The modern football helmet is not only a far cry from the leather helmets common in the early days of the game, it is also a much more elaborate protective device than it was 10 years ago.
Plastics are an integral part of the contemporary football helmet, and they are provided with circularity in mind, capable of being reused for 10 years in refurbished equipment.
The plastic football helmet was invented by Riddell in 1939, but it was not used until after World War II due to equipment shortages. John T. Riddell’s company suspension system found its way onto the battlefield before the grill in the form of the Army’s new M1 helmet.
|An early prototype of the first plastic football helmet produced by Riddell, circa 1939.|
Fast forward to today’s grid, and football helmets continue to evolve as fast as the game itself.
Riddell uses a combination of plastics in many of its helmet components, according to Thad Ide, senior vice president, research and product development at Riddell. They include thermoplastics – polycarbonate alloys, ABS alloys, TPU and ionomers – for shells, face mask coatings, interior components and fastening hardware; thermosetting plastics such as expanded polyurethane for shock mitigation; and reactive polymer paints.
“These have evolved over the years in a number of ways,” Ide explained, “such as the durability and ease of processing of the shell materials and facemask coatings; impact response for cast polyurethane; and decorative aspects associated with paintings.
Riddell works closely with its material suppliers “not only to achieve certain material property goals with respect to durability, longevity and impact mitigation,” said Ide. “We constantly challenge our suppliers to improve key properties to achieve Riddell’s goals of protecting athletes and helping them perform at their best on the pitch. “
Tackling the demands of Industry 4.0 head-on, Riddell automates many of its assembly operations. Its injection molding and foam molding processes, as well as post-processing drilling and deburring of some components, are done almost entirely using robots, Ide said. “However, the construction and assembly of new football helmets and the repackaging of helmets after a season of play is a manual, do-it-yourself process due to the personalized nature of the product. The size and style of the helmet, the style and color of the face mask, the choice of accessories and the decoration specifications are all individual for the customer.
Before helmets reach the production stage, Riddell uses additive manufacturing for rapid prototyping of various components. The company has been using various 3D printing methods for decades, Ide said.
“We have a number of in-house 3D printing devices that are in constant use,” he said. “We also use external FDM and DLS services when the application requests it. More recently, in 2019, we launched a line of helmets – our SpeedFlex Diamond series – with internal liner components made up of mesh structures produced using Carbon’s additive manufacturing equipment. “
Complementing the circular approach to its product lifecycle, Riddell maintains a rigorous recertification program.
“Riddell chooses materials that can be reconditioned and recertified as long as they can meet our goals for protecting athletes,” said Ide. “We believe it is important to our customers that helmets are cleaned, sanitized, repaired, redecorated and recertified every year for up to 10 years rather than being thrown away after a season or two.”
With regular reconditioning and recertification, he continued, “football helmets can be used on the playing field for 10 years. In turn, this keeps recyclables and repairable equipment out of landfills and helps our customers realize their own sustainability efforts, which are increasingly important in the market. “
NFL helmets from 1900 to today
History of Riddell helmets