UP TOP WITH SCOTT
Helmets are more than just a piece of foam we have to strap to our head. We spoke to Scott Sports about how they design and develop helmets with safety and comfort in mind.
How much thought do you put into your helmet? That lump of foam and plastic could be the difference between never riding again, and riding into the sunset for many years to come. So we dropped into Scott Sports HQ in Switzerland to speak to their helmet engineers, to find out more about what goes in to making helmets – including winning helmets like the Centric used by multiple World Champion Nino Schurter.
Scott have just about every kind of bike and make high quality shoes, clothing and accessories. They also make some really good helmets. But the Centric is the helmet that was on the head of Nino Schurter when he won the 2017 XCO World Championships, and it’s also the choice of the Orica road team.
“This helmet was replacing the Vanish,” says Marco Crivello when I ask how the whole process for the design and production of the Centric. “The vanish was a completely different design. It was much more minimal. It was higher at the back. For us we wanted a new direction in the design.”
“The Vanish was a benchmark for us, but there was a lot to improve,” adds Alex Dimitriou. “First of all the safety, the weight, the aerodynamics and ventilation. We wanted the same ventilation as the
Vanish but with better aerodynamics. This request was coming from the product manager.”
Crivello and Dimitriou also spoke to the Orica team and Scott-SRAM, about what they wanted. The roadies wanted greater aerodynamics, but everyone also wanted the safest helmet possible.
“It was a discussion with Orica but also our mountain bike team, Scott-SRAM, as they would wear the same helmet. Nino has worn this helmet since the Olympic Games,” said Dimitriou.
So what does a high-end helmet need? The feedback from the riders is essential, but it’s also feedback from people like you and I that dictates what brands create. I ask what the greatest priority is when designing a helmet.
“On a helmet like the centric which is a cross between road and mountain biking, ventilation is a big priority. Riders will wear it for many hours, so they want a light helmet, and well-ventilated. Safety though is the underlying factor. When you go to a helmet which is meant for Enduro or trail, the safety becomes one of the biggest priorities. As you start to design above the safety standards, as weight isn’t such a priority,” explains Crivello.
“For this helmet (the Centric) we tried to be within the standards, and weight was a priority. But with our range, perhaps more than other brands, we are still focusing on the safety side. Even on this kind of helmet we are still building with an extra margin of safety. For example there is lower coverage than other brands, it has the MIPS system, and some low density foam. We’re trying to keep a low weight but it still needs to be safe,” added Dimitriou.
“For us – safety underlies everything,” says Crivello. “And it’s probably higher than other brands. First of all, we always keep an extra margin on top of the safety standards. So we are never at the limit of the standards. And we don’t compromise with MIPS. Having that is a priority.”
FROM START TO FINISH
I’m interested in the process from having a brief, to selling helmets. But Alex Dimitriou explains it’s a long process, involving understanding what future technologies might be.
“We do the brief, then we review the brief with the engineers afterwards to see if it’s possible. Then we decide what the goals we can reach are, and what we can reach today – and what we might be able to reach tomorrow with new technology, because the process is quite long. About 2.5 or 3 years for a high end helmet. So we must already know what technology we will have available in 3 years.”
“Then once the brief is validated we give the brief to the designers, who come up with some proposals and the product managers choose a few with engineers, we start with 2D designs. It can be very conceptual, or more advanced, or far from what we can achieve. But it creates ideas.”
“When the product manager is happy and the engineers agree the design can be reached then we go in 3D. The first 3D model is printed with a 3D printer. It has a full shape.”
I pick up the 3D printed model of the Centric. It’s heavy, and has markings all over it – notes from designers and engineers. Marco confirms that the 3D printing stage has really assisted with the development.
“We can check volume, sizes and it really helps with the processes. It is a very useful step as doing
a helmet is a big investment and very expensive. So you can’t go from a sketch to tooling.”
Previously, clay was used to model a design – and that wasn’t all that long ago Alex explained.
“We did modelling with clay a few years ago, while today we go directly to 3D printing. We work a lot with 3D printing, to help achieve some base shapes that we can test in the wind tunnel, and for fit. With clay you get no concept of weight.”
With the Centric, they then created a prototype and had the tooling for such a task.
“We wanted to be as close as possible to our safety margin with this high end helmet, so we really needed the prototype that we could impact test with different thicknesses, different shapes.” The back of the helmet was changed thanks to this additional process, to make it exactly what the design team wanted.”
“We would use a dremel to hand shape it for fit, or the wind tunnel. Then we can rescan it to get the exact shape. Some modifications were done only for design, others have been for aerodynamics, other changes for safety.”
The scan of the helmet lets them finalise the design from the small changes they have made – ready to produce.
“When we have a final model we have to validate it with impact testing, we have that done externally. We do our own in-house testing too for small tests, but then it’s better to have a neutral test. Generally when we send something to the lab we know it will pass, we have tested it 100 times. All the moulds are now done by CNC, whereas 5 years ago there were manual moulds by hand – which could bring surprises.”
HOW SAFE C AN A HELMET BE?
Helmets are a mandatory piece of cycling safety equipment in Australia, but they don’t automatically make mountain biking safer. Marco and Alex are quick to state that there is so much more involved than just putting a helmet on your head.
“How you wear it is the big factor,” says Marco. “I think the fit system is a big change for safety. Many athletes keep the clip closed but the straps loose. They rely completely on the fit system. Now when they do the test they do the pull test which is on the strap. It’s an important part of the system.”
Alex agrees but says the safety comes from the whole system. “It is hard to say if one thing is the main contributor. MIPS is a big thing, and as Marco said the fit system is a part of it. But they are marginal gains.”MIPS and improved design have come about in recent years – but how much can a helmet change anyway?
“We optimise small things, but from the same base, to make a safer helmet. It’s all sorts of small things. Coverage is lower, holes are optimised, and other small changes,” says Alex. “Unfortunately, if you check the helmet from many years ago and now the main material is EPS. And it has been the same for years,“Marco adds. “There have been changes in density but the biggest changes are on design and knowledge of the design you can use. So you can improve weight, safety or ventilation. But it’s the same material.”
And how could they make helmets even safer? Mountain bikers are continually pushing to new boundaries of what we would think was possible – so how does protecting our heads keep up with that?
“We would like big thicknesses, low density foam, no holes and that would help to have a safer helmet. It would be light, but would look ridiculous on your head,” says Alex. And that’s the problem – we expect our safety gear to look cool. “Designers would like to have a very small helmet, with huge holes, no straps. But it would never pass certification.”
And that’s one of the challenges of designing safety equipment which isn’t only meant to protect the rider – but something that we want to buy. It has to look good.
“Every helmet is an arm wrestle between engineers and designers with the product manager as a referee!” Adds Alex jokingly.