LLNL & Autodesk 3D Printing Football Helmets, Overhauling Sports Equipment Construction

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peyton_apI live in Colorado, where today even the word euphoric would be an understatement to describe how people are feeling. It’s the day after that glorious Super Bowl win. Bets are being paid, bright orange jerseys are being donned again in celebration (perhaps not to be taken off for a while either), and little boys everywhere are dreaming of ‘going pro’ one day. While they may even have yet to set their feet on a football field, they dream of owning it, winning that coveted ring—and the accompanying national adulation.

Most of us though watch the game safely from our couches, wincing as we see all the ‘penalties for excessive force’ while these seemingly enormous men battle it out, and we can’t help but think that they are today’s version of the gladiator. And while some might win the big game, all of the players can expect the same punishment and repercussions to their bodies—which often lasts a lifetime—even affecting those who just played in high school or a bit into college.

While injuries can often be severe, one of the peskiest—and most dangerous in its own right—is the concussion. Most of us have had a friend on a sports team or know of a team member who was told ‘one more concussion and you are done playing.’ While one concussion can knock a player out of a game–literally–a succession of them take them out of the sport altogether.


Example of a 3D printed microlattice structure, developed by Boeing

The helmet is meant to prevent head injuries, obviously, but with the amount of power being exerted on the football field, often it seems nothing can protect the head sufficiently from concussion. This head gear is, after all, not engineered to account for every amount of impact from every angle—and often they fail.

In this world of smart products with so many intuitive features, however, it’s about time that the helmet received a major upgrade, certainly one on the radar on a few research fronts. Both Autodesk and researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) are currently collaborating to put the benefits of 3D printing to work for players everywhere—as well as giving the sports equipment industry an exciting overhaul.

“Today, predicting with 100-percent confidence the performance of a helmet is not possible,” said Michael Bergin, a principal research scientist at Autodesk. “This is due to the nature of foams as cushioning material being stochastic, or randomly configured.”

With the surprising reality that players are experiencing an increased amount of concussions, the researchers are putting considerable effort into new materials meant to protect the cerebellum—and not just those of the highest paid players in the NFL. In a project already spanning 18 months, the teams have been examining how they can construct better helmets and other equipment, using metal 3D printing—and what borders on the 4D–with materials that can adjust to the load they are experiencing—and then revert back to their original shape.

“In some sense, you could have a smart helmet in the future, something that could sense an impact and relocate that load depending upon the nature of the impact,” said Eric Duoss, a research engineer at LLNL.

Researchers turned to some very new techniques with metal fabrication in trying to answer how they could develop smarter, adaptive sports equipment on multiple, customizable scales, as well as allowing for realistic manufacturing of the prototypes. This new type of engineering of products is known as ‘generative design,’ and according to the Autodesk team, it “applies [the cloud’s] computation to solve against multiple, often competing objectives that characterize today’s complex design and engineering projects.”

With an industry leaving virtually no stone unturned as far as being transformed either today or in the near future by 3D printing, Autodesk is translating that to items like the helmet—for starters–with new materials featuring designs that offer microarchitectures, and a brave new world ahead for manufacturing them.

“Traditional manufacturing has always followed a subtractive process, also known as milling,” says Autodesk’s Senior Research Scientist, Erin Bradner. “Additive manufacturing on the other hand is homogenous, you can craft single-piece items with a far greater level of detail. When dealing with microarchitectures that don’t exist in nature, you have a virtually infinite amount of geometries you can play around with which is all reachable thanks to additive manufacturing.”


Researchers at LLNL working on better cushioning for items like football helmets. [Photo: LLNL]

The researchers are experimenting with these microarchitectures with their new software, Project Dreamcatcher—meant to allow designers to reach ‘specified high level goals.’ Still evolving, with this goal-directed software, designers are able to enter their project requirements, materials, performance criteria—and even cost parameters—and then allow the cloud to take over in configuration.

 “Generative design will definitely be a paradigm shift in how designing happens,” says Bradner.

For the football helmet, shaping materials at the microscopic level allows for construction that make all the difference in safety, as the architecture can be controlled to make properties behave a certain way—not unlike many other cases we’ve followed as designers have worked in fashion to create smart apparel which is able to react to the wearer.

“The designer will need to step back and get abstract,” says Bradner. “No more using cad to start drafting, they’re going to come in and say ‘I need this material to have so-and-so functionality.’ The tool will chew on these constraints for thousands of design alternatives, synthesizing geometry based on physical forces. Finally, the designer will make sense of these solutions and identify the most promising results, then prompt the computer to iterate on them.”

Bradner and her team are looking at ‘doubling or tripling’ the amount of cushioning that can go into a helmet with their 3D printed metal microlattices. She foresees these items as bespoke designs that will be on the market in the next few years.

Microlattice structures exhibit enormous flexibility, allowing them to take on and absorb substantial impact, and then return to their normal shape upon having, in essence, performed specific and protective tasks. The end goal, using one of the greatest benefits of 3D printing, is to allow customization in helmets in terms of a player’s head shape and size. With specific measurements and the cranial plates taken into consideration, the helmets should provide the correct amount of cushioning. And this means working with voxels,

“Editing voxels will allow for extreme precision. You can tell the software ‘at this voxel, I need this kind of performance,’ and it will assign more shock absorption in that area. ‘At this voxel I need less of that and more hard shelled protection,’ and it’ll do that instead. This kind of behavior is precisely why additive manufacturing is essential moving forward,” explains Bradner.

The idea with this research is not to commercialize concepts and prototypes like these new intuitive helmets, but rather to offer a new model for the future, initiated and furthered by software like Dreamcatcher. The 3D printed microarchitectures and microlattices are certainly not going to be limited to just sports equipment either. Tell us your thoughts on this new technology for sports equipment in the 3D Printed Football Helmets forum over at

[Sources: PSFK;]


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