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America Makes tackles NFL helmet safety challenge

Ashley Totin, project engineer with America Makes in Youngstown, left, and Erin O’Donnell, the center’s director of partnerships and community relationships, at the downtown additive manufacturer and 3-D printing accelerator ahead of Wednesday’s kickoff for the NFL Helmet Challenge symposium. Totin is holding a piece of flexible mesh that could be used in helmets to improve player safety in the NFL. Staff photo / Ron Selak Jr.

YOUNGSTOWN — Top NFL safety officials, scientists and engineers, along with helmet manufacturers and experts in additive and advanced manufacturing, will be in Youngstown this week to stimulate development of a new, safer helmet for league players.

The NFL Helmet Challenge kicks off with a symposium that will bring together the experts to share information on innovative helmet ideas. It will advance techniques that helmet makers are already exploring using the cutting-edge manufacturing methods to improve player safety.

The league is partnering with America Makes, a national accelerator for 3-D printing and additive manufacturing, to put on the three-day event starting Wednesday.

“It was, let’s bring these experts together, give them the opportunity to mingle, have an opportunity for additive and advanced manufacturers to understand more about what is going on with helmets, and having the NFL and helmet makers have more of a sense of how additive or advanced technology can assist them,” said Erin O’Donnell, director of partnerships and community relations for America Makes.

The challenge will give up to $3 million, including $2 million in grant funding to support the development of a helmet prototype and a $1 million award.

It ends in May 2021 with applicants submitting helmet prototypes for laboratory testing under conditions that represent potentially concussive impacts in the NFL.

It’s the next step in the NFL’s Engineering Roadmap, an effort aimed to improve the understanding of football biomechanics and to create incentives for businesses, innovators and helmet makers to develop safer protective equipment.

Already some helmet manufacturers such as Riddell and Schutt have engaged additive and advanced manufacturing companies to improve the fit on players’ heads. Riddell has a relationship with California-based Carbon, which produces a flexible plastic lattice material that can be used inside helmets to soften impacts.

The NFL engaged an effort about three years to better understand on the field injuries, specifically concussions, and has taken what it has learned and data in connection with helmet makers, engineers and others to stimulate improvements to protective equipment.

“That work has demonstrated a substantial success so far in the laboratory testing of helmets. There has been a significant improvement with every manufacturer and new entrants entering the marketplace since we started our work,” said Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive vice president for health and safety innovation.

But the effort to improve player safety is “multifactorial,” and also includes changes to the rules of the game and changes to player practice.

“Equipment, rules of the game and practices have all changed substantially and all of them will continue to because this is an effort that is never going to end,” Miller said. “We like to say that efforts in health and safety in our game have no finish line, but those are all three levers we have been working with to improve the health and safety of the sport as it relates to concussions.”

Next is to continue improvement in those areas while simultaneously engaging additive manufacturing and 3-D printing in what Miller said could end up resulting in position-specific helmets.

“A quarterback as an example sees the world very differently from an injury risk perspective than a linebacker. A quarterback when he suffers a concussion, most likely it’s happening when his helmet hits the ground so the back of the helmet is impacted …” Miller said. “For a linebacker, he sees many, many, many more hits, frequently at much higher velocities and to various different places on his helmet and so understanding those mechanisms and when he gets hurt or when he delivers a blow that hurts himself is essential to understanding how to maximize the protective capabilities of the equipment for him.”

The symposium’s agenda includes background on the state of the science around helmets and certain concussions in the NFL and breakout sessions to stimulate networking, team building and creation of successful grant applications.

About 300 people will attend, from software designers to scientists to machine and helmet makers to safety experts “coming together to really figure out how to perfect the helmet,” said Ashley Totin, project engineer with America Makes.

rselak@tribtoday.com

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