This article was originally printed in our August 2017 issue of TransWorld Motocross.
Born From Science | MIPS Tackles Rotational Force Head-On
By Mike Emery
Motorcycle helmets have been around since the early 1900s, and in the past one hundred years or so, they have made incredible strides and advances in how well they protect our beautifully complex brains. Over the past two decades, however, a small group of passionate individuals based out of Sweden have been striving to perfect a way to further protect the brain from rotational force and strain when an impact occurs during a crash. From this small group grew MIPS, short for Multi-Directional Impact Protection System, and they are currently located in Stockholm. Their logo can be found on a variety of helmets, from bike helmets to motocross lids. We recently headed overseas to check out all of the information and technology behind MIPS, and the following paragraphs dive deep into the company's history, a tour of the facility, and our takeaways from the journey—all to gain a further understanding of what that small yellow MIPS logo means when you see it on a helmet.
Companies often need scientific research to prove their product is worthy of purchase, but in the case of MIPS, they strived to develop a product for the primary purpose of saving human brains, while hoping their sales would come along with it. With a career as a neurosurgeon, Hans von Holst grew both saddened and frustrated at the number of patients he was encountering with traumatic brain injuries that he felt could have been prevented with better helmet technology. Working closely with the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, he aligned with KTH researcher Peter Halldin—now chief technology officer at MIPS—and began the process of creating what formally became known as MIPS AB in 2001. Through initial research and an entirely new testing rig featuring an angled impact point, the group published their first paper titled, "A New Laboratory Rig for Evaluating Helmets Subject to Oblique Impacts." It was within this paper they explained the reasoning for testing helmets with a rotational impact in addition to the standard radial impacts that had been around for years. Using a computer-based "finite element model" of the brain during impact testing, the team was able to discover exactly the type of movement they wanted to improve and how different impacts and angles affected brain strain.
Their first product came years later in 2007, in the form of an equestrian helmet, but it was soon realized that MIPS would be better suited to work as an aid to established helmet companies rather than compete against them. A few years later they jumped headfirst (pun intended) into the snow and bike markets by forming a consulting service for established helmet companies, and the resulting product was meant to reduce the impact and strain during a rotational impact.
Working closely with multiple companies on development, an investment and backing from BRG Sports (former parent company of brands Bell, GIRO, and C-Preme) in 2014 was a big moment for the brand in both monetary and industry recognition. Since then, MIPS has partnered with over 45 brands, made over 200 models with their liner inside, and produced over one million helmet liners. Their rapid growth is not only indication the company is heading in the right direction, but also that the helmet market is going through a significant period of growth right now.
So What Exactly Is MIPS?
Without a picture or good explanation, it can be tough to understand what exactly the MIPS layer is without seeing it. If you hold up any MIPS-equipped helmet—motorcycle, snow, bike, etc.—you will see a thin, bright-yellow piece of low-friction plastic that allows omnidirectional movement between the EPS foam and the pads that make contact to the user's head. It's attached to the helmet's foam with multiple anchor points, all of which are dictated by the helmet design and ventilation ports, and secured in place with flexible bands that clip to the MIPS liner and hold it all in place. Simple, right? Try saying that to the scientists who spent countless hours in the lab developing the technology!
Still, many are left scratching their heads, wondering what this liner actually does. Without diving into the publicly available detailed graphs and testing data, it's a way for the rotational force to be absorbed and redirected rather than transmitted to the brain during an impact. In short, it allows the helmet's protective foam layers to move in an omnidirectional manner separate from the foam that is in contact with your head and the MIPS liner.
The idea is to implement the liner into existing helmet designs and work with companies like Fox, Troy Lee Designs, and many others from the initial design stages of a helmet and through production. There are stipulations, however, and CEO Johan Thiel mentioned that MIPS won't go to market with a helmet brand or model if they haven't seen at least a 10 percent improvement on levels of strain during a rotational impact test. Some brands see more improvement than others, and the reality is that helmet options range greatly in their design and impact protection—none of which MIPS would discuss, as they are not representatives of each brand. MIPS wants to make sure that every helmet that they become incorporated into is safer.
