The Safety Story
I'll start with full disclosure. Safety had never been my passion before starting Coyle. Rather, I was more drawn to the adrenaline that comes with challenges, sometimes otherwise known as danger. Intuitively I felt that the wood shells I made were adequate to keep me safe and that was borne out again and again in some of my less graceful trips on class 5 whitewater creeks. I was comfortable trusting this sense and never felt worried enough to research it or test it further.
“Well, they look really cool and I like that they are made from wood but, are they safe?”
This has been, of course, the most common question I've encountered. After all, wood hadn't been used for helmets and most people are neither material scientists or well versed in impact physics. And besides, even some of those who were had their doubts it turned out. It was not a surprise, but the pointedness with which it was asked did give me a lot of clarity about what to prioritize in the prototyping process. Some of the more colorful ways folks expressed their skepticism were revealed in answers to surveys we initially did.
“Looks decorative but not really practical”
“The current helmet seems a little silly--terrible venting, heavy and excuses instead of safety certifications.”
“What's the difference between this and hitting my head off a tree.”
“Another non-functional product.”
And, no, these were not the "worst" of it.
I started to really think about why, besides my kayaking experiences, I felt that the helmets were legitimate protection. Having had some wood working experience I had some sense about the structure and physical properties about wood (Note: for more technical discussion on the performance of Coyle products go to our Specs and Tech pages.) With these initial hunches and a few days spent online and in the library doing some research I started to both feel some encouraging affirmation of my basic sense and also learned about some of the weaknesses I faced as well as some of the strengths I hadn't yet considered.
A lucky happenstance of the development and testing process was the proximity and access to one of the largest and most well regarded wood sciences colleges in the world at Oregon State University. With access to experts in the field of wood materials and applications as well as highly calibrated and sensitive drop tower impact tools it was possible to do sensitive testing as well as benefit from insightful consulting.
Picture of Richardson Hall
Some of my best resources were Scott Leavengood and Milo Clausen of OSU's Wood Products Innovators Foundation as well as a host of other engineers and woodworkers. Through Scott and Milo I was able to get access to and learn how to use a very specialized piece of research equiptment know as an Impact Drop Tower. I could go to the wood shop on campus and generate some pieces of sample materials to test. I wanted to compare different types of woods against each other and against the materials (foams and plastics) thay are common in the vast majority of commercial bicycle helmets. I also was working on the possibility of using cork in the helmets and created various samples for that material as well.
Picture of samples
It was difficult scheduling time on the machine. For a while it was offline and being recalibrated on the east coast and I also kept coming up with new ideas, and thus samples, to test. The amount of time and thought that went into this process was more than I could have imagined when I initially started Coyle and as time moved along and I was continuing to only gather more samples to test I became a bit stressed about what kind of results I would eventually have. Would the results support going forward with things?
Finally, in December of 2011, I was able to schedule time with Milo to be trained in how the machine and its software worked and put a few of my samples through some impacts. As is the case with new endeavors there were some things I needed to take back to the drawing board and redesign how I would test (I had spent 7 years doing research in a previous career and was expecting this part.) When I returned to the lab at the end of the same month I was able to do more clean and clear comparisons and, in the course of a few short hours, I generated data and results that largely confirmed what I had anticipated. Some of the data was even better than I had hoped for, though I had tried to keep hopes to a fairly modest level. There was also finely detailed information I got from the results that better informed me in matters I had not been able to anticipate such as what particular kind of cork absorbed energy best.
Shortly after I had finished analyzing the data I had gotten I called Scott Huber at ACT Labs in El Segundo, CA. I had talked with Scott several times over the past year about my project and was finally ready to send some prototypes (that were built based on my research and on the test results I had obtained) to him for standardized testing. Scott convinced me that due to the novel nature of the project it would be best if I could come down to the lab myself and witness the testing process. He had never tested such materials before and knew I would get a lot more information by seeing the process.
I flew down to the lab in early January with 3 helmets to test. One with a wood shell and EPS liner, one with a wood shell and cork liner and a final one with an ABS plastic shell and cork liner. Several of the folks at the lab came to meet me and were curious about the shells and how they would perform. I was excited to be there as these were the first people I had contact with who really knew more than myself about helmet impact science. I had become an afficionado but not an expert.
Finally the testing began. We started with testing of the WRAX harness system I had developed and the harness passed both tests (not without learning some easy ways to improve them.) The helmets were then loaded onto the drop tower and, I knew, would be destroyed in the testing. Each one, at that point in my prototyping process, had taken me 10 or more hours to build and cost several hundred dollars to make. I was working on a shoestring business budget and in addition to the lab fees and the flight down to LA this was a big moment.
When I watched that first one fall for the first time I was excited and proud just to be there. I had done enough to feel some optimism about my chances and lots of friends had encouraged my follow through. I knew it could work. I didn't know how well it would work until I watched that first helmet slam down onto the steel anvil and then turned my head to view the readout and graph on the monitor but with that first helmet and, to various degrees, with the ones that followed, I had built prototypes that passed the tests they were being put through. Both the wood shells and the cork inserts proved themselves legitimate in an independent and standardized testing laboratory. It was a highlight of the process to that point.