3D Printing

Biking Safer with 3D Printing and Supercomputers

In the face of climate change caused by vehicles running on fossil fuels and the high cost of gas and owning a car, industrialized nations have seen in their citizens an increase in the use of bicycles for travel.  Between 2001 and 2009, the number of trips made by bikes in the US grew more than double from 1.7 to 4 billion, according to the National Household Travel Survey.  Many city infrastructures, however, aren’t yet prepared for this rise in bicycling and the practice is not yet entirely safe for bicyclists.  From 2005 to 2013, 26,000 cyclists were killed or seriously injured in Great Britain.  Until the world is a bit more bike friendly, researchers at Cardiff University in Wales have sought to improve bicycle helmet safety by combining 3D printing and supercomputing technology.

With funding from the High Performance Computing (HPC) Wales’ Research and Innovation fund, Cardiff’s Dr. Peter Theobald and Dr. Philip Martin are exploring the creation of ultra-lightweight, custom bike helmets with 3D printed materials.  Martin said of the current state of helmets, “It is scary how similar traditional bicycle safety helmets on the market actually are. If you went into a helmet shop with an unlimited sum of money, you would come out with essentially the same thing, in regards to safety, as there is no superior product. The only real differences are in shape, colour and design – merely aesthetics. Everything is made out of polystyrene, which fails to offer adequate protection during ’oblique’ impacts.”

cardiff university 3D printing to make safe bike helmets
Dr. Phillip Martin at Cardiff University

Theobald and Martin are implementing supercomputing to optimally design the helmets’ mechanical structures and, through impact testing, determining which designs yield the best outcomes in different scenarios. Their research aims to prevent the helmets’ deformation during impact and keep energy from transferring to the wearers’ heads, which can cause the brain to shift and rotate within the skull and result in traumatic brain injuries.  Instead, the researchers hope to allow the brain and skull to continue moving, while still slowing down, to ultimately limit the risk of brain injuries.

Martin continues, “The use of advanced supercomputing technology has helped us speed up our research to produce results much faster than any system I have worked with before. Currently, without these supercomputing capabilities, we would have to physically manufacture every new structural design, and then test every single one of them in a lab, to evaluate their impact safety performance potential. This would be both extremely time and cost intensive, rendering the project unfeasible. We are delighted that HPC Wales has given us the opportunity to take our project forward with this funding, as there is a significant opportunity to improve the performance of, not just bicycle safety helmets, but all personal protective equipment – and this is something that has the potential to save many lives.”

In their studies, Theobald and Martin are also planning to enhance safety guidelines for bike helmets.  At the moment, these guidelines only consider the impact performance of bike helmets, but not the rotational impact on the brain cited above.  As a result, the researchers are considering the development of new guidelines that take rotational impacts into account.

CEO of HPC Wales, Professor Rick Hillum, added “This innovative research project has the potential to save thousands of lives across the globe and we are proud to support its brilliant work. As access to research funding becomes more and more difficult to obtain, we are pleased to be able to offer this support for projects at the leading edge of scientific research, providing businesses with access to academic support and introducing them to world-class supercomputing technology. With our support, businesses can engage with academia and boost their knowledge and performance, helping them to compete on a global scale.”

The Cardiff research may be specifically geared towards one human hobby, but the results could be extrapolated to other fields, as well.  As previously covered on 3DPI, the US Army is also taking an interest in preventing brain injuries to their soldiers and is using 3D printing research to potentially develop protective gear.  My hope is that, not only will the Cardiff and military research aid their respective target groups, but that the findings could aid in constructing better helmets for a diverse range of fields, including construction.  What will be left is to make the environments themselves safer for all involved: better biking infrastructure, fewer wars, and safer working conditions for all!