In the world of sports, 3D printing is increasingly becoming a point of interest for a number of reasons. For one, the technology offers unique potential for customization, which is appealing to many sports equipment manufacturers who serve elite or professional athletes. Second, 3D printing is also creating opportunities in the segment because of its design freedom, which can be used to create smart materials with improved functionality and performance.
One particular area where AM is really taking off in sports is in the production of custom, high-performance protective gear, like helmets. As concerns for brain injuries caused by high-impact sports like football and hockey mount, 3D printing offers a possible solution for better protecting players. Silicon Valley-based company KAV is working in this niche segment, leveraging 3D printing and advanced materials to design and manufacture customized helmets for hockey players.
KAV on ice
KAV co-founder Whitman Kwok was inspired to start the company in 2016 after being confronted with a number of concussions on his son’s hockey team. Driven by the desire to protect his son (as well as his teammates and other hockey players), Kwok brought together an interdisciplinary team of Silicon Valley engineers to develop a next-gen hockey helmet using state-of-the-art technologies.
One of the key points the KAV team set out to address was the use of closed-cell foam in helmets, which offers limited protection. Another problem they identified in traditional helmets was a lack of size variation, due to the use of injection molded, mass produced plastic shells. By using additive manufacturing, advanced materials and machine learning algorithms, KAV has developed a viable solution: custom-fit monocoque helmets with superior performance.
KAV’s helmet is distinctive in three ways thanks to the use of 3D printing. First, it eliminates extraneous hardware, like ratcheting mechanisms, by eliminating the standard two-shell design. This means that the helmet has more space for energy-absorbing materials as well as a sleeker exterior design. Secondly, the helmet integrates 3D printed energy-absorbing materials that can be optimized for different impact scenarios, replacing more conventional (and less versatile) foam. Third, the helmet is customized to the player, ensuring a better fit and protection.
According to KAV’s internal and independent lab testing, its helmet reduces the linear and angular accelerations to the brain that are related to traumatic brain injuries or concussions.
Customization for the many
We spoke to Kwok about the company and its goal to redefine head protection in the full-contact sport of hockey.
3pdbm: What kind of 3D printing technology and materials does KAV use for its helmets?
Whitman Kwok: We utilize FDM technologies using proprietary Thermoplastic Polyurethane (TPU). SLS, DLS, and SLA technologies are prohibitively expensive for a product as large as a helmet. For example, even using the latest DLS processes, the $1,700 Riddell Precision Fit is geared for professional teams with the corresponding equipment budget. The manufacturing costs also limit the use of 3D printing to the pads. To address both professionals and the broader consumer market, we focused on improving the quality and durability of FDM printing. The analogy is that a Toyota Prius gets better gas mileage, but Tesla gets better mileage, incredible acceleration, less complexity, lower maintenance, better driving experience, etc. So instead, we focused on improving the quality and durability of FDM printing, using it for the entire helmet and ironically improving the performance in ways that are cost prohibitive with other AM technologies. We felt that our mission would fail if the majority of the population could not afford our helmets
3dpbm: So the helmets are not only marketed to professional athletes?
WK: We’re marketing our helmets to all levels. The beauty of custom helmets, of course, is the ability to tailor the product to the individual: fit, performance and aesthetics. Of course, my kids play, and I founded KAV after a string of concussions on my son’s team. But from the beginning, we wanted the benefits of a more protective, better fitting helmet to be enjoyed at all levels and in all sports.
3dpbm: How are the custom measurements obtained?
WK: It’s simple. Customers order on our website (currently by invitation only) like any e-commerce transaction. We then walk you through taking measurements of your head using a tape measure and submitting several photos. I’m a busy parent so we wanted a process that anyone could do (i.e. not limited to scanning hardware) from the comfort of their home.
3dpbm: Have the helmets been recognized by any standards associations?
WK: Yes. Our factory, production processes and helmets are certified by the Hockey Equipment Certification Council (HECC). We are also in the process of certifying with CSA Group, which uses similar testing standards and procedures.
3dpbm: When did you first launch the helmets?
WK: We launched our helmets to our ambassadors this January. And we are always looking for more ambassadors across North America, so anyone reading this should send us a note on our website.
3dpbm: What kind of feedback have you received from ambassadors?
WK: We have players and coaches from Scott Hannan and Curtis Brown [both former professional hockey players] down to some of the best Tier/AAA players as paid customers. I consistently hear the following in this order as they open the box:
- “Wow, that’s light/feels great”
- “That’s really comfortable, didn’t expect that from 3D printed materials”
- “It’s a new look, but refreshing, I like it”
- “What’s this… a magnetic strap and quick release mechanism!”
From people who have used it longer, they appreciate the use of odor resistant TPU and the cooling properties of the helmet. Fortunately, we haven’t had any comments yet on impact protection!
3dpbm: Will KAV remain focused on hockey helmets or does you plan to venture into other protective 3D printed gear?
WK: The plan was always to build a mass customization platform to serve and protect as many people as possible. So yes, while hockey is personally near and dear to my heart, you will see a steady stream of innovation from us.