The NFL Helmet Challenge has, for a number of years, pitted the best and brightest minds in 3D printing against a deceptively simple problem, making better helmets.
Head injuries have been increasingly seen as a huge issue for the NFL. Many now worry if their children as youngsters or fully grown NFL players could have a high risk of head injuries. American football has a lot of inertia and contact with it, when compared to many other sports. Full-on contact, especially using the head, in a collision seems to be more prevalent than other similar sports, such as rugby. What’s more, players laden with helmets and protective gear, actually collide with more force than in comparable sports.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease resulting from repeated brain injuries, has made the specter of American Football somehow causing or being specifically responsible for an increased likelihood of this disease a reality. The NFL was on the brink of being a league and indeed a sport that could lose its social license to operate. Lawsuits, distrust, and much worry have been the result over the past decades, but it could get much worse. Protective parents could steer their children toward safer sports, such as anything else really, apart from Calcio Fiorentino maybe or horse riding (where 21% of young people are injured per year).
Rather than run interference, the NFL now seems more proactive and is looking to technology to solve its problem through the NFL Helmet Challenge. For the challenge, teams can create and submit new helmet designs for testing. Winners have the chance to win a million dollars, as well as perhaps a huge leap into the helmet business. It is rare for engineers and technologies to vie so publicly for a win against one another. Due to this, the Challenge has been very fascinating, especially since several of the teams are using 3D printing. The NFL has announced that it is giving away $1.3 million in grants to challenge participants.
“Christopher Yakacki | Impressio, Inc. and CU Denver
Denver, Colorado – $491,999
Impressio, Inc. and CU Denver, relying on materials science research and additive manufacturing, are looking to create unprecedented energy-dissipating helmet liners using ultra-dissipative liquid crystalline elastomers (LCEs) and lattice designs to 3D-print player-specific helmet liners to reduce concussions. This project is supported by partners including EOS, nTopology, and Schutt.
Xenith, RHEON, BASF, The University of Waterloo | Xenith Project Orbit
Detroit, Michigan – $412,000
Xenith, an industry leader in football equipment, is looking to bring together experts in injury biomechanics, additive manufacturing, material science, design and computational modeling and optimization – BASF, RHEON Labs and The University of Waterloo – to create a new solution for energy management and a best-in-class on-field experience for the athlete.
Eric Wagnac (ETS) and Franck LeNaveaux | Kollide
Montreal, Québec – $238,545
The Kollide consortium combines the expertise of academic researchers (ETS) and four innovative Montreal-based companies (Kupol, Tactix, ShapeShift3D, Numalogics) who are looking to use their virtual design and non-planar 3D printing approach to create helmets customized to the player’s head with a custom liner optimized to absorb and redirect impact.
Matthew Panzer | UVA, Nama Development and Topologica, Inc.
Charlottesville, Virginia – $223,047
Dr. Panzer and collaborators are looking to use their innovative cubic + octet foam metamaterial to design a new energy absorbing layer in a football helmet that will minimize risk of concussion.”
It is notable that among these grant winners, the Impressio, Xenith and Kollide teams all plan to use 3D printing in their helmet designs. The Kollide team includes Kupol, who have previously made a 3D-printed helmet using MJF. Others protective headgear have also been made, such as the Hexr bike helmet.
All of the designs include unique features. For instance, the PA 12 Kupol helmets have “kinetic bumpers” inside of them:
The “3D KORE is a matrix that collapses on impact to take the brunt of the force while acting as a foundation for our two additional layers of technology. The outer KINETIC BUMPERS cushion your head and act as a density absorption layer to slow the speed of impact before it reaches you. Finally, the inner helmet is lined with OKTOPUS technology, made from over 100 flexible, independent sucker-like pods that offer an adjusted, aerated fit as well as allow the helmet to move in rotation to absorb any kind of impact.”
The Kupol example illustrates why 3D printing is such an attractive technology for helmets. It’s easy to go from an idea to a prototype, of course, and we could individualize helmets at some point in the future, but the ability to create many variable geometries with different, in this case protective, effects is a unique facet of our technology. One machine, one material, one process but different hardnesses, different structures, and different responses to impacts. Kupol has engineered a solution that can replace polystyrene foam that is more breathable, comfortable and, perhaps, safer.
Kupol’s alliance partners include numalogics, which uses representations of virtual humans to improve safety products. They offer a kind of digital crash test dummy that you can use to test and accelerate your safety gear development process. Shapeshift3D develops customization software that can help the team make unique helmets for unique heads. Tactix meanwhile is an industrial design company specialized in sports and protective wear.
Another winning team is lead by Xenith, a helmet and protective gear company that’s working together with BASF, who have made significant investments in 3D printing. This team is aided by Rheon Labs, a company that makes safety gear out of a soft material that hardens upon impact. Their approach embeds soft, protective, impact-resistant, strain rate dependent-polymers into clothing, ready to react and protect when needed, but comfortable when not.
There’s an informative webinar here explaining how their helmet works. The crux of it however is that they make a “unique energy control cell that cushions low-speed impacts, but intelligently strengthens for high-speed impacts” where “cells compress to absorb linear impact and shear to optimally control rotational impact energy, reducing the resulting acceleration of the head.” The company has used 3D-printed molds to make this effect more localized and pronounced, making for a light helmet that should protect players better.
The EOS, Impressio, nTopology and Schutt team combines EOS polymer sintering expertise with nTopology’s modeling software and Schutt’s experience in helmet design. Impressio is a company that specializes in using liquid crystal elastomers (LCEs) for energy dissipation and other novel applications. LCEs are very cutting edge materials that can behave much like rubber, as a polymer, or as liquid crystals and can change their behaviors radically.
This team is working on energy dissipating helmet liners using EOS’s Digital Foam. EOS’s materials allow users determine properties with every single voxel. Digital Foam is a combination of EOS working with nTopology to develop a method by which firms can make use of digital foams.
The example given is where, “Aetrex uses the Digital Foam approach to analyze the feet of its customers by scanner, identify pressure points and manufacture custom-designed insoles with the 3D printing process. The result is a lightweight and cost-efficient orthopedic product, manufactured in a flexible mass production environment, and perfectly tailored to the customer’s foot.”
A video here tells you more about Digital Foam. Foam may seem like a rather low tech, uninteresting area in which to use additive, but I’m very excited about it. Foam is in our mattresses, shoes, headrests, armrests, sports equipment, safety equipment and in all manner of things. Think about how memory foam mattresses are disrupting the existing sleep business by allowing mattresses be shipped online. You can see how this versatile material really can shake things up through its properties. The much-derided, but hugely disruptive, Croc shoe line also came out of nowhere to disrupt the shoe business through a novel application of foam (a closed cell resin) in a footwear product that made it very inexpensive and comfortable.
Foam has the potential to extend 3D printing’s reach into the flexible realm, where we have hereto been unable to make much of an impact because our materials have not been durable, soft or strong enough. TPU is starting to emerge in desktop, MJF, and sintering. More foam, rubber and elastomer-like products could be a huge boon for our market.
I’ve been involved in several projects that really needed a soft foam-like material to make comfortable human-centric parts. Components made for humans are some of the most successful 3D printing business cases so far, from dental intermediaries to hearing aids. Unique parts for humans have been big wins for us in the industry. Extending our ability to make human-specific parts that are soft could open up a huge arena for us in safety and comfort. Furthermore, voxel-level of control over properties could provide functionalities that other technologies cannot equal. If additive companies just made all of the helmets in the world, then our industry would have to grow thirty fold. All in all, to me, the NFL Helmet Challenge is one of the most exciting and important things happening in sports, and in our industry.
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