Helmet Testing in 2017 and Beyond
When you pick up any motocross helmet that is currently available to consumers, each will have some sort of a certification. We could write an entire article on the differences between the certifications, but in short there's DOT (federally mandated in the United States), ECE (European standard), and Snell (Snell Memorial Foundation) helmet certifications, all of which are based on a pass/fail grade. These standards have been around for years and certainly established the standard of safety, but as of today there are no standards set on rotational impact grading. What companies like MIPS are doing is setting precedent with scientifically proven data and test results found through years of testing rotational impacts. The future is unwritten, and we wouldn't be surprised if a standard for such testing is developed in the coming years due to the overwhelming amount of advances in modern helmets.
Pulling up to the MIPS facility, the first thing we noticed was the building that is coincidentally shaped like the top of a helmet and a MIPS liner! This was not intentional, but they did mention it was a cool bonus when the company expanded into this building. Walking inside we were greeted with a wall of helmets on display that featured the familiar MIPS yellow logo, and we were excited to see what the facility had in store in the upcoming tour of the building. Extremely clean workspaces were common, and the aroma of coffee and pastries filled the air. It was just about time for fika (Google this—Sweden knows how to have a proper coffee and pastry break), and we were all ears to learn more about the brand.
Weaving through staircases and down narrow hallways, the tour of their building was impressive. They even walked us to an active bunker that was a part of the age-old building, and while we're years removed from the Cold War era, it still has a working air-quality tester inside. One room is filled entirely with boxes covered in markings that designate their approval to market, and after we made our way into the main testing area, we saw another entire wall of both approved helmets and in-progress helmets.
The MIPS test lab consists of three separate test rigs, along with multiple head-form options that are complete with all of their internal test sensors to see and hold—they're surprisingly heavy! The first test is a straight drop down to a moving griptape surface, which simulates a hit to the top of your head and helmet at speed. The second test rig is another drop down of the helmet with a 90-degree attachment, causing a rotational impact that also simulates a realistic crash scenario. Capturing all of the action to replay the impact in slow motion are 1,000 frames per second cameras, a key to the visual end of the impact. These tests are violent and actually give you a chill when you think about a real crash or accident. The third test rig is a result of the company's latest endeavor, which is investigating and researching ways to test football and hockey helmets more realistically. This is only in the research phase, yet it's exciting to know that the future of stick and ball sports is bright as far as helmet technology is concerned.
Surrounding the test lab are a few smaller rooms, one of which has a CNC machine that was being utilized to cut the beginning stages of a head form. This machine is also used to make prototype pieces if needed while they are working with clients. Across from the CNC machine sits a 3D printer that is used for product development and was currently prototyping new MIPS fixation systems that are in development. The next room over houses the machine that's responsible for creating in-house test layers, and Technical Engineer Amy Pomering was in the process of making one when we popped in. The finished head form is placed in the machine, and once the plastic layer is heated up to the proper temperature, the head form raises into the layer, which creates its shape. They later cut the liners as needed for testing. The approved and finalized product is manufactured in China, but the key to this facility is being able to make any product needed for testing and prototyping in-house.
Three other rooms give an indication of the company's values and focus of leading active and healthy lifestyles. An exercise room fills one corner and another adjacent room holds host to a table where a massage therapist comes in every other week to work on the employees if they are interested. The third room is bicycle parking, and it was packed. "Just don't ride to work without your MIPS helmet!" CEO Johan Thiel joked during the tour.
The tour concluded with an in-depth lecture and Q&A with Hans von Holst, who was captivating with his enormous bank of knowledge regarding brain research. Their study dives deep, and the takeaway from the session was that the passion is still there to improve, but they are sure that their research and results will be well received by anyone who chooses to take a look at the publicly available records. Our brains were completely saturated with new information and knowledge, and we left their headquarters with a positive feeling toward the future of head safety. *Full gallery from the tour below.
Like we mentioned earlier in this article, helmet technologies are rapidly progressing, and multiple brands have made efforts toward improving rotational impact protection. Brands like 6D and Leatt are both utilizing different systems and ways to accommodate rotational impacts, and when we brought the topic up in conversation, MIPS was happy that this has become a proven topic of conversation. They spoke of testing the other options and systems, and even stated, "If it's available, we've tested it." While we don't recommend anyone go around purposely hitting their heads to test out how well a helmet works, we strongly urge our readers to do their due diligence in researching the vast options and scientific data available when it comes to choosing head protection. MIPS is a company with the sole intention of finding ways to further protect the human brain, and they have done just that for 20 years. We have a feeling you'll be seeing their yellow logo and system in many more helmets in the future!