Are VICIS’ troubles a fumble for the future of 3D printed helmets?

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The potential of using additive manufacturing and lattice structures to improve protective sportswear is becoming increasingly clear. As of last month, what is less clear is the commercial potential of its use—at least for football helmet startup VICIS. The NFL-backed company known for its innovative helmet designs, and which licensed HRL Laboratories’ 3D printed lattices, is coming into 2020 with some serious financial trouble.

About a month ago, research center HRL Laboratories published test results that demonstrated the effectiveness of shock-absorbing pads made from its special microlattice structure. In these tests, the elastomeric lattice material, 3D printed using a process called light casting, showed up to 27% more energy absorption efficiency for a single impact than the best-performing EPS foam materials and 48% better performance compared to vinyl nitrite foam for repeated impacts.

HRL Laboratories helmet VICIS
(Photo: HRL Laboratories)

“Microlattice is composed of solid polymer struts and air. Unlike foam it has an ordered architecture that enables improved performance in airflow, energy absorption, stiffness, and strength,” explained Eric Clough, HRL researcher and the study’s lead author. “Under high impact, microlattice stiffens to absorb energy and significantly reduces acceleration and force transmitted to the wearer. With light casting we can make a set of pads for a helmet in under a couple minutes. Methods such as stereolithography 3D printing would take a much longer.”

VICIS, a Seattle-based startup which grabbed the attention (and backing) of the NFL for its innovative helmet designs, saw the potential of HRL Laboratories’ microlattice technology and licensed it to further develop the technology and commercialize it for the production of next-gen football helmets.

As reported just before Christmas, however, the future of VICIS and its state-of-the-art helmets is now up in the air. The company’s financial woes escalated recently and VICIS announced it was going into receivership. The company, which has laid off many of its workers, is now looking for a buyer.

“This is a difficult but necessary step that gives us the best opportunity to secure a buyer for the company with the goal of ensuring maximum return to shareholders,” stated Bruce Montgomery, chairman of the board of directors for VICIS. “We know this is heartbreaking news for VICIS customers, employees and investors who placed their trust in our products and believed in our mission. Our employees in particular dedicated their time and talents to building a great company that did great things, and we are thinking about them and their families during this difficult time.”

The news marks a clear set back for innovative protective head gear designed for football—a sport that has become notorious for its player injuries and brain damage. Notably, VICIS’ troubles could mark a hurdle for HRL Laboratories, whose microlattice 3D printing technology had been on a path to commercialization with the Seattle company.

In general though, we’re still likely to see 3D printing and lattices being integrated for next-gen helmets and protective sports wear. Football equipment giant Riddell, for instance, made headlines last year for its partnership with 3D printing company Carbon. Riddell has adopted Carbon’s Digital Light Synthesis technology to bring the first customized, 3D printed helmet liners to market.

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