With thousands of US military personnel suffering from traumatic brain injuries each year, suppliers are working hard to design smart products to better protect soldiers. One of those suppliers is Team Wendy. Born out of family tragedy, the Cleveland-based team has transitioned from small ski-gear manufacturer to supplier for the Australian and American military. New Atlas spoke with head of product development, Ron Szalkowski, and CEO Jose-Rizo Patron about the challenges of making and testing smarter, safer helmets.
Now operating with a staff of around 120, Team Wendy has come a long way in its twenty-year life. Founder Dan Moore lost his daughter, Wendy, to traumatic brain injury after a ski accident back in 1997. Moore initially founded the company to build ski helmets, but pivoted to focus on military products after winning a contract with the US Army in 2004. From there, the range has grown to include helmets for military, search/rescue and law enforcement, all of which can be customized with a modular attachment system.
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"Helmets in general, for the most part, were designed to prevent skull fractures," Jose Rizo-Patron tells New Atlas. "If you go back to the steel-pot days, [their goal] was to address high velocity shrapnel fragmentation ... Helmets didn't really change much for many years and then we started to see these traumatic brain injuries, these blunt impact injuries. Certainly in the Iraq War, and all the way into Afghanistan, in many cases soldiers were being thrown after IEDs and hitting their heads."
"Even if you go back to some of the initial kevlar helmets, the only components on the inside of these helmets were to address fit and comfort," Patron continues. "Helmets really didn't evolve into incorporating protection against blunt impact standard until pad systems came into place."
When Patron mentions pad systems, he's talking about the set of foam pads used to line the interior of a helmet. Like airbags in a car, they're in place to cushion the head during an impact, keeping deceleration loads down and (hopefully) protecting against concussion or, in more serious impacts, long-term brain damage.
Although we're used to some impact-absorbing padding in bike helmets, and football helmets have incorporated some kind of air-filled padding since the 1970s, the concept is still fairly new in the military environment. Given the constant talk about concussion in the NFL, it's clear those systems could still use some work. Team Wendy pads are made of a special foam called Zorbium, developed and manufactured on-site in Cleveland. The first iteration of this pad system, Zorbium Action Protect, launched in 2005, before the newer EPIC and Revolve systems were released four and six years later respectively.
"People look at a helmet and say 'it has a hard outer shell, it's gonna protect my head' but it's really about the squishy stuff on the inside of the shell," says Ron Szalkowski. "That's what does all the work when you hit your head against something."
"[Zorbium] was developed to have a very specific compression response, to push back with a certain force profile when you compress it – and do it across a variety of temperatures," Szalkowski goes on. "If your head only has an inch of space – a half-inch of space – to slow down when you're hitting up against something, there's going to be some limiting factor in terms of what you can do with that energy. We try to tune our materials to get as close as possible to that theoretical limit."
Given they're working in such a small space, foam pad systems need to strike a careful balance. Too firm and whacking into them isn't much better than hitting the hard outer shell. Too soft and, well, you'll push through the resistance and hit the hard outer shell anyway. Not an ideal situation. There are more factors that come into play too, like the angle at which the soldier actually hits their head and the impact of blast shockwaves.
Initially, Team Wendy built pads for helmets and the military would slot them into a shell from another supplier. That changed with the introduction of the EXFIL Carbon helmet in 2012, while the company released its first ballistic helmet in 2014. Since making the jump into fully-formed helmets, the development team has placed a real focus on making them easy to customize for the growing range of tools soldiers use on missions.
"The helmets now, particularly within the special operations force communities, have a lot going on," Patron tells us. "That includes night-vision mounts ... the rails for communication headsets, adaptors for cameras and lights. Part of the evolution of the helmet is supporting all that, performing at the blunt and ballistic levels and reducing weight. The irony is, as the helmet technology improves and weight is reduced, people are putting more stuff on it."
Rather than forcing soldiers to rig up their own systems or drill holes in the helmets, Team Wendy has developed a system where attachments can simply be snapped into place.
Helmets for the Australian military use a unique velcro patch for their counterweight systems, while others have special attachments for cameras and lights on the front. It sounds like a small thing, but when you're busting through a door in the dead of night, it's nice to know your lights or night-vision system isn't going to fall off. Being able to snap new attachments in as technology develops also means soldiers can easily update their existing helmet.
The next step for the team in Cleveland is to try and expand the range of scenarios where its products are effective. Even if soldiers don't smack their heads on the ground, the shock front emanating from a blast may contribute to brain injury. Although there are no military standards on protecting against primary blast injuries, Team Wendy is researching ways its helmets could help protect against the threat.
"Talking about fine-tuning the foam and getting that specific compression response, we got to a point where we're doing a lot of work for just a few percent gain," explains Szalkowski. "If we look at some of these other things that aren't even being tested for, we could potentially make some changes that have huge gains over what the current performance level is."
"There's a lot of interest in how you protect against a blast shockwave. Early in Iraq especially, there were a lot of IED attacks that were resulting in blast-induced brain injuries," he continues.
Researchers are also looking at ways to better test protection against rotational impacts, as it's rare for someone to fall dead straight. Instead, they're more likely to twist or rotate and land at an odd angle – something current military tests don't take into account.
Szalkowski told us the next generation of helmets is being designed to better counteract those threats, although having no accepted standard makes it hard to evaluate the best protection in those areas. With all this in mind, Team Wendy is also looking into the way products are tested, trying to improve them through rigorous research into the how and why brain injuries occur.
"We're really looking now at what the test methods are," Szalkowski says. "How are you testing in the labs to say whether [a helmet] is performing well or not, and is that an accurate test? Right now, all the impact tests look at linear acceleration or deceleration of the head, not angular. They only think it's your head moving in a straight line.
"Obviously, that's a very simplified view of what happens in real life. A lot of brain science is showing that it's actually rotational-type, angular movements that impart a lot more strain on the brain than linear impacts. They might be even more damaging, but they're also much more complex ... What we're really trying to do is stay on the forefront with development of standards, and start to build things into our products now that incorporate that type of protection."
This research will help inform the next generation of Team Wendy helmets and, hopefully, expand our understanding of traumatic brain injuries in a range of fields. Along with its military products, the company is developing systems for search-and-rescue, police and more. Even with these advancements it's clear there's still a long way to go, and the only way to take on the complex problem that is traumatic brain injury is continual research and development.
You can check out the Team Wendy backstory in the video below.
Company page: Team Wendy