Bioengineering: XO Armor Uses 3D Printing to Create Custom Protective Guards for Athletes

Apr 27, 2021

XO Armor provides athletics trainers and sports medicine professionals an all-inclusive 3D printing solution to create 3D-printed protective gear for athletes. The early days of XO Armor began in Michael Zabala’s biomedical engineering lab at Auburn University. At the university, Zabala used a full body scanner to create 3D models of the human body. His ultimate goal was to translate the scan of the human body into a print, similar to what was already being done in 3D-printed prosthetics. He purchased the Pro2 dual extruder 3D printer and the Pro2 Plus large format 3D printer from Raise3D through internal funding from the university.


A Custom 3D-printed Wrist Guard

Zabala had the opportunity to create a custom 3D-printed guard when his neighbor asked him if he had an idea of how to create a custom brace for the injured hand of a wide receiver. Zabala’s solution was to use a 3D scanner to scan a model, adjust the offset for the thickness of the padding, and then give it thickness for rigidity, while keeping in mind that the player would need to wear this brace under a glove.

The wrist guard only required one scan and one material, PLA, but went through several design changes. As the wide receiver’s hand healed, the swelling would go down, changing the shape of the player’s hand, and consequently altering the fit of the guard and the offset. These changes meant the design of the guard needed to be updated as the healing progressed. While the athlete did not immediately play due to injury, he was able to practice using the 3D-printed wrist guard. While the 3D-printed guards became wearable in a day, it was two to three weeks later when the player wore the guard in a game, and both player and guard performed well.

After seeing the success of this 3D-printed wrist guard, Zabala then made a 3D-printed shoulder guard for another football player at Auburn University. After the 3D-printed shoulder guard took a direct hit and the player emerged unharmed during a game, West Virginia reached out to Zabala for 3D-printed protective gear for one of their players. The team scanned the player with a phone and Zabala was able to remotely create the 3D-printed guard. This part was used in a game against Kansas State. In the Fall of 2019, XO Armor LLC was created.


3D Printing Is Ideal for the Small Batch Manufacturing Needs of Custom Protective Guards

3D printing has the capacity to print small batches of unique parts. This is directly beneficial for 3D printing custom guards which need to fit one individual. This includes taking into account that the designs of these guards might need to be changed for that individual. For example, the design of the wrist guard Zabala printed for the wide receiver needed to be altered as the wide receiver’s hand healed, because the swelling would reduce and the shape of the hand would change. This requires small batches of different designs for an individual. 3D printing is able to do that efficiently.

3D-printed Protective Guards Are Custom to Each Individual


3D Printed Guards Can Be Produced Quickly

3D printing protective guards have a streamlined process from printing to the finished part, which leads to shorter production cycles. However, overall timelines for printing the guard can vary, depending on the type of guard required and whether the part is produced in-house or if a service is used and the guard must be delivered.


For example, XO Armor offers an app that allows athletes or trainers to scan the area of the body of the athlete that requires a brace. They can then submit the scan to XO Armor. XO Armor will then create the 3D-printed guard based on the submitted scan and have it delivered. The company also offers an in-house 3D printing solution where they provide a Raise3D printer and the necessary software to the client. If the 3D-printed guard is produced in-house it can be, depending on the type of protective guard required, a custom 3D-printed protective guard can be printed and worn within a day.


Differences Between Custom 3D Printed Guards and Traditionally-Made 3D Printed Guards

Without a 3D printer, this process is not entirely possible because the guard itself will not be very custom. The reason the guard is not very custom is a result of the traditional materials and process used to create the guard. Traditionally, this methodis labor-intensive requiring plaster molds, and carbon fiber. It is bulky and not able to adhere that accurately to the individual’s anatomy. Due to the part’s inability to closely match an individual’s anatomy, the guard is less effective.


However, a 3D-printed guard is created using the 3D scan of a specific athlete, so the scan and final 3D-printed part is custom to that individual. Since the guard can match the player’s anatomy, it will have close to 100% contact area to where you want to constrain a joint. Increased contact means better distribution of the load, meaning there is no stress concentration. Less stress concentration means a reduction of the chance of injury. Since custom printed guards have a greater contact area, they are also great for preventative use.


How 3D-printed Guards Impacts Sports Medicine

Since a custom 3D-printed protective guard accurately molds to an athlete’s anatomy, not only does the guard deliver a reduction of the chance of injury, but the individual is more comfortable, resulting in a better patient experience.


In the case of XO Armor, the company’s method of scanning an athlete to create a 3D model frees up time, especially for those studying the athlete’s body part to create a guard. As the company creates more 3D-printed guards for athletes, XO Armor is increasingly in contact with medical professionals to discuss the 3D scan of the player’s body. In this discussion doctors and XO Armor give each other feedback, to ultimately finalize the design for the custom 3D-printed protective guard.


Choosing the Right 3D Printing Material

As with other devices used for medical applications, the final result of 3D printing a guard needs to meet the quality, reliability, and precision standards of the medical field. XO Armor takes this seriously and is registered with the FDA, with a focus on class 1 510k devices. The medical field’s standards needed to be thought of in all aspects of creating a 3D-printed guard, including what type of 3D printing material, or filament, is suitable for the guard.

Custom 3D-printed guards must accurately fit the body as well as be very strong. XO Armor found that PLA prints quickly and reliably. A protective guard made with PLA is also strong enough for a person to stand on it.


Non-Contact Sports Can Also Benefit From 3D-printed Guards

Since their first year, XO Armor has experience in 3D printing guards for a range of sports that includes football, hockey, soccer, basketball, baseball, and lacrosse. However, non-contact sports such as ballet can also benefit from custom 3D-printed guards.


For example, ballet dancers perform en pointe. The tips of the pointe shoes have a rigid box made of layers of fabric, cardboard and/or paper hardened by glue. This box supports the entire weight of the ballerina, meaning it has to be strong. However, these boxes are also stiff and must be broken before their first use to allow the ballerina to bend their feet into the right arch to create the elegant movements of ballet. Ballet dancers practice up to 8 hours a day, as well as the time dancing during performances. As a result, ballerinas use many pointe shoes, usually more than 100 per season.

In addition, everyone’s feet and toes are different. A reliable, custom 3D-printed guard for their toes would be an excellent idea for pointe shoes. A 3D-printed guard has the potential to accurately mold to the dancer’s foot, be strong enough to support the weight of the dancer, and flexible enough to allow them to arch their feet.


Why Raise3D?

XO Armor chose enclosed 3D printers from Raise3D because they do not need to put it together. The company iterated externally to print shops for other FDM 3D printers and 3D printing technologies. However, the company found that they consistently and reliably produce the best 3D-printed parts on a Raise3D printer.


Watch Raise3D’s interview with XO Armor discussing their 3D-printed protective guards here

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