Reimagining the football helmet for safety

If football fans were asked to name one helmet maker; the answer would mostly likely be Riddell. As the CFL season is well underway and the NFL season is about to kickoff soon, when fans look at the sport close up during a game you can’t help but notice the helmets.

The vast majority of those helmets are from Rosemont, Ill.-based sporting goods manufacturer Riddell; who has been in business since 1927. There aren’t too many of helmet makers in the world. There’s Schutt Sports of Litchfield, Ill., who two years ago introduced the SchuttVision helmet featuring a small, impact-resistant camera on the facemask. Rawlings, known primarily for baseball gloves, entered the market in 2010 and then exited last year. This leaves Riddell along with Xenith as the only two companies that have been officially authorized by the NFL as a helmet supplier. This does not necessarily mean the two companies are cordial. Riddell has submitted patent-infringement lawsuits against Xenith and Schutt in April of this year.

At one time, Riddell was the exclusive provider of NFL helmets from 1989 to 2013 when the NFL and Riddell ended the partnership. Players have always had the right to use whatever helmet manufacturer they wish.

Riddell Revolution helmet
Riddell Revolution helmet

Recently Riddell has been going through some adversity because of a series of lawsuits from former players even though the manufacturer came up with a popular new design called the Revolution helmet, which was worn predominately by superstar quarterback Payton Manning during his career.

At the beginning of summer, Riddell too turned to technology to improve helmet safety. Riddell showed an updated version of its InSite Player Management Software at the 67th annual NATA Clinical Symposia & Expo in Texas. Version 3.0 of the InSite Player Management software works with Riddell’s InSite Impact Response System to capture data about player head impacts including the location of the impact. The company hopes this new data can be used for new training opportunities.

Riddell SpeedFlex helmet
Riddell SpeedFlex helmet

Also in 2014, Riddell released its most technically innovative helmet called the SpeedFlex. To build the SpeedFlex, Riddell used more than two million points of data capture from the InSite Impact Response System. The SpeedFlex has a ratchet-loc retention system for the chin-strap. A five-point custom inflation fit. A thinner and lighter facemask made from spring stainless steel. A tru-curve liner that can conform to the shape of a player’s head. This also contours to the crown and back of the neck.

But as the concussion debate rages on in the sport of football; opportunity is knocking for two new helmet makers who are infusing technology into there products. One is a start-up and the other comes from a different sport known for high impact collisions: Auto Racing.

The SG Helmet

Up first is Brownsburg, Ind.-based SG Helmets who is going to market with an expanded lifespan type of helmet. The company was started by Bill Simpson in 2011. Simpson was in the auto-racing field with the legendary Chip Ganassi team. Ganassi also became one of the founders of SG Helmets. Both Simpson and Ganassi have experience working with race car drivers in preventing high impact collisions. The two have already produced new safety equipment through the use of technology for increased driver safety.

The next step for this duo was to try and transfer this safety knowledge to the sport of football and begin to produce a helmet that could provide the best possible protection for players starting out or in the professional ranks.

SG Helmets started from auto-racing. They are lighter and have kevlar protection
SG Helmets started from auto-racing. They are lighter and have kevlar protection

SG Helmets went to market with the notion of helmets having a two-year lifespan. The company introduced new materials such as high-tech foam lining licensed by NASA and carbon fiber and kevlar for the other shell. The company also embraced new technology to create its products. And, with that have extended the lifespan of its helmets from two-years to a decade.

They did this by collected data over time from helmets in use.

Simpson said after collecting data on helmets in use over the last four years the company felt it was necessary to spend the resources needed to see how the product was performing.

“I was very impressed with the results we came up with and how our carbon/kevlar/composite formula stacks up against the plastic materials used by our competitors. I feel quite comfortable extending the lifespan of this helmet to 10 years,” Simpson said in a prepared statement.

Simpson began making racing helmet in 1979 that featured air vents and a new eye port for preventing broken noses. Soon after he introduced carbon fibre and kevlar along with an inner lining made from polypropylene, which is good at absorbing energy.

The biggest difference, however, from racing helmets and football helmets is that those used for racing are specifically designed for one major impact only. The foam layer is able to absorb the impact and then break apart still protecting the driver’s head and neck. On the other hand, football has many occasions for impact.

A different method was needed by SG Helmets for football. While the same basic concept is used for both racing and football helmets, the SG model for football employs a foam liner that maintains its shape but still absorbs the force of impact.

The thought behind the SG helmet is to use materials that have been engineered to stop bullets and protect astronauts, which could provide a level of protection against a hit from Ray Lewis at full speed.

SG Helmets also made the conscious decision to not use materials currently in helmets today such as plastic and heavy metals.

The result ended up in a helmet that is approximately two and a half-pound lighter.

The Zero1 helmet

A start-up is getting into the act of making helmets with safety and style in mind.

Called Vicis, the Seattle-based company claims not to be a sporting goods manufacturer. Instead they describe themselves as a technology company that employs scientists, neurosurgeons and engineers. Vicis recently accepted $8 million in seed financing from more than 140 investors including Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach of the Dallas Cowboys.

The Vicis concept is based on a multi-layered design that is intended to mitigate linear and rotational impact.

The Zero1 helmet is designed to absorb impact forces with novel four-layer construction, including outer shell that yields upon impact like a car bumper
The Zero1 helmet is designed to absorb impact forces with novel four-layer construction, including outer shell that yields upon impact like a car bumper

Think of a car bumper. As the helmet braces for impact the load of the force gets locally deformed. According to Vicis, the automotive industry has used local deformation in their cars for years.

Vicis co-founder Dave Marver said in a blog post: “Once I realized the enormity of the problem and the scarcity of historical innovation in the helmet space, it was clear we simply had to create Vicis.  I felt an imperative to do something…to make a difference.”

The Vicis helmet, branded Zero1, also features a columnar structure that moves omni-directionally to reduce linear and rotational forces.

Another nuance from Vicis is fit. The company has also looked at the data of head sizes of elite athletes and developed the Vicis Axis Fit System. The belief here is that fit is critical to the comfort and protection of the player. This Axis Fit system incorporates the human head anatomy. Vicis says the head has many variables such as head lengths and breadths. Through the Axis Fit System, the Zero1 helmet offers 12 different sizing combinations.

Marver, who is also the CEO of Vicis, added the Zero1 offers advancements in safety and performance that are “long overdue.”

The inner form liner of the Zero1 helmet works in conjunction with the arch shell. The company offers four different form liners for the Zero1. The foam is from a waterproof textile that conforms to the player’s head topography. It also has the ability to distribute pressure uniformly around the head, Vicis said.

Marver added that in building Vicis the challenge came with funding. In the same blog post, he said capital does not historically flow to this industry. “There’s too much product liability and IP litigation.  That’s the reality.  Many companies have exited the space, including Rawlings as recently as last year.  With limited competition, there isn’t the imperative to innovate.  We are different.  We will catalyze change.  We’ve also been fortunate to raise significant capital and have an investor base who believes in our mission and will support us going forward.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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