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Ahead of Super Bowl 2019, 3D printing promises safer football helmets

Riddell, a maker of football gear, will produce custom-made helmet liners.

Carbon
carbon-riddell-casco-transparente

Here you can see the 3d printed lattice structure beneath the transparent helmet similar as it will appear in the new Riddell helmets.

Claudia Cruz/CNET

All eyes will be on Atlanta this weekend when the New England Patriots attempt to win their sixth NFL championship by defeating the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl 53. Despite the pageantry of the big game, fans may be conflicted because of the trauma caused by the sport's head injuries.

Come next season, fans may feel a little less guilty. Riddell, a leading maker of football equipment, is readying safer helmets with the use of 3D printing and artificial intelligence technology.

Riddell and Carbon, a digital manufacturing startup, announced Friday that collaboratively they've produced the first-ever 3D-printed football helmet liner that can custom-fit football players' individual head shape and size. 

This process is possible due to Carbon's new L1 printer that can manufacture the bespoke liners and which the company also made public today. The financial terms of the agreement were not disclosed.

The 3D-printed liner uses a lattice structure design that, according to the companies, allows the elastomeric polyurethane material to absorb and dissipate the energy created by every point of impact to provide better cushion and support.

Head injuries in football practices and games have, in recent years, mobilized parents, players, protective gear manufacturers, and the National Football League to figure out how to make the game safer to play. The short-term goal is to reduce the chances of head concussions with the end goal to prevent the development of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). 

Despite other new football helmet designs (and even more ideas for new ones still), new rules for helmet use, and a new helmet standard since the NFL started to release player concussions data, these types of head injuries have been on the rise, according to ESPN.

"Everything we've tested makes us believe this is the safest helmet in the space, but it doesn't mean the sport couldn't be safer," Phil DeSimone, vice president of business development and co-founder of Carbon, told CNET. 

Carbon's new alliance with Riddell comes around 21 months after what appears to be a blossoming partnership with Adidas. In 2018, Carbon and Adidas produced more than 100,000 pairs of soles for the Adidas 4D Midsole (formerly known as Futurecraft) and they plan to scale the production to millions in the next couple of years, said Carbon CEO and co-founder Joe DeSimone. At first it took them 90 minutes to make one pair of soles; now they've lowered the time to 28 minutes and have set their sights on 15 minutes, he added. 

Riddell's new helmet with 3D-printed liners has already been tested by at least one player in every NFL team and was on the field at some major NCAA college games. Riddell says its helmets account for more than two-thirds of the helmets in the two leagues.

Carbon's purview is developing helmets for other types of sports, police, military, bicyclists and even for cranial reshaping, as in the case of children born with plagiocephaly, that is, a misshaped head.

Riddell didn't share pricing of the SpeedFlex Precision Diamond, the first with the 3D-printed liner, but you can expect the new helmet to hover near $2,000, above the current price of the company's next most expensive model. 

Carbon has not announced the price of the L1 printer, but it usually sells its hardware bundled with the software and other services for a subscription of nearly $50,000 for a year.