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The Football Helmet Is a Highly Engineered Protective Device, and Plastic Makes It Possible

Image: Riddell football helmet
Today’s helmets are also designed with sustainability in mind — they can be reused for 10 years in reconditioned equipment.

The modern-day football helmet is not only a far cry from the leather helmets common in the game’s earlier days — it’s also a vastly more engineered protective device than even 10 years ago.

Plastics are integral to the contemporary football helmet, and they are being supplied with an eye toward circularity, capable of being reused for 10 years in reconditioned equipment.

The plastic football helmet was invented by Riddell in 1939, but it was not used until after World War II because of material shortages. The suspension system of John T. Riddell’s company found its way to the battlefield before the gridiron in the form of the Army’s then-new M1 helmet.

Riddellfirst plastic football helmet

An early prototype of the first plastic football helmet produced by Riddell, circa 1939.

Fast forward to today’s gridiron, 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, Riddell’s Senior Vice President, Research and Product Development. They include thermoplastics — polycarbonate alloys, ABS alloys, TPUs, and ionomers — for the shells, facemask coatings, interior components, and attachment hardware; thermoset plastics such as foamed polyurethane for shock attenuation; and reactive polymer paints.

“These have evolved over the years in many ways,” Ide explained, “such as durability and processability of the shell materials and facemask coatings; impact response for cast polyurethane; and decoration aspects associated with paints.”

Riddell works closely with its materials suppliers “not only to achieve certain material property goals with respect to durability, longevity, and impact attenuation,” said Ide. “We challenge our suppliers constantly to improve key properties to meet Riddell’s goals of protecting athletes and helping them perform their best on the field.”

Tackling Industry 4.0 imperatives head on, Riddell automates many of its assembly operations. Its injection molding and foam casting processes, as well as post-process drilling and trimming of some components, are performed almost entirely with robots, Ide said. “However, building and assembling new football helmets and reconditioning helmets after a season of play are manual, craftsman-like processes due to the custom nature of the product. Helmet size and style, facemask style and color, choice of accessories, and decoration specifications are all individual to the customer.”

Before helmets reach the production stage, Riddell employs additive manufacturing for rapid prototyping of various elements. The company has been using various 3D-printing methods for decades, Ide said.

“We have a number of 3D-printing devices in-house that are constantly in use,” he said. “We also use outside FDM and DLS services when the application calls for it. More recently in 2019, we launched a line of helmets — our SpeedFlex Diamond series — with internal liner components made of lattice structures produced using Carbon’s additive manufacturing equipment.”

Rounding out the circular approach to its product’s life cycle, Riddell maintains a rigorous recertification program.

“Riddell chooses materials that can be reconditioned and recertified as long as they can meet our goals around athlete protection,” Ide said. “We believe that it is important to our customers that helmets be cleaned, sanitized, repaired, redecorated, and recertified annually for up to 10 years rather than discarded after a season or two.”

With regular reconditioning and recertification, he continued, “football helmets are eligible for use on the playing field for 10 years. In turn, this keeps recyclables and otherwise repairable equipment out of landfills and helps our customers achieve their own sustainability efforts, which are increasingly more important within the marketplace.”

Learn more:
NFL helmets from 1900 to today
History of Riddell helmets

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