San Diego State University and University of Southern California engineers are pushing the frontiers of athlete safety and elderly care with their recent foray into 3D-printed protective gear, drawing inspiration from the ocean's depths. A team of researchers utilized the unique structure of the cuttlefish's bone, known for its strength and lightweight properties, to design an advanced body armor, intended to support football players and potentially service members and astronauts in their high-stress environments.
Assistant Professor Yang Yang from San Diego State University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering explained the rationale behind selecting an aquatic template for the project. "So I got inspiration from this cuttlefish bone structure, and I saw that as lightweight and strong structures, but the structure is very complex is hard to manufacture by the traditional manufacturing precise and 3D printing gives us a good solution," Yang told CBS 8. The gear is intended to be an added layer, not a replacement, for existing equipment and incorporates data collection to aid future research.
In their quest to revolutionize protective wear, the researchers developed a unique composite by integrating piezoelectric Rochelle salt crystals into structures resembling a cuttlefish bone's matrix. This novel material mix exhibits the required durability and has built-in capabilities for monitoring and data collection. "This 3D-printed composite materials with a biomimetic structure inherits the lightness and strength of the matrix, and also gains sensing capabilities through the grown piezoelectric salts," Researcher Runjian Jiang explained in a study featured by San Diego State University News.
The engineered solution is also a nod toward sustainability. Traditional ceramics, when damaged, become waste, while the team's 3D-printed material can be repaired and recycled. "When traditional ceramics break, it’s impossible to heal them in this way, creating a lot of waste. Our method, on the other hand, is reusable. The manufacturing process uses much less energy, and the overall price of the product is lower," Yang disclosed in the same SDSU News publication.
Among the forthcoming developments is a specialized knee pad for elderly individuals that would not only cushion falls but also send alerts for help—turning passive protection into an active response system. Looking ahead, there are plans for commercialization as well as collaborations with industry partners, such as 3D Systems and their involvement with the NFL, to produce customized helmets with enhanced protection and impact analysis. "We are able to design a specific helmet for each player that will fit their body better, allowing for more flexibility and improved performance," Yang also mentioned to SDSU News, indicating wider applications for the technology on the horizon.