The innovation of this product meant that while whizzing down the slopes, athletes didn’t have to fear seriously hurting themselves if they took a tumble or collided with an obstruction along the track, as they had a secret weapon hidden within their suits that their competitors did not.

The secret was a ground-breaking new material called d3o, which contains intelligent molecules that flow freely when moving slowly, yet on shock lock together to absorb impact energy. The material does not, however, go hard when it is hit, but, rather, the molecules lock together acting a bit like a net that both absorbs and spreads the force.

“The smart thing we have done with the material is maintain the properties of this liquid inside a solid material that is very soft and flexible and can be made in almost any shape,” explains Richard Palmer, CEO of d3o Lab.

Palmer, who has a degree in both mechanical engineering and industrial design, set up d3o Lab in 2001, named after the revolutionary material he invented.

He was experimenting with various materials including shear thickening fluids when he realised the technical opportunities these fluids could provide if their properties could somehow be passed over to an elastic material. How he and his team did this is, of course, a closely guarded secret and protected by many patents.

Palmer realised that with these properties d3o could be used in a wide range of applications, although, the route he initially decided to go down was the impact protection market, especially in sports brands.

One of d3o’s first customers was Spyder who integrated the material into the US and Canadian ski suits in time for the Turin Winter Olympics in 2006. The brief was to deliver protection to the racers without sacrificing comfort, control or performance.

“What athletes want from the protection is complete flexibility. So, they don’t want to feel it or be inhibited in their movement with it. They also want it to be as thin as possible and as aerodynamically shaped as possible,” explains Palmer.

The resulting pads were placed on the outside of the suits and, according to Palmer, due to time restrictions the initial design involved some fairly basic geometries and shapes. However, over the past few years Spyder has been working on making its ski suits more ‘slippery’ against air.

So, while it was refining the surface texture on the top face knit, d3o was working on creating a new material formulation to enable the design of a much thinner pad that would still perform to the high level needed by athletes on impact.

“The new formulation is the same principle but the ingredients are different,” he explains. “It is still a rate sensitive polymer and we still use an elastic matrix but the overall composition is different to what it was originally.”

d3o managed to reduce the pad volume by as much as forty per cent, enabling the pads to be integrated into a separate first layer that is worn underneath the race suit, rather than on the outside. As a result, the new ski suit is made of a three-layer bonded polyester knit with the outside layer being as smooth as marble, making it as aerodynamic as possible.

“d3o is put into a comfortable – but what you may call a compression or first – layer. This ensures that the overall race suit on the outside is as aerodynamically unaffected by stitches, thread and seams, all of which can contribute to wind friction,” explains Palmer.

The process involved in creating these new thin pads meant very close collaboration between the two companies.

“In the time between the two Olympics, we worked on our materials and also worked very closely with the development team at Spyder who did an awful lot of aerodynamic work trying to understand exactly where the protection was needed and how that was going to effect the aerodynamics,” says Palmer.

Initially d3o’s two PhD chemists and materials scientist worked internally on creating the new formulation for the material. Then in order to understand the impact performance of this solution it was put into d3o’s test rig.

“This test rig is effectively a drop weight rig that measures how much force is transmitted through. So, the less force transmitted through then the more protection you have. Pressure film is also used to show how the impact is spread over an area because what you want in terms of protection is to transmit less force into the body and also to spread it over a wider area,” explains Palmer.

Then d3o’s product designers worked closely with the design and development team at Spyder in order to create a good first concept. Once the prototypes had been produced, testing was carried out with real-world athletes who gave direct feedback, leading to a number of iterations. Spyder also carried out a great deal of tests with the race suits in its wind tunnel.

“We have made quite a few improvements and the d3o product we have designed for the Spyder race suit this year is a different material formulation,” says Palmer. “Its an advancement, really, as we have learnt a lot about how the material works and how we can make it more effective.”

All this work obviously paid off as the US Olympic Ski and Snowboarding team wrapped up the 2010 Olympic Winter Games with seventeen US athletes combining to win twenty-one medals, including six gold. Although d3o can’t take full credit for this success, it definitely contributed. “The attention to every single aspect of the performance of the skiers is incredible really,” says Palmer.

As well as Spyder, d3o has been used in many impact sports applications, proving that protective gear and footwear don’t have to be bulky and rigid. Some of the sports brands it has worked with include Puma, HEAD, Schoeffel, Quiksilver and SixSisOne. d3o has even been working with Gore-Tex to create protectors for its new waterproof breathable leather product.

But what about other applications? One particular market d3o has been pursuing is the military market, having won two awards to develop solutions for future soldiers. The first award is for a helmet liner for battlefield soldiers and the second is to develop a knee pad solution that is flexible and comfortable.

Although, d3o are also working on multiple other applications with the Ministry of Defence in the UK, and other defence organisations globally, these are currently still confidential. Yet, Palmer does reveal that they have started to look at ballistics.

“We don’t know what d3o is going to perform like in a ballistic operation but we are interested to find out. We are taking a leap of faith to see whether that’s a market which has the potential to be successful,” says Palmer.

With all these different applications and markets opening up for d3o, Palmer is now looking to grow the business by moving away from contract projects to putting licenses in place. He is also looking to take in some more experienced and professional people to really start to push the material out.

It appears, under the leadership of Palmer, who was named Arena o2 X Entrepreneur of the Year 2007 and in 2009 named as the BBC Focus Award for Innovation winner, the company’s future is as bright as its distinctive orange logo. 

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