October 1, 2023
San Francisco 49er defensive end Nick Bosa’s helmet is unremarkable from the outside. On the inside, though, are pads custom 3D-printed to the shape of his head that are shown to reduce impact injury better than any other helmet in the game.
The Zero2-R Matrix ID Trench helmet from equipment maker Vicis features customized 3D-printed padding instead of foam that the NFL’s own testing lab has rated as the best player head protection available in 2023. It isn’t just the 3D-printed padding, though — the helmet has other innovations that contribute to its high safety ranking. Yet, 3D printing gives a better fit and a lighter weight that makes a safe helmet even safer.
Now, dozens of players are wearing Vicis helmets, including quarterback Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs, Tua Tagovailoa of the Miami Dolphins, and Derek Carr of the New Orleans Saints.
Vicis helmets have consistently ranked high on the NFL test lists for the past several years, but recently, with updated additive manufacturing technology, Vicis says the new helmets are better than ever and poised to expand beyond the NFL to new markets.
Why 3D Print Sports Equipment Padding?
3D printing makes countless products that are not manufacturable any other way, and this helmet is a good example. The padding is a series of complex lattice structures engineered to be lightweight, but absorb impact better than traditional materials. They can be customized not only to the shape of the player’s head but also to their position on the field and the types of impact they are most likely to experience. Vicis makes the only position-specific helmet on the market, one for quarterbacks and one for linemen.
“At Vicis, the focus is on impact protection and safety for athletes,” says Jason Neubauer, the company’s VP of product development. The R&D lab at Vicis developed a new approach to 3D printed padding, called the Matrix ID Pod system, first introduced into their helmets in 2021. Although they are not the first to use 3D printing lattice padding in helmets — Riddell launched the SpeedFlex Precision Diamond in 2020 — they take the technology’s application to a new level.
“Our helmet takes a different approach in two ways,” says Neubauer. “We chose to build a high-performing standard helmet that was modular, and would allow players to replace the standard fit 3D-printed pods with custom printed Matrix ID pods.” By making the 3D-printed components only the final 25% of the helmet, it lowers the cost and manufacturing time.
Beneath the shell of the helmet are six individual and interchangeable 3D-printed padding pods, called DLTA pods, that buckle upon impact and disperse energy. These pods are available in various thicknesses to customize fit.
The Matrix pods, on the other hand, are designed and 3D printed exactly to the shape and contours of an individual player’s head as measured by a 3D scan. These can replace the standard pod system. The result is a better-fitting helmet with better impact absorption in exactly the right places.
How did the NFL test the impact absorption ability of a custom-fitted helmet? Vicis scanned the head of the test dummy and printed helmet pods to fit it exactly. The result was a number one ranking on the annual NFL safest helmet list.
Even the not-personalized Vicis helmets with 3D-printed pods top the NFL’s list. In fact, Vicis helmets occupy the top five slots.
“Our helmets are very unique in the way they absorb impact,” says Neubauer, “but the response that we’ve had from players is that this helmet, for the first time, fits with equal pressure around their head and really fits them properly.”
Vicis, Resurrected by 3D Printing
Founded in 2013, Vicis received grants and funding to develop new ways to prevent brain injury and minimize the impact of sports-related head injuries. Spun out of the University of Washington, the company was originally founded by Per Reinhall, former chair of the university’s mechanical engineering department, and Samuel Browd, a professor of neurological surgery. After years of research, they succeeded in launching a revolutionary helmet in terms of safety, the Zero1, which won several NFL equipment contracts in 2016.
The Zero1 featured an impact-absorbing outer shell different from the traditional hard helmet exteriors. There was also a core layer of vertical struts and internal memory foam for a snug fit, but no 3D printing yet. Over the next few years, Vicis continued to improve the helmet and gathered tens of millions of dollars from investors, including several NFL players.
