. I used to do plate workouts with 45-lb. cast iron plates. Why would we not make it out of cast iron?” Birt said.

“I think it mirrors what most people think in a weight room. The average person that’s never lifted weights walks into a weight room, cast iron is what they would see.”

The plates are powder-coated, machined and packaged in Decatur.

“We got so caught up in the project because it’s such a feel-good thing all around,” Shively said. “It’s taken off in some areas.”

Now that his product is a reality, Birt is enthusiastic about its merits.

“It’s really cool. The safety of lifting with the plate is amazing,” Birt said.

The plate allows smooth transitions and a full range of motion during exercises. Three major grip areas provide the user with multiple workout options.

Looking to the Future
During the pre-production process, Micro Tek was able to produce some prototypes made from billet steel so Birt could sell his product even before it was completely finished.

“Robin Shively, the owner of Micro Tek, I can’t say enough things about him. The minute we walked in there and showed him our ideas he was ‘Oh, this is so cool,’” Birt said. “Those guys have been super supportive. When we were designing the different sizes they were so easy to work with.”

Ease to work with was a key for Birt, who’s a father and trying to continuously improve his wrestling program. Because, as much as he loves the Birt Plate, he’s got a lot of other things happening in his life.

Difficulty with a patternmaker or foundry could have derailed the project. That hasn’t happened. Birt took professional feedback and with that, his vision is now a reality.

“You just have to surround yourself with really positive people,” Birt said. “Once you surround yourself with really positive people who believe in you and give you the confidence, it doesn’t get held back. At first I wasn’t going to go through with it.”

Birt did, and his plate is in use at the University of Illinois, the NBA’s Indiana Pacers and the Iowa Army National Guard, among others.

“I’m pretty excited about where it’s at and what he’s been able to do with it,” Shively said. “It’s just been a real good success story.”  

Click here to see this story as it appears in the May-June 2018 issue of Metal Casting Design & Purchasing