Yesterday I had the privilege of checking out Easton's major helmet-making facility in Santa Cruz, aptly named "The Dome."
I assumed there was some real technology that went into my helmet. I assumed that people spent huge amounts of time studying the results of their frequent tweaks, others who picked apart the helmets of other companies, and more still who perfected the look of their own latest model.
I was right.
That said, I wasn't even close to understanding just how many people work on them year-round (or how important a select few people are to the process), and how much time and effort actually goes into this stuff.
Here's the process of making your helmet, in a tightly-encased, padding-packed nutshell.
Each year before a new helmet gets released, helmet designers get a product brief. This basically lets them know the direction Easton is hoping to go with the model that year, using the information they've compiled over the year from their pros, customers, and engineers.
Maybe people want it to look simpler (or flashier), maybe they need it to meet new safety standards, maybe they're aiming to wow new customers.
Whatever the case, the product brief lets the designers know what they're hoping to achieve in the end.
Talent: some people have it in the form of being able to saucer pass a puck and land it flat, some can play instruments beautifully, and some can grab a pencil and just ... create.
The designers at Easton create boat loads of different looks and styles of helmets, some with pencil on paper, some on the computer, all pretty darn cool.
From there, the designers go 3D. They have these dry, tight little pieces of yellow foam, maybe four times the size of a normal egg, all over where they work. With a steel tool like a dull scalpel, they shape, entirely by free hand, the look of the helmets they've drawn. This gives them the ability to see what the helmet will look like when it jumps off the page. They can complete as many as two eggs per day, so it helps move the process along.
Once they decide which of the "eggs" best fits where they want to go with the design, they go full scale.
Again, all by hand, they take chunks of clay almost the size of a helmet, then begin adding clay and sculpting their full scale version (these take around three days to complete). The past few steps, by the way, are not jobs done by different people. There are a few very valuable designers on every team, and those designers see the creation process through from beginning to end.
3D SCANNING, PRINTING (WOW)
The clay helmet is then placed under a white light scanner, which is the step before using the "Holy S&%t Machine". That's what it should be called.
The scanner processes the helmet and turns it into digital data, so the lid is now a computer file. You can do this with a hand, a face, a Chihuahua, doesn't matter. From there, they can stretch, shrink, and pull the image around on the computer into looking exactly how they want.
The 3D printer goes back and forth quickly, laying micro-millimeters of a light, plastic-ish, foam-like material exactly where it's supposed to go, stacking it up slowly until it creates your image. You literally pull a full helmet out of the printer when you're done. My head almost exploded when I first saw this.
They showed me a few of the things it can do — it printed a tiny bicycle (that worked), a functional whistle WITH the ball inside, cogs that turned other cogs, and a host of other mind blowing things.
SILICON MOLD (WITH MATERIAL)
From there, they use that "printed" helmet to create their mold for other helmets. It's just about the perfect look they're going for by now, they just have to machine out some minor flaws, and it'll be ready to make helmets ... that haven't even begun to be tested for safety, fit, or anything else that's so important.
So, they then send the mold away to China to get a bunch of the helmets made up so they can begin the tinkering and testing.
It's a long process.
HELMET SMASHING, PUCK SHOOTING, THE WORKS
Once the helmet is in their hands, their safety foams installed and looking pretty, they beat the living hell out of it. They smash it into floor at car crash speeds, they shoot pucks at it with Chara-like power, and abuse it in a variety of other creative ways.
They have a human head shaped thing inside it all the while (complete with a brain-like substance inside in brain-like shape), which gives them the computer readouts necessary to gauge just how well the helmet is protecting it's contents.
Here's video of them testing it out:
LEVELS OF APPROVAL
Once the helmet has met their standards, it's time for it to get approved by a variety of different places before it can be marketed. It's not easy to get a helmet okayed by all these different places, so it's time to cross the fingers — that's an endless amount of work to have your helmet get sent back, rejected.
And if word comes back that more changes need to be made, well ... it's back to the old drawing board. Literally.
Photo credit: Justin Bourne