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Fighting football injuries with 3D-printed, hyper-personalized pads

If you’ve ever watched a movie about sports, you’ve seen it. It’s that moment that occurs two-thirds of the way into the story, when the protagonists’ inevitable victory suddenly seems a lot less certain. Maybe the inspirational mentor winds up in the ER, muttering motivational slogans from a hospital bed. Perhaps the unorthodox coach wins over the team, only to be fired by management for thinking too far outside the box. Possibly the star lacrosse player has a crisis of faith and realizes he wants to be an acapella singer rather than a jock.

For the three co-founders of Protect3D, a real-life version of that moment took place between the second and fifth game of Duke University’s football season several years ago, back when the company’s founders were engineering students. The team’s starting quarterback was the recipient of a particularly tough sack during a game. He went down hard, and stayed down. Things looked bleak.

“It was our senior year,” Kevin Gehsmann told Digital Trends. “Our quarterback, Daniel Jones, who now plays for the Giants, and who was a classmate of ours and a close friend, had a collarbone injury.”

Luckily for Jones, his friends had a way to get him back in the game.

Protect3d Highlight - 2021 NFL 1st & Future Competition

Breaking the mold

The normal solution, Gehsmann said, would typically be to heat a piece of thermoplastic and mold it to Jones’ torso, thereby creating a makeshift brace. But this would also have been extremely restrictive, making it difficult for him to go through the necessary throwing motions. Fortunately – and here comes the Hollywood-style moment of redemption – Gehsmann and fellow students Tim Skapek and Clark Bulleit had been working on an innovative project that involved using 3D-scanning and 3D-printing technology to create braces, as well as other supportive devices, that could be prototyped and printed incredibly quickly. The only issue? It hadn’t been tested properly yet.

The Protect3D scanning process.

“The medical staff came to us and said, ‘If there’s ever a time to apply our 3D technology to a specific medical use case, it would be to protect this collarbone injury with our starting quarterback because it might allow him to come back on the field sooner and stay healthy if he takes a hit,’” Gehsmann recalled.

The engineering students took a 3D scan of Jones and used this data to design and print a brace to fit him — and only him — perfectly. Think of it as the gridiron version of Cinderella’s glass slipper. “We were able to use rapid prototyping, together with 3D printing, to make him an optimal solution that allowed him to go through [the necessary] full throwing motion with no restriction,” Gehsmann said.

Protect3D's 3D-printed collarbone brace.

A couple weeks later, during Jones’ comeback game, Duke managed to beat Virginia Tech 31-14. Jones remained healthy through the rest of the season, led the Duke football team to a Bowl Game win, and was ultimately selected sixth overall in the 2019 NFL Draft by the New York Giants, for whom he is currently starting quarterback.

It was a classic sports movie ending for Jones — but for Gehsmann, Skapek, and Bulleit, it was merely the beginning.

The democratization of sports tech

The cofounders of Protect3d, from left: Clark Bulleit, Kevin Gehsmann, and Tim Skapek.

Jump forward a few years (although only a few since the founders of PROTECT3D – pronounced “Protected” – are only in their early 20s) and the Duke research project has become a full-fledged startup. The company’s goal is to take this promising technology and use it to transform the way that medical or protective devices are made for athletes. Rather than an expensive, time-consuming process, the company’s app lets athletic trainers quickly scan athletes in under a minute using a smartphone or tablet. This information is then uploaded to the cloud and sent to a team of design engineers who use the data to create custom devices for athletes, which are then printed and sent out.

“We’re based in North Carolina,” Skapek told Digital Trends. “If we get a 3D scan on, say, a Monday, we can design and 3D print that product [right away], ship it out on a Tuesday, and a customer on the West Coast in California has the custom-fitting products on Wednesday so they can start using it.”

PROTECT3D @ NC State University | Highlight

It’s an example of the democratization of sports-tech in action. “In the most elite circles of athletics, there have been customized solutions for all sorts of injuries or equipment for many years,” Skapek continued. “The key to our approach, and really what we’re trying to do to disrupt the industry, is that those custom solutions traditionally require a lot of manual labor. They require hand-molding, plaster-casting, things that are laborious and require a high level of skill. Our whole mission has been to not just create great custom devices, but [also] make the process of making custom devices that much smoother, more efficient, more accessible, and more scalable – to bring it to college athletics, high school athletics, amateur athletics, to people everywhere, really.”

The future of sports equipment

The Protect3d scanning process.

While many of the company’s devices have been designed to help people dealing with injuries, Skapek said it is also focusing on creating preventative products to help keep uninjured athletes healthy. Products thus far include pads designed to protect against direct impacts to injured areas, as well as a variety of “splinting and bracing” devices for hand and wrist injuries. To date, PROTECT3D has surpassed 500 devices sent out, although the co-founders acknowledge that growth slowed during the pandemic.

A Protect3d hand/thumb splint being created.

“Everybody’s sports spending budget was frozen, and they were not allowed to invest in new technology or anything,” Gehsmann said. Fortunately, as the world starts to return to normal, numbers are once again rising — along with support from everywhere from the NFL to college football teams.

“[Pricing is] a little bit complex, because we are a small-stage startup,” Gehsmann said. “It’s constantly changing. But the way we’re working with universities and professional football teams is licensing software and then charging directly for the individual products. But ultimately, as we grow and we get to a certain scale, we hope that 3D printing continues on its trajectory to where … our fully custom products are comparable to off-the-shelf [standardized] products.”

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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