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US Army to Explore 3D Printed Helmets with General Lattice

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General Lattice‘s design software is to be used by the U.S. Army’s Development Command Soldier Center (DEVCOM-SC) to make lattices for the military division’s combat helmet. The company is involved in a research project with DEVCOM, All Points Logistics, and 3D print service GoProto.

General Lattice develops software for designing optimal lattice structures that can be fabricated via 3D printing. The partners will engage in a one-year research and development project at General Lattice’s facility in Chicago, Illinois. The firm has already chosen possible 3D printers, materials and desired performance characteristics for producing the helmet’s suspension system and impact absorption. General Lattice will test 3D printed lattices to determine the accuracy of the firm’s predictive modeling software. This will allow DEVCOM-SC to use the firm’s predictive toolset to explore lattice padding profiles for a variety of uses.

“The capabilities of traditional foam material have been exhausted, and General Lattice is engineering and authenticating its replacement using 3D printing and advanced lattice geometries.  The state-of-the-art lattice materials designed by the Company are unattainable through conventional composites and manufacturing technologies. These generated lattice materials will interact with real-world environment testing to accurately validate key performance requirements as defined by the Development Command Soldier Center (DEVCOM-SC). This is to enhance soldier protection and survivability for the warfighter,” the company stated.

Of course, this is just a research project, so we shouldn’t count our chickens before they’ve hatched, but it is yet another instance of lattices and 3D printing being explored for improving helmets. If, at some future date, lattices could be used for 3D printing some part of the actual U.S. Army combat helmet, then this would be a huge implementation for our industry. But such things will take a lot of time and there will be hurdles to be tackled to get to such a large implementation.

Current head gear, such as the integrated Head Protection System (IHPS) made by 3M’s Ceradyne unit, weigh around a kilo-and-a-half. Other helmets are made by Gentex or other suppliers, such as Hard Head Veterans or Team Wendy. Typically, there are only five sizes to deal with the full gamut of human forms that the U.S. military has on offer. There are different helmets for different branches and high cut head gear (which do not cover the ear and so let you more easily mount a headset), as well as low-cut helmets that cover the ear, which are trendy now.

Kupol helmet parts made with HP’s multi jet fusion.

Made increasingly out of ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene, they are supplanting earlier Kevlar aramid fiber helmets. Ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene often comes in the form of a fiber that can be used for applications, such as fishing line, parachute cords, or marine rope. The most popular brands are Dyneema and Spectra, made by DSM and Honeywell, respectively.

Most helmets marry a hard outer shell with an inner liner for shock absorption and comfort. Liners can come in the form of pads or a single full liner that attaches to the inside of the helmet. This liner should be comfortable because it will be worn in tough situations for many hours at a time. Ideally, it would wick sweat and heat and be cool to wear. Uncomfortable and hot helmets are more likely to be taken off, reducing their effectiveness. Liners are typically made of polyurethane open-cell or closed-cell foams. Open-cell foams have higher breathability but lower durability than similar closed cell foams, such as neoprene and the material Crocks are made out of.

A helmet liner

3D printing is being considered here for the liner material. We’ve seen a number of implementations where 3D printing is used in NFL and biking helmets. By customizing the size of a helmet, 3D printing could bring a lot of advantages to protective head gear. At the same time, we could engineer a texture for higher comfort and less warmth inside the helmet. This could be a huge boon in and of itself, but the biggest gains will probably come through engineering the lattices and responses to impacts.

In various helmets, structures have been made which can respond optimally to both sharp, quick impacts and slow, forceful collisions. For the military, this may mean improved ballistics protection (which is a high velocity impact that, at one point, needs to be quickly absorbed) and also optimal protection from head wounds. Damage from IEDs and crashes are some of the most prevalent and debilitating injuries for U.S. soldiers while deployed. As well as causing death, damage such as traumatic brain injury (TBI) and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) can be incredibly debilitating to the warfighter and also lead to life-long care which conveys considerable costs to the health system.

SpaceX 3D-printed helmets. Image courtesy of SpaceX.

Ideally using General Lattice or similar software we could design optimal lattice structures that would be able to combat two very different impacts. This would be a performance gain that conventional technologies would find hard to replicate and could very well see 3D printing take a leading role in helmet design and manufacturing in the future.

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