"There really haven’t been many new technologies or materials used in helmets over the past 30 years," says Graham Sours. "It’s been very focused on materials like EPS and EPP," that classic gray helmet styrofoam. "There hasn’t been much in the way of revolution," he says.
Sours and his company Smith Optics are trying to change that. As the helmet category manager there, Sours was one of the driving forces behind a new lid called the Forefront: a stunning-looking full-coverage helmet that makes use of cutting-edge material science to protects cyclists better, last longer, and shows structural damage more clearly once it's been compromised or crashed.
The technology is called Aerocore, and Smith says it's up to 30% better than standard EPS foam when it comes to impact protection. Thanks to Aerocore, the Forefront is lighter, more comfortable, and—if we say so ourselves—more stylish than just about any other helmet out there.
Here’s how a company known for sunglasses was able to reinvent a vital technology that has remained unchanged (and deeply flawed) for years.
The Aerocore material acts as a low-density foam that wraps around the entire helmet and is reinforced externally by a high-density EPS foam. A plastic shell and inner EPS layer makes up the helmet's exoskeleton—while three sections of a material called Koroyd are located beneath this shell, directly above the rider's head. Koroyd itself is created using thousands of co-polymer tubes which are thermally welded together. This results in a honeycomb-type structure, almost like a mass of straw-like tubes fused together. Naturally, that leads to more breathability, too.
"Everything was in service of our original design brief, which was to focus on fit, protection, ventilation, and integration," says Sours. "We did a lot of internal testing, looking at the pros and cons of different materials, before we finally made our decision."
While Sours’ team didn’t develop the Koroyd material itself, Smith Optics is the first—and currently only—company to be using it in the context of helmets. "The way we’ve incorporated EPS foam with the Koroyd material is proprietary," says Cassie Abel, the brand’s communications manager. "It’s something no one else is doing."
"As a company, we’ve always been associated with innovation," Abel continues. "In 1965 our company founder, Dr. Bob Smith, invented the first goggles with a sealed thermal lens and breathable vent foam." This invention not only changed the powder skiing experience forever, but helped establish Smith Optics as an international brand.
Where Dr. Smith, a dentist by trade, made the prototypes for his goggles sitting at the kitchen table, today Smith Optics takes a not entirely dissimilar approach when it comes to nurturing innovation. It’s a valuable lesson that could be used even by a startup looking to get the best out of people working in different disciplines, or on different product lines.
"Our development group is a relatively small team," Sours says. "How we use that to our advantage is that because everyone is sitting in a close space—so that I sit next to the person in charge of sunglasses, for example—and every day we’re talking about how our products are going to work together. We’re in a closed office and everyone works together, offering opinions on every product so that it’s as good as it can possibly be."
Steve Jobs famously stated that the role of the innovator is to do the job that consumers shouldn’t have to: namely, to work out what they’re going to want next, before they’re aware of it. What this meant for the Forefront helmet was that Sours and his team didn’t just look at safety standards now, but at where they might be in a few years. This involved not simply living up minimum guidelines currently as stipulated by law, but also significantly exceeding them.
In the same way that bicycle helmets haven’t changed a great deal over the past few decades, the same is true of their safety standards—which have remained unchanged for a number of years. In the United States there isn’t even a uniform law which states that it is a legal requirement for cyclists to wear bicycle helmets when riding—with 21 states covering only children, and 29 having no statewide law at all. With more traffic on the road than ever, the majority of cyclist casualties being adults (less than one-fifth are children), and an increasing amount known about concussions, safety guidelines for cycle helmets are in line for a long-overdue overhaul.
"We’re trying to reinvent protection," Sours says.
But it’s not just about innovating without paying attention to the consumer. One of the things Sours notes that he focuses on is looking at the way cyclists (read: potential customers) use their products—mining their behavior for hidden insights that might lead to a unique design decision.
For instance, Smith’s reputation as an optics company means that Sours pays special attention to how headwear fits in with existing helmets.
"When we looked at a lot of our competitor’s models one thing we noticed was that sunglasses and goggles didn’t fit real well with the helmets they were creating," he says. "We wanted to make sure that the two would integrate well, both when the user was wearing their sunglasses, but also when they wanted to sit them on the helmet. We noticed that a lot of the time when it’s not sunny, cyclists like to push their glasses back to sit on the helmet. So we tried to make that a central feature of the helmet."
This same ethos applied to looking at emerging technologies and seeing how these could be integrated within the helmet. "One of our aims is to constantly stay ahead of new tools and products that are coming onto the market," he continues.
To this end the Forefront helmet can not only be integrated with your sunglasses and goggles, but also attachable lights and—increasingly—POV cameras. "At the moment we’re hearing a lot about Google Glass," Sours continues. "That could well be something to watch in the future."