Protect the QB: Patrick Mahomes’ Shattered Helmet Makes the Case for 3D Printed Padding

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Aside from the outcomes of the games themselves — and the whereabouts of Taylor Swift — the most talked-about aspect of the 2024 NFL playoffs may have been Patrick Mahomes’ shattered helmet. On January 13, during the AFC Wild Card Round game between the Dolphins and Chiefs (which the Chiefs ended up winning, 26-7), the outer shell of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ helmet shattered during a head-to-head collision with Dolphins safety DeShon Elliott.

Naturally, attention quickly turned to VICIS, the manufacturer of the helmet, called the ZERO2. It’s easy to assume that the event would’ve been nothing but bad PR for VICIS, with one headline in the online sports publication Sportico reading, “Mahomes’ Cracked Dome Puts Helmet Company Under Scrutiny.” However, for the most part, the take that seemed to prevail was the one from VICIS itself: the broken helmet was “not ideal” but “did its job”.

Aside from that, league officials and the relevant professionals seem to simply want to know how it happened, with no clear answers having emerged just yet. Right after the event, many individuals, including Mahomes himself, assumed it was the cold, with the -4°F temperature making it the fourth-coldest game in NFL history. However, Mike Oliver, executive director of the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), the leading US certification body for athletic helmets, told the Washington Post, “There have been a lot of games played at zero and below. I’ve not seen any evidence that helmets are more likely to fracture or break at those temperatures.”

In any case, the gist of the event for the additive manufacturing (AM) industry is that AM stood up to a most unusual challenge. In a scenario that Oliver described as “something I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere,” a 3D printed product was the last thing standing between Mahomes’ head and the force of Elliott’s impact. This is the elastomeric lattice component of the DLTA Fit Pods, the ZERO2’s innermost lining, produced by Carbon’s Digital Light Synthesis (DLS) method.

Jim Sauerbaum, the manager of business development for Carbon’s consumer products division, helped me make sense of the unprecedented example of real-time (albeit unintentional) product testing. To begin, Sauerbaum explained how, despite the shattering of the helmet’s outer shell, the inner lining was still able to protect Mahomes:

“VICIS has articulated the concept behind their outer shell helmet design clearly: it is engineered to absorb impact forces similarly to how a car bumper does,” Sauerbaum noted. “When the outer shell deforms or, in extreme conditions, shatters, it is an indication that the helmet is dispersing the forces of impact at the point of contact. This principle is akin to the crumple zones in vehicles, where certain parts are designed to deform or crumple in a crash, thereby absorbing energy that might otherwise be transmitted to the occupants.

“Carbon’s product in this helmet is an elastomeric lattice component of the DLTA Fit Pods, which are a series of lattice pads that are placed nearest to the head to create a custom fit liner. This design philosophy prioritizes the protection of the user by ensuring that these materials and structures bear the brunt of the impact, and in this case it’s clear the materials protected Patrick Mahomes’ head from as much damage as possible.”

Given the 3D printed lattice structure’s success in doing precisely what it was designed to accomplish, it wouldn’t be surprising if manufacturers for other sectors learn just as much from the sporting goods market, as producers in the sporting goods market have learned from sectors like automotive. Sauerbaum pointed out some of the AM lessons that can be gleaned from the gains companies like Carbon have demonstrated in manufacturing athletic equipment:

“Sporting goods,” Sauerbaum said, “particularly through innovative helmets like those developed by VICIS, are at the forefront of harnessing [AM’s] capabilities. A pivotal success factor for Carbon and our partners in this space is the unparalleled ability to tailor products to the individual — not just in aesthetics like paint or decals, but in conforming to the unique contours of each person’s head. This level of customization, or ‘N of 1’ manufacturing, traditionally comes with prohibitive costs. However, [AM] dramatically lowers these barriers, enabling the production of bespoke items across any sector at a fraction of the cost that traditional methods would be able to.

“Beyond helmets, this approach could revolutionize industries by enabling mass customization, improving product performance, and reducing waste. For example, in automotive design, this technology could lead to more ergonomic vehicle interiors or optimized parts for performance and fuel efficiency. The lessons learned from sporting goods manufacturing — such as iterative design, rapid prototyping, and the economic production of customized products — offer valuable insights for a wide range of sectors looking to innovate and personalize their offerings.”

Of course, it also never hurts to create a model for making a splash. This may not have been the way that VICIS would’ve chosen to do so if it had been up to the company, but it’s hard to imagine that the sporting goods supplier isn’t attracting more attention than ever regarding its approach to designing athletic protective wear. If Sauerbaum’s family and friends are any indicator, the public may start to pay closer notice, as well:

“I think I’ve had more friends and family reach out to me than anyone,” Sauerbaum affirmed, “texting me moments after it happened, ‘Is this one of the helmets you’ve worked on?!’ It’s certainly been a bit of a pop culture moment with so many people paying attention to the Chiefs right now to see who’s on and off the field, but generally speaking the feedback we’ve seen and heard has been that of great understanding of the extreme conditions of the moment. Temperatures that far below 0 aren’t experienced by many, but just about all understand how it would affect anything that is forced to withstand it, and when a player walks away uninjured, that’s all the evidence anyone needs to see to know that it worked.”

And, again, while it is still unclear what caused Mahomes’ helmet to shatter, I think that Carbon is the perfect company to take any lesson that can be learned from the incident and run with it:

“At Carbon, our mission extends beyond merely advancing [AM] technologies,” Sauerbaum concluded, “we are dedicated to pushing the boundaries of material science to develop not only some of the most advanced materials for [AM] but also materials that set new standards for performance and protection. Our journey is one of continuous exploration and learning, driven by the evolving needs of our customers, who we actively encourage and support the rigorous testing of their products in conceivable conditions.”

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