Making sports activities safer with 3D-printed, hyper-personalized pads

If you’ve ever seen a film about sports, you’ve seen it. It’s that moment that occurs two-thirds of the way through the story, when the inevitable victory of the protagonists suddenly seems a lot less certain. Maybe the inspirational mentor ends up in the emergency room muttering motivational quotes from a hospital bed. Perhaps the unorthodox coach wins the team only to be fired from management for thinking too outside the box. The star lacrosse player may be having a crisis of faith and realizing he wants to be an acapella singer rather than an athlete.

For the three co-founders of Protect3D, a real-life version of that moment happened between the second and fifth game of the Duke University football season a few years ago, when the company’s founders were engineering students. The team’s starting quarterback received a particularly hard sack during a game. He went down hard and stayed down. Things were looking bleak.

“It was our senior year,” Kevin Gehsmann told Digital Trends. “Our quarterback, Daniel Jones, who now plays for the Giants and who was a classmate of ours and a close friend, suffered a collarbone injury.”

Luckily for Jones, his friends had a way of getting him back in the game.

break the shape

The normal solution, Gehsmann said, would usually be to heat a piece of thermoplastic and mold it onto Jones’ torso, creating a makeshift prop. But that would also have been extremely restrictive, making it difficult for him to make the necessary throwing movements. Luckily — and here comes the moment of Hollywood-style redemption — Gehsmann and fellow students Tim Skapek and Clark Bulleit had been working on an innovative project that used 3D scanning and 3D printing technology to create braces, as well as other assistive devices , which was incredibly quick to prototype and print. The only problem? It hasn’t been properly tested yet.


“The medical staff came to us and said, ‘If there’s ever a time to apply our 3D technology to a specific medical use case, it’s to protect that collarbone injury on our starting quarterback because it might allow him to get back to the Space to get onto the field quicker and stay healthy if he gets hit,’” Gehsmann recalled.

The engineering students took a 3D scan of Jones and used that data to design and print a brace that fit him – and only him – perfectly. Think of it as the rusty version of Cinderella’s glass slipper. “We were able to use rapid prototyping along with 3D printing to give him an optimal solution that allowed him to pull through [the necessary] full throwing motion without restriction,” says Gehsmann.

Protect3D's 3D printed collarbone brace.Protect3d

A few weeks later, during Jones’ comeback game, Duke managed to beat Virginia Tech 31-14. Jones remained healthy throughout the remainder of the season, leading the Duke football team to a bowl game victory and finally being drafted sixth overall in the 2019 NFL draft by the New York Giants, for whom he is currently starting as quarterback.

For Jones, it was the end of a classic sports film—but for Gehsmann, Skapek, and Bulleit, it was just the beginning.

The democratization of sports technology

The co-founders of Protect3d, from left: Clark Bulleit, Kevin Gehsmann and Tim Skapek.Protect3d

Jump forward a few years (albeit few, as the founders of PROTECT3D – pronounced “Protected” – are only in their early 20s) and the Duke research project has grown into a full-fledged startup. The company’s goal is to use this promising technology to transform the way medical or protective devices for athletes are manufactured. Instead of an expensive, time-consuming process, the company’s app allows athletic coaches to quickly scan athletes in under a minute using a smartphone or tablet. This information is then uploaded to the cloud and sent to a team of design engineers who use the data to create custom devices for athletes, which are then printed and shipped.

“We’re based in North Carolina,” Skapek told Digital Trends. “For example, if we get a 3D scan on a Monday, we can design and 3D print that product [right away]ship it on a Tuesday, and a customer on the west coast of California has the perfect products by Wednesday to get started.”

It’s an example of the democratization of sports technology in action. “In the most elite circles in athletics, there have been bespoke solutions for all types of injuries or equipment for many years,” Skapek continued. “The key to our approach, and what we’re really trying to revolutionize the industry, is that these custom solutions have traditionally required a lot of manual work. They require hand molding, plaster casting, things that are tedious and require a great deal of skill. Our whole mission has been to not only create great custom devices, but [also] Make the process of manufacturing custom equipment so much smoother, more efficient, more accessible, and more scalable — to make it accessible to collegiate athletics, high school athletics, amateur athletics, and truly everyone, everywhere.”

The future of sports equipment

The Protect3d scanning process.Protect3d

While many of the company’s devices are designed to help people treat injuries, Skapek also focuses on developing preventative products to keep uninjured athletes healthy, Skapek says. Products to date have included pads to protect against direct impact to injured areas, as well as a variety of “splints and braces” for hand and wrist injuries. To date, PROTECT3D has surpassed 500 shipped devices, although the co-founders acknowledge that growth has slowed during the pandemic.

A Protect3d hand/thumb splint is created.Protect3d

“Everybody’s sports budget was frozen and they weren’t allowed to invest in new technology or anything like that,” Gehsmann said. Thankfully, as the world gradually returns to normal, the numbers are rising again — along with support from everyone from the NFL to college football teams.

“[Pricing is] a bit complex because we’re a small startup,” Gehsmann said. “It changes all the time. But the way we work with universities and professional soccer teams is to license software and then charge for each product directly. But ultimately, as we grow and reach a certain scale, we hope that 3D printing will continue on its way to where… our fully custom products are comparable to those off the shelf [standardized] Products.”

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