Clad in white lab coat, protective gloves and goggles, paper cup of an extraordinary orange foaming substance in hand, D3O’s Senior Material Developer Jonathan Needham is putting weeks of preparation and research into action.
“This is a blend of polyol and isocyanate,” he enthusiastically explains. “They react together to form long chains of polymer. As the foam grows, the polymer becomes stronger and sets.
“We carefully measure the time it takes for the reaction to start, for the foam to reach full size and for it to become tack free. These statistics tell us a lot about the chemistry of the polymer and how it might behave when it’s moulded into an article. This could be the start of a completely new D3O formulation.”
Because of the size of the samples made by the team of expert chemists in the Material Development Lab at D3O’s London headquarters, all experiments are carried out using paper cups and plastic buckets. However, this is a place where truly cutting-edge science takes place.
Amid the work benches, tool racks, ovens and fridges, Needham and his colleagues devise new material formulations and optimise the properties of D3O’s existing 30-plus patented and proprietary technologies.
Next door is the Test Lab, with its two state-of-the-art test rigs and a shelf of weighted ‘strikers’ to replicate the kind of impacts D3O technology seeks to protect against. It’s kept at a carefully regulated 23 degrees C and 50 per cent humidity level. “No day goes by without the thump-thump of someone testing on a rig,” says Needham.
Every sample created within the labs is recorded in a process known as ‘characterisation’: its weight, density, dimensions and hardness, the last of these measured with a device called a durometer.
“You can squeeze a sample and sense its hardness but a durometer puts a number on it. Each sample is tested in several places, marked O for hardness and X for impact. This helps ensure consistency and supports our commitment to making products that are comfortable and durable as well as protective.”
More than 146,000 samples have been logged in the D3O database since 2013. “We usually have a little celebration when we reach numerical landmarks!” Likewise, every impact test is logged according to specific protocols, including height, angle of impact and striker used.
“Here, a 5kg striker set at a height of 110cm represents 50 joules of energy. Back and limb protectors also have to be tested when wet, to simulate weather conditions. We test to international standards where they exist while, for new products that don’t have a specific standard, we base testing on research and our own expertise.”
Needham’s role is truly end-to-end: “I help to refine the opportunity into a brief, then I’m involved throughout the development and optimisation stages of a project: making samples, characterising them, impacting them, doing the data analysis and helping refine the ultimate product.
“Inevitably, the nature of R&D means that you sometimes head down a blind alley. However, our approach is to try as many routes as possible at the start of a project and never be afraid to fail.
“By being constantly alert to the possibilities of what I’m doing and evaluating each step, suddenly I might find a way forward for a brief that at first seemed almost impossible or didn’t fit with our understanding of how materials behave.
“We have strong connections in business, in universities and among our suppliers and clients, and we access their knowledge too. It’s hugely stimulating to have the freedom and autonomy to innovate in such a dynamic business sector.”
This article was originally published in Issue 07 of D3O’s IMPACT Magazine, which is available to download for free.