Heading into the future
Bell leaps forward by offering personalized helmets to consumers
It’s no secret that racers are always privy to the latest technology before average consumers can get their hands on it, but another piece of that race-ready intelligence is being developed for the commercial space. Bell Helmets has begun making its customized helmets available to consumers, and 25 trailblazers have already brought home their personalized lids.
The 59-year-old helmet company hosted a custom helmet event at the FIM Superbike World Championship at Laguna Seca in September, inviting 25 customers to a VIP experience, provided they purchased a custom Bell Star Carbon.
Getting to the point of offering custom helmets to consumers was a big step for Bell, as the company has spent years refining the customization technology to bring a racer-like helmet experience to the average rider. And there’s still more work to be done to deliver this technology to the masses.
Launching custom helmets
About four years ago, Bell decided it wanted to give its athletes an edge by creating custom helmets shaped specifically to the unique characteristics of each rider’s head.
The brand turned to the R&D center of its parent company, Easton-Bell Sports. With experience in bicycle, football, baseball, softball, hockey, lacrosse and action sports gear — especially helmets — Easton-Bell has developed facilities that employ engineers and testers and include equipment such as CNC and rapid prototype machines.
Bell created a process for producing one-off helmets for its top-tier riders. By mapping the riders’ heads and adding energy management materials in the proper places, Bell was able to design helmets that impressed its teams in wind tunnel testing and on the track.
“From a performance aspect, the helmet’s a lot more stable and it’s a lot more comfortable, so you’re focused on racing as the helmet basically disappears,” Chris Sackett, business unit director for Bell Helmets, told Powersports Business.
The process Bell had developed worked well for top-tier athletes, who were glad to get their hands on personalized helmets. Soon other riders were learning about the custom helmet technology and wanted one, but the production was too arduous to be scaled for pieces to be made more frequently.
“We were able to make these one-off helmets with the facility we have here, but it’s very time-consuming and expensive,” Sackett said.
After throwing what it saw as too much time and resources toward custom helmet production, Bell began searching for a better solution. The company wanted to bring the products to other riders — and eventually the public.
As a means to that end, about three years ago Bell gathered a team of personnel from its Advanced Concepts division.
“Their whole job is really to look in front of the market four, five years down the road, and find ways to advance technology in all of our businesses,” Sackett reported.
It didn’t take them long to find a solution.
New technology for mass production
The Advanced Concepts team of director Chris Pietrzak, senior developer Joe Tomascheski and developer Julio Valencia made great strides in a relatively short period of time. They were able to design a proprietary 3D imaging program that digitally maps a rider’s head in a way that can ease quickly into production. Bell is in the process of patenting the technology.
“What took days of work to build one helmet, it’s now down to a matter of an hour or two, from the time the consumer or athlete comes to our facility,” Sackett explained.
Using this technology, Bell has been able to roll out custom lids to more of its hundreds of athletes.
But, taking the helmets off the track and on to the road proved to be a more difficult challenge. For one, Bell had to figure out how to certify each helmet to safety standards, considering each is unique.
Bell worked with safety and certification experts from Snell to create a new custom-fitted helmet policy. The whole certification process took eight months, but each custom lid that Bell creates is now Snell- and DOT-certified.
“We went over every hurdle they had and literally helped write the custom helmet standard for Snell and DOT,” Sackett said. “The custom helmet standard as we know it is literally a direct off-shoot of the work we’ve done.”
Bell also had to study the market to make sure consumers would be willing to pay the added cost for a custom helmet.
“Obviously that entails a lot of testing, as far as making sure the market can handle something like that, making sure consumers can afford it,” Sackett said.
Helmets in the first batch that were produced sold for $1,100 apiece, and Bell is planning to stick near that price range for now.
“It’s $650 for the helmet and $450 for the customization, so that includes the custom scan and the set up. There’s a lot of CAD work involved and the actual back-end work into the building of the helmet,” Sackett explained.
But, he said, the 25 riders who have bought into the technology have seen value in the expense.
“Some of the helmets on the market are $900, so literally they’re spending $200 more than they would spend on some of the other helmets on the market that aren’t custom fit,” Sackett said.
Bell is considering making helmets for repeat buyers less expensive, since their scan will have already been completed. So far, the Star Carbon has been the only custom helmet available, though personalized Moto-9 helmets are starting to be developed for racers. Eventually Bell would like to make the technology available on a wider range of product, though it’s likely the company will focus on its premium helmets to justify to consumers the added expense of the customization.
First consumer purchases
Bell originally planned to launch the first series of consumer purchases at the MotoGP race in Indianapolis in August, but because of certification delays, it rescheduled the launch for the FIM Superbike World Championship at Laguna Seca in late September.
A marketing campaign targeted racer-goers three weeks before the event, inviting them to a VIP experience included with the purchase of one of the first custom Star Carbons available to consumers for $1,100.
“The net we could cast was very, very small, and we were very surprised,” Sackett said. “We were very surprised that we sold 25.”
Twenty-five was the targeted number, as Bell saw this initial launch as a continuation of its beta testing. The response from those who went through the digital mapping and went on to receive their helmets that weekend was positive.
“We successfully scanned 25 individuals on Friday, and we delivered 25 finished helmets on Sunday with 100 percent satisfaction,” Sackett said. “As a matter of fact, everyone was blown away by what they’d been missing and what the industry has been missing in terms of comfort.”
Bell also used the event as a training opportunity, bringing staff from marketing, sales, R&D, logistics and distribution to learn about the new technology.
Though Bell has already sold a couple dozen of its helmets to the public, it’s not yet ready for mass distribution. Bell still has to figure out how to make custom helmets a profitable venture for the company and has to determine the logistics for rolling the technology out nationwide.
The company’s new product facility in Illinois may be key to being able to produce a larger number of custom helmets. Bell expects to do more VIP sales events in 2014, and the hope is that the 3D imaging technology will be in dealers’ hands by 2015 or 2016.
“There’s still a lot of uncertainties, but the reality is if there’s a way to do it, we will do it,” Sackett said.
The process that Bell is patenting is simple to use. It won’t require dealers to have a lab setting, expensive equipment, or engineers on staff.
“It’s going to be something that a parts counter guy can literally facilitate in a matter of 20 minutes,” Sackett explained.
Once commercialization begins, Bell expects to work with its top dealers to sell the custom helmets first.
The benefit to the customer, and therefore the dealer, is evident. Current helmets are made for a subset of the general population, therefore at one dealership 10 different customers with 10 different skull structures may buy the same helmet in the same size because it fits as best as possible. To accommodate that variety of customers, helmets tend to weigh more than they should and have less energy management foam than a custom helmet can.
“We’re essentially making helmets a little bit larger than they need to be, compensating with padding,” Sackett said.
So far those at Bell and at local track day schools who have beta tested the custom helmets have been nothing but pleased.
“Every single one, 100 percent without fail said they cannot go back to a stock any brand helmet. It changes the whole perception, dynamics of riding,” Sackett said.
Many have said they barely notice the custom helmets because they’re so form fitting. That luxury may open dealers, and Bell, to a new customer — one who traditionally doesn’t wear a helmet.
“It might even be so great that people are like, ‘I don’t even mind wearing a helmet now because I don’t even know it’s on my head,’” Sackett said. “It literally just disappears, and it enhances the ride, and it makes riding a motorcycle more enjoyable.”
Though mass production may be a few years away, it’s clear Bell is on a path to offering a superior product that no one else has ever delivered to the average consumer.
“We’ve had a long history of being the very first to do things,” Sackett said, “and this is just another one of those firsts.”