Groundbreaking Welsh research project seeks to substantially cut cyclist deaths

30/10/14
Dr Philip Martin

Collaborative project using 3D printing technology to develop next generation bicycle safety helmets

A pioneering collaborative project has been launched in Wales to improve bicycle safety helmet performance using state-of-the-art 3D printing and supercomputing technology.

The project, led by Cardiff University  colleagues Dr Peter Theobald and Dr Philip Martin, is examining how 3D printed materials can be used to manufacture ultra-lightweight customised bicycle helmets to improve their safety performance during impacts.

Between 2005 and 2013, over 26,000 cyclists were either killed or seriously injured on the roads of Great Britain and this project seeks to reduce these numbers in the future.

Backed by High Performance Computing (HPC) Wales’ Research and Innovation fund, the researchers are using supercomputing to optimise the mechanical structures of 3D printed bicycle safety helmet designs; comparing the effects of different designs and 3D printed materials on impact performance.

The project also seeks to improve current safety guidelines for bicycle helmet designs in the UK and beyond, as existing guidelines consider only the impact performance of bicycle helmets. The researchers are examining the requirement to develop regulatory guidelines for evaluating bicycle helmet impact performance during impacts where ‘rotational’ impacts also occur – which is where the brain rotates inside the skull following the impact of the collision.

Researchers are using supercomputers to develop 3D printed helmets to improve a safety helmet’s structure to stop the deformation of the helmet and transfer of energy to the head. It is this impact and relative rotation of the brain inside the skull that causes most traumatic brain injuries. Allowing the brain and the skull to keep moving, and being slowed down in tandem, is believed to reduce the risk of brain injuries after collisions.

Dr Philip Martin, Research Associate at Cardiff University, said:

“It is scary how similar traditional bicycle safety helmets on the market actually are.  If you went into a helmet shop with an unlimited sum of money, you would come out with essentially the same thing, in regards to safety, as there is no superior product. The only real differences are in shape, colour and design - merely aesthetics. Everything is made out of polystyrene, which fails to offer adequate protection during ’oblique' impacts.

“The use of advanced supercomputing technology has helped us speed up our research to produce results much faster than any system I have worked with before. Currently, without these supercomputing capabilities, we would have to physically manufacture every new structural design, and then test every single one of them in a lab, to evaluate their impact safety performance potential. This would be both extremely time and cost intensive, rendering the project unfeasible.

“We are delighted that HPC Wales has given us the opportunity to take our project forward with this funding, as there is a significant opportunity to improve the performance of, not just bicycle safety helmets, but all personal protective equipment – and this is something that has the potential to save many lives.”

Professor Rick Hillum, CEO of High Performance Computing (HPC) Wales, said:

“This innovative research project has the potential to save thousands of lives across the globe and we are proud to support its brilliant work. 

“As access to research funding becomes more and more difficult to obtain, we are pleased to be able to offer this support for projects at the leading edge of scientific research, providing businesses with access to academic support and introducing them to world-class supercomputing technology.

“With our support, businesses can engage with academia and boost their knowledge and performance, helping them to compete on a global scale.”

HPC Wales has funded five collaborative projects at Cardiff University, Swansea University and Swansea Metropolitan University, helping businesses engage with academia and up-skilling their employees to harness the power of supercomputing. Other projects benefiting from this funding include innovative research to improve bus routes within Cardiff’s city centre and revolutionary work to significantly improve stroke rehabilitation.