EOS and BASF 3D printed designs awarded $1.37m NFL Helmet Challenge funding

The National Football League (NFL) and Football Research Inc. (FRI) have awarded $1.37 million in funding to groups developing 3D printed protective headgear for the ongoing NFL Helmet Challenge

Additional finance has been provided to four different projects, in order to aid the creation of their innovative helmet prototypes. With the help of well-known additive manufacturers such as EOS and BASF, three of these teams have used 3D printing to develop new approaches to helmet design, which could offer greater protection for NFL players. 

“By bringing together experts from multiple disciplines, the NFL Helmet Challenge aims to encourage revolutionary advances in helmet design,” said Jeff Miller, NFL Executive Vice President of Communications, Public Affairs, and Policy. “The awardees demonstrated the potential to do just that. We’re very excited to support their efforts and test their prototypes next year. This is one more sign of the recent transformation in the protective equipment space – more in the last couple of years than over the previous decade – and we are committed to keeping this momentum going.”

The NFL Helmet Challenge 

In the United States, head injuries, and the potential risks associated with playing American football, have increasingly become headline news. The sport features more full-on-contact than related sporting activities such as rugby, and players wearing protective equipment collide with a great deal more force than sportsmen wearing similar protective gear. As a result, an increasing number of studies have identified Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in former football players, a disease resulting from repeated brain injuries. 

Rather than running interference, the NFL’s Helmet Challenge can largely be seen as a response to football’s legacy of head injuries. The award represents one component of a $60 million engineering roadmap, a comprehensive effort funded by the NFL and managed by the FRI, to improve the understanding of the biomechanics of head injuries in professional football. Beginning in November 2019, the challenge component encourages experts, innovators, and helmet manufacturers to design a new protective helmet for NFL players. The winning prototype will need to outperform all helmets currently worn by players, based on a series of laboratory tests, with the aim of being implemented in July 2021. 

The additional $1.37 million in grant funding was awarded as part of the NFL’s HeadHealthTECH funding series, which has already issued more than $1.6 million in grants to date. While other applicants are invited and encouraged to participate, and additional funding is not a prerequisite for entry, the capital is designed to facilitate broader participation in the NFL Helmet Challenge. The competition is ongoing, and remains open for entries until June 14th, 2021, with the eventual winners set to receive an additional $1m in prizes. 

The Xenith Shadow XR helmet (pictured) will form the basis of Project Orbit's new design. Image via RHEON Labs.
The Xenith Shadow XR helmet (pictured) will form the basis of Project Orbit’s new design. Image via RHEON Labs.

Additive innovations in player protection

Three out of the four research groups set to receive additional funding have used 3D printing to develop their innovative helmet prototypes. Impressio Inc. and The University of Colorado Denver (UCD) for instance, will receive $491,999, the most additional finance of any group. Using ultra-dissipative Liquid Crystalline Elastomers (LCEs), the team aims to 3D print player-specific helmet liners, to reduce concussions. The customizable padding is being developed with nTopology software alongside sportswear firm Schutt, and utilizing the expertise of 3D printer manufacturer EOS. Using EOS’ customizable foam material, which is made from highly flexible polymer materials such as TPU or PA 11, the group’s prototype will reportedly be safer, lighter, and more comfortable to use, than current helmets. 

Similarly, the prototypes being developed by the second and third-placed projects, which have been awarded $412,000 and $238,545 respectively, are also underpinned by 3D printing technology. The former, led by football equipment producer Xenith, will utilize the expertise of The University of Waterloo and materials produced by RHEON labs to create new protective equipment. Additionally, Xenith will seek to use the funding in order to build on the Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) printing techniques applied in the production of prototypes for its Shadow XR line of helmets. BASF, a chemical producer with a long history in 3D printing, will also lend its expertise in the collaboration named Project Orbit. 

Finally, the third-placed Kollide consortium will combine the expertise of academic researchers and four innovative Montreal-based companies, to produce their prototype. Led by Kupol, a 3D printed headgear specialist, the team will use a virtual design and non-planar approach to 3D print tailored helmets with a custom liner that is optimized to absorb and redirect impact. Not only has the group’s patented design already been tested for compliance with regulations, but it reportedly offers enhanced protection to weight ratio and air circulation, improving athletes’ comfort and performance.

“The extraordinarily high level of engagement and breadth of innovative work happening right now in the protective equipment space is exciting to see,” said Dr. Barry Myers, Director of Innovation at Duke University’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (Duke CTSI), who chairs the Oversight Committee that selected the winners. “The four winners awarded today all demonstrated the ability to develop a winning helmet, but there is definitely more to come from many of the other teams and start-ups we saw submit proposals and we look forward to opportunities to support these entrepreneurs in the future.”

Additive manufactured protective headgear 

3D printing has been used in the past to create safer sports equipment, but often for cycling helmets rather than those for professional football players. Cerebra Innovation Centre (CIC) for example, a UK charity dedicated to helping children with brain conditions, 3D printed a customized horse riding helmet for a disabled child in September 2019. The CIC produced a 3D model from scans, and subsequently, 3D printed molds that perfectly fitted the child’s head. 

HEXR, the producer of custom 3D printed bicycle helmets, began shipping to its customers in July 2019. Each piece of equipment that’s produced by the company, is printed according to the measurements of each user, in order to create a headgear solution catered to individual customers. 

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), meanwhile, has worked with software developer Autodesk, to 3D print a new type of protective helmet. By laying down tiny lattice structures in different patterns, the LLNL team was able to generate different physical properties that were “previously unattainable.”

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Featured image shows the Xenith Shadow XR football helmet, developed with RHEON labs, on which the group’s new design will be based. Image via RHEON Labs.