In 2017, the Vicis acquired 3D printing technology from then-startup company Carbon. They brought a Carbon 3D printer into their Seattle R&D facility for use as a prototyping device and a way to study lattice geometries that could replace the struts for better impact absorption. In 2018 Carbon debuted its partnership with helmet maker Riddell, which was the first to use 3D printing in an end-use product for impact absorption.
Vicis, by this point, had expenses outpacing profits, investors backing out, and the company found itself laying off nearly all of its staff by 2019. The R&D, however, continued.
“It was about early 2021 when we checked back in with Vicis and learned that they had found a lattice geometry [for the padding] that they really liked, but they weren’t consistently able to manufacture it,” says James Sauerbaum, business development director at Carbon.
That’s when the Carbon application development team stepped in to help Vicis optimize the 3D printing workflow to get consistent prints. They worked with Vicis and its contract manufacturer, Fast Radius, which had dozens of Carbon 3D printers, to optimize parts with a new Carbon elastomer material.
In 2020, the assets of Vicis were purchased by Innovatus Capital Partners, a capital market company that did the same with Schutt Sports the next year and combined both helmet makers under a new parent company Certor Sports. In 2021, Vicis debuted the Zero2 Trench Matrix helmet featuring 3D-printed padding. Time Magazine named it among the best inventions of the year.
The 2023 Vicis helmets are even more advanced.
“This year is the first that they’re printing with our new EPU 45 material, which is our latest generation fast printing, strain-rate-sensitive elastomer,” says Sauerbaum. “It is our most advanced and most engineered damping elastomer available right now.”
Vicis uses the Carbon L1 3D printer in production, which can produce padding for two helmets per printing run. The newest material cuts the print time per run from eight hours to two, significantly reducing the cost of the parts themselves.
With a lower-cost product, Vicis has a new opportunity to scale.
“We would love to see this go to a global scale at a better price point that’s attractive to college and high school athletes,” says Sauerbaum.
Because of the Vicis interchangeable pod system, teams can purchase the standard helmets and then offer customization upgrades to the players who want them — or the parents of high school players who want them for their kids. “We think that’s going to really enable them to go to tens of thousands of helmets a year to a wider market rather than just staying at that elite level,” says Sauerbuam.
Mass Customization with 3D Scanning
What the NFL helmet testing shows with its higher rating for the customized Vicis helmet versus the standard helmet, is that the closer the impact-dampening lattice structure is to the head, the better the protection, according to Neubauer.
“You’re going to see anywhere from a 10% to 30% improvement, being custom, depending on how that player’s head fits in the helmet,” says Sauerbaum. “You basically eliminate all the slop and you take advantage of all the space between the shell and the head.”
To achieve a personalized fit, Vicis uses a 3D scanner called the Structure Sensor Pro that attaches to an iPad. The software platform that processes the scans into data Vicis can use to customize padding is from Toolkit3D.
Although the scanning itself takes just minutes, to expand its helmet offering, Vicis would need to find an economical workflow to gather accurate scan data from athletes nationwide. Currently, for elite NFL athletes, the company’s sales reps scan the players.
Although 3D printing for mass customization has fallen through on products such as footwear, the interchangeable pad system in the Vicis helmets requires only a few pieces to be customized for a fully personalized product.
Carbon’s materials, 3D printing, and lattice structure parts are not only contributing to the success of Vicis, but you can see them in Specialized bicycle seats, Adidas running shoes, CCM Hockey helmets, and Osprey backpacks.
Sauerbaum’s business development team is constantly on the lookout for brands that use foam for energy management in their products today but could achieve more with 3D-printed lattice structures.
“All the way from idea and exploration to the manufacturing, we help those companies design parts and go through the different iterations to help them identify and hone in on what makes the most sense, and then help them scale it up,” says Sauerbaum.
3D printing lattice padding applications are more than 30% of Carbon’s business, with expansion planned in the automotive seating market, in healthcare (wheelchair seats), other protective applications, and in racket sports.
At Vicis, their product development engineers are continuously working on improvement to the helmets and changes that will make them more affordable. After all, Vicis is latin for change.