In the summer of 2021, KAV Sports launched its mass-customized, 3D printed bike helmet in a successful Kickstarter campaign. Its KAV Portola helmet was recognized as one of 2022’s best inventions by Time Magazine, and the company is now working with manufacturing solutions provider Jabil Inc. to create these personalized, made-to-order helmets, using 3D printing and custom engineered nylon carbon fiber material to enable improved protection, comfort, performance, and aesthetics.
Most bike helmets, traditionally manufactured out of expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam using injection molding, are limited in how much comfort, durability, and stability they offer, mainly because they only come in limited sizes; there are a variety of head shapes and sizes, so just one to three sizes won’t cut it. KAV evaluated over 20 off-the-shelf materials to try and find a novel option that was just as lightweight as EPS, but offered improved stability and performance in temperatures ranging from -15° to over 60° Celsius, and could also better absorb high velocity impacts.
So the company called on Jabil to develop a custom material that offered excellent energy absorption and was strong and stiff, but flexible enough to work well in both low and high temperatures. It also needed to increase the layer-to-layer adhesion to deliver a better look and feel, as well as consistent performance. Chemists, production experts, AM engineers, and materials scientists came together at Jabil’s Minnesota-based Materials Innovation Center, and spent nine months developing a customized material for KAV.
“To fulfill our mission of saving lives, we needed to produce a better-fitting helmet that people would want to wear. For consumers to experience the benefits of customization, we had to overcome limitations in materials and manufacturing. Jabil knocked it out of the park by engineering a custom material that met stringent criteria and could be manufactured using 3D printing to create something really unique and special for the helmet industry,” said Whitman Kwok, Founder and CEO of KAV Sports.
Relying on its expertise in compound development, materials formulation testing, systems integration, and ISO 9001 Quality Management System certification, Jabil worked with KAV to create and test close to 30 different custom polymer formulations and compounds. They finally developed what would end up being the proprietary custom material for the helmets: a nylon carbon fiber composite filament with all the properties needed for this particular application.
“We take a polymer science approach to developing additive materials. Jabil engineers materials that work with additive manufacturing processes in a repeatable manner to meet customer requirements and manufacture top-quality products,” said Matt Torosian, Director, Product Management for Additive Manufacturing at Jabil.
Once the material was developed, KAV finished validation testing to achieve the necessary certification in accordance with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). According to KAV, by the time the 3D printed Portola helmet with the custom material was launched last April, it not only met, but also exceeded by over 25%, the U.S. CPSC safety standards for impact resistance.
“Our customers were mind blown that they could have something made for them at approximately the same price as other high-end helmets. They absolutely love it. They’re blown away by the comfort,” Kwok said in Jabil’s case study on the helmet.
“Jabil’s material science expertise and innovation and their desire to push the boundaries of what’s possible, in our case, to fulfill our mission of saving lives and reducing brain injuries, is vitally important to us when maintaining a strong partnership.”
The new material is available in white, black, and grey, and thanks to 3D printing and a simple custom-fitting process, the made-to-order Portola helmets can be delivered within two to three weeks. KAV Sports has also been able to reduce unnecessary waste, and production costs, by partnering with Jabil and using 3D printing. The company plans to continue its collaboration in order to grow its market reach and product portfolio.
“We have big ambitions. There’s no reason we can’t bring mass customization and a bespoke experience for protective gear across sports,” said David Stoutamire, CTO and Co-Founder of KAV. “So, we’re going to keep working with Jabil as our esteemed provider to perform that optimization as we continue to grow.”
Jabil says that traditional manufacturing would not be capable of producing the unique energy-absorbing structures that are used within the KAV Sports bike helmets. Indeed, we’re seeing more and more 3D printed helmets these days for everything from cycling, hockey and football to lacrosse and even in the military. Perhaps helmets will be the next killer application?
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