Xenith: Football helmet technology that is changing the game for athletes

Athletes who play American Football regularly face high-impact tackles, the force of which can feel like being hit by a baby whale. Xenith’s unique approach is to use adaptive technology which allows the helmet to move independently to the athlete’s head on impact, protecting them from the majority of the force.


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Transcript

Introduction

American Football players have to deal with a lot during their careers. Some of the hardest tackles they’ll face will feel like being hit by a baby whale. So as thousands of pounds of force slam into them - athletes need to be prepared - and protected. A big part of that protection comes down to what’s on their head. Now, you may look at a football helmet and think it’s no different to any other helmet. But the amount of technology ‘under the hood’ will blow you away. The engineering that goes into a Xenith helmet is second to none. Xenith is a company dedicated to safety - pioneering brand-new ways to keep athletes safe on the field, supported by PTC partner PDS Vision.

Adaptive-fit technology

Xenith was founded in 2006 by a Harvard quarterback, an MD from Columbia University. The genesis of Xenith was there's got to be a better way. The first helmet that Xenith ever developed was known as the X-1 helmet. Xenith’s technology focuses on fit. The X-1 helmet has what we refer to as an adaptive-fit technology. There was a cable on the X-1 helmet that was attached to the lower chin strap. When you cinched down on the chin strap, it would tighten the cable around the head to give you a nice firm fit around your head. The other piece of the component that Xenith had was adjustable comfort pads. The adaptive-fit technology is something that sets Xenith aside from the competition. The other big differentiator is this concept of decoupling the head or decoupling the padding from the shell.

Absorbing high and low-speed shocks

Xenith’s technology has a shock matrix, with pods connected to a floating plate on the inside. That's only connected to the shell in a couple of different locations, so when an impact happens, it happens with the shell, but the padding is connected to your head. The shell can move in a decoupled manner, relative to the padding and to your head. That's the genesis behind the Xenith technology, along with the shock absorbers. These have a small hole in them, so it's a sealed system with air on the inside. It'll perform one stiffness under a lower speed impact, but when you have air in a pressurized cylinder and try to push it out fast, it becomes harder to push that air out, so it stiffens the shock pod. The stiffening effect means you can perform better on both high-speed and low-speed impacts, which is a big part of the challenge in protective equipment.

Testing the impact

Speaking from Xenith’s test lab, Ron Jadischke says: ‘We have a few different pieces of impact-test equipment. We regularly use a couple of drop towers, as part of the ongoing quality-control and developmental testing. There’s a head form, representative of an average adult male, that’s mounted to a carriage and connected to the drop-tower mechanism, all pneumatically controlled. We'll bring the drop tower in the head form up to its height and, once it’s reached its height, dictating the speed it’s going to fall at, let go of the carriage, which falls and impacts the flat pad below.’ Demonstrating this, he says: ‘That would have been simulating the highest speed drop tests that we would do, about 18 feet per second, which is a pretty severe impact, roughly five and a half meters per second to do the conversion.’ The pass-fail criteria is a different metric to Gs, called severity index, an injury bio-mechanics metric that originated at Wayne State University, Detroit.

NFL Helmet Challenge

There’s a steady conversation about athletes’ health, focusing on head injuries and concussion. ‘A lot of changes have been driven from the top down, from NFL level, as well as what the NFL has done through their ranking system to drive high-performance helmets onto the field. In future, there'll be a drive for more high-performance materials, integrating them more tightly, incorporating engineering into the development process, and being as efficient with your protection, and equipment development, as possible. The biggest pinch- yourself moment I, and several others at Xenith had, was being part of the NFL Helmet Challenge in the fall of 2019.’ The NFL and NFLPA’s global Head Health Tech Challenge was to develop a game-changing helmet. ‘Why wouldn't we compete? Changing the game is what we're here to do. Competing in the two-year program was a great experience for everyone here, as well as partners we worked with, and paints a bright future for the products.’

Linear impact

Another piece of Xenith’s impact testing, again part of the NOCSAE standard, is known as the linear-impact test, or the pneumatic-rim impact test. Demonstrating, Jadischke says: ‘The pneumatic rim gets propelled at different speeds. The one we're going to do is around five or six meters per second. The system's capable of going to 10 meters per second, which would be able to simulate those super-elite, professional athletes. The rim gets projected at this stationary head form, and you'll see that the head and neck will move, then pull the table along. It's a pretty big impact, you'll see when we run it.’

X-2 and X-2E

The next series of helmets was the X-2 helmet, which came out in 2011, with some upgrades to the technology. Around 2014, Xenith came out with the X-2E, and the Epic. Displaying the two models, Jadischke says: ‘The big step we took forward with the Epic is we introduced something new, called the multistage shock. We refer to the initial shock design as a dual- stage shock, which means it's like a pot. That's the single stage. The second stage is that pneumatic effect I explained. The third stage is that center section of the shock, which can rotate and shear in different directions upon impact, to improve that rotational effect. With X-2E, we added in different shock heights as well, to bolster performance in different impact locations. This one is autographed by a University of Miami player, Ray Lewis.’

Shadow and Shadow XR

The Epic helmet has now been ‘sunset’. The X-2E+ is now in the model line-up, along with the Shadow and Shadow XR. ‘We refer to the X-2E+ as our workhorse, it has more of that traditional look, still uses that kind of legacy technology. In 2019, we introduced the Xenith Shadow helmet, with a more streamlined look to it, with the center Mohawk region. It has a little more aggressive look and feel, compared to our more traditional X-2E. The Shadow shell is moving away from that traditional hard plastic shell, it’s a quasi-flexible shell.’ The Xenith Shadow helmet is still available on the NFL rankings, within the green section, which means it's recommended. The Shadow XR is Xenith’s newest helmet model, an evolution of shock technology. The pods allow for a geometry and pneumatic effect, and Jadischke explains a lot of time was spent developing the geometries.

Reducing rational forces

Xenith focused on a linear-impact performance to reduce G-forces and a rotational-impact performance, to reduce the rotational forces. With the Shadow XR, there were castle-style geometries that can perform stiff in a linear impact, but they can also shear very easily for a rotational impact, amplifying the effect of the floating shock bonnet within the helmet shell. The other differentiator is the material, which is highly rate dependent. It's quite soft to touch and feel, which is nice when you’re putting the helmet on your head, and performs well with the 1000s of impacts a player might see on the field in the season. The material also has the chemical properties to stiffen up and perform like a play dough or Plasticine, where it really rigidifies on impact. That gets you the highest-level impact performance for those one 1000 type hits - like Ray Lewis running at full speed!

Credits

Thanks to Brian and to Ron for showing us around Xenith’s headquarters.

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This is an 18Sixty production for PTC. Executive producer is Jacqui Cook. Sound design and editing by Ollie Guillou. Recording by Bryce Huffman. And music by Rowan Bishop.

Episode guests

Ron Jadischke, Chief Engineer at Xenith

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Brian Thompson, Divisional GM, CAD Segment, PTC

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