Designing Advanced Materials

In an effort to spur disruptive advancements to better understand, diagnose and protect against brain injury, GE and the NFL teamed up in 2013 to launch the Head Health Initiative – a four-year, $60 million partnership to accelerate diagnosis and improve treatment for traumatic brain injury.

One component of the initiative is the Head Health Challenge series, which set aside up to $20 million in grants to scientists, academics, experts and entrepreneurs worldwide to help spur advancements to better understand, diagnose and protect against traumatic brain injury. The other component of this initiative is a four-year, $40 million research and development program to develop next-generation brain imaging technologies.

For Head Health Challenge III, the NFL and GE collaborated with the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Under Armour. The goal of the third challenge was to accelerate the discovery, design and development of advanced materials to better absorb or mitigate force within helmets, pads and consumer products that protect against traumatic brain injury.

Many of those who participated in Head Health Challenge III are now using NIST’s data to adjust their materials to expand into new product lines or markets, and to attract new commercial partners.

The $500,000 grand prize winner of the third and final challenge is a collaborative team of materials designers led by Dynamic Research Incorporated.  The team is a collaboration of two companies:  Dynamic Research of Torrance, California and 6D Helmets of Brea, California.

The group created a new material system for protective gear for athletes, first responders, military personnel and others who face potential impact injuries.

Throughout the three Head Health Challenges, more than 1,000 applicants submitted ideas. Head Health Challenge I focused on discovering imaging and methods for diagnosis and prognosis of mild traumatic brain injuries, while Challenge II focused on new technologies to monitor, identify and protect against mild traumatic brain injury. Among the winners are BrainScope’s portable concussion assessment system, the VICIS Zero1 Helmet and Viconic’s underlayer for synthetic turf systems.

An Absorbent Layer

The novel structure of the winning material from Dynamic Research and 6D Helmets includes a middle layer of absorbent posts sandwiched between foam that helps reduce shear forces. These are impacts that happen from an angle rather than straight on.

The winning material reduced certain measures of impact by more than 70 percent when compared with baseline foam material that has been commonly used in protective gear. The winning concept is also a system that can be fine-tuned to a variety of different impact environments and adapted to different body types and applications.

Robert Reisinger (left), Terry Smith (center) and Bob Weber (right) in the testing lab.
Robert Reisinger (left), Terry Smith (center) and Bob Weber (right) in the testing lab.

“We’ve been employing suspended layers in our helmets for single impact environments like motocross and biking,” said Bob Weber, CEO and co-founder of 6D Helmets.

“This Challenge helped us research how those same materials could be tweaked for multi-impact environments like football hits,” he said.

“Our project has already paid dividends on the production line,” Weber said. “Our newest bicycle helmet on the market has been manufactured with influences from this adapted technology.”

Partnership Between Researchers and Manufacturers

Dynamic Research ran the computer modeling that tested various tweaks to 6D Helmets layer technology.

Scott Kebschull, a Technical Director at Dynamic Research, said manufacturers don’t always have access to that kind of modeling research. It’s expensive—and requires significant engineering expertise.

“Our project helps them take advantage of what we found and move well beyond simple production to pushing the envelope on performance,” he said.

Terry Smith (left) and Scott Kebschull (right) of Dynamic Research
Terry Smith (left) and Scott Kebschull (right) of Dynamic Research.

Terry Smith, also a Technical Director at Dynamic Research, said he’d always wanted to merge their simulation technology with helmet development.

“This Challenge gave us the opportunity to do just that—and move towards optimizing helmet design,” he said.

A Critical Area of Research

The list of submissions for Head Health Challenge III started with one hundred and twenty-five ideas from companies and academic institutions that were originally submitted in 2015. To help narrow down the list, NIST selected an independent panel of expert judges who selected five finalists, each awarded $250,000—and a year of development time—to enhance their materials.

The finalists and winner were selected through a rigorous, scientific process based on innovative impact-absorbing properties and commercial potential of the competing materials.

To support the finalists’ material development efforts, NIST established a dedicated testing facility to provide a new methodology for impact testing of material properties and for comparing the contest submissions. Each finalist submitted refined materials to NIST for testing at several points during the challenge, and NIST test data was provided back to them as feedback to modify their materials toward improved performance.

The list of submissions for Head Health Challenge III started with one hundred and twenty-five ideas from companies and academic institutions that were originally submitted in 2015.

Many of those who participated in Head Health Challenge III are now using NIST’s data to adjust their materials to expand into new product lines or markets, and to attract new commercial partners.

“I congratulate the winning team and the Head Health Challenge III partners for looking for technological solutions to this important national problem,” said U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. “The new materials developed through this competition will have broad applications, protecting everyone from students to athletes to soldiers.”

The Head Health Initiative

“We could not have done this on our own,” said Bob Weber at 6D Helmets.

“This was a challenge for the best engineers in the world to come up with the best engineering solution,” he said. “Amazing things can happen when you get all those minds together in one room.”

“The goal of this challenge is to support innovation and help stimulate the marketplace with next-generation materials and design, and the impressive work by Dynamic Research and 6D Helmets has the potential to do just that,” said Jeff Miller, NFL Executive Vice President of Health and Safety Initiatives.

“The NFL’s collaboration with GE, Under Armour and NIST highlights the important leadership role that various industries and organizations can take together to advance the state of equipment safety,” he said.