You see that batting helmet Joe Mauer wears when he steps to the plate at Target Field? So maybe that's not the first thing you notice when the All-Star catcher for the Minnesota Twins is at bat, but you may want to take a closer look.
That helmet, and all the helmets worn by every team in Major League Baseball, was designed by a team of engineers at Miken Sports in Caledonia, the company contracted to come up with an innovative new model meant to protect players' heads from the fastest of major league pitches — those upward of 100 mph.
Designing equipment for professional sports leagues isn't new to Miken. It already has worked with the National Hockey League to produce composite sticks as well as bats for MLB. But the baseball helmet holds special esteem in the company, as it recently won an Edison Award for Innovation in the material science — composites category. For its design, it took gold in its division.
The helmet, which is patented by Rawlings and named the S100 Pro Comp, is the official equipment piece of MLB for this, its first full year in the majors. It was piloted with a handful of players in 2012, and after the positive feedback it received, it was officially named, according to Doug Heimer, senior research and development engineer with Miken whose team developed the helmet.
It's an improvement over what the pros used to wear. As opposed to the traditional injection-molded plastic helmets, the S100, through its aerospace-grade carbon fiber/epoxy resin construction, is 300 percent stiffer and 130 times stronger than the former head wear. And with minimal, yet effective, padding, it's no more heavy.
Miken is part of Jardon Team Sports, the parent company that includes Rawlings, which is the baseball equipment manufacturer and retailer that signed the contract with MLB to use the helmets exclusively.
Until now, Miken focused mainly on manufacturing bats. Helmets, Heimer said, is a relatively new venture. They’re made by hand at the Caledonia facility, before being shipped to other locations for testing and installation of padding.
Heimer, who lives in Caledonia, and his team were responsible for the design and development of the helmet. The team worked with product managers from Rawlings who gave them specific parameters — such as weight and cost — it needed in the end product.
“It’s up to us to design it, whether it’s getting new tooling (or) actually make sample prototypes and do the testing on those prototypes. Then (we) just progress that product until it’s manufacturing,” Heimer said. “We get parameters and then build toward that.
Rawlings actually came out with a shell a couple years ago, said Mike Thompson, senior vice president of marketing for Rawlings, but because of its size and weight, it was unacceptable to players.
“There was just cause for concern from the players, so it was a big deal to get them over the hump and comfortable with the direction we were headed,” Thompson said. “The helmet that was out there was a small profile helmet we had developed. … However, the profile of the helmet to get to that protect level (the league wanted) was much larger than the traditional MLB frame, so there was lots of resistance from players.”
That’s when the company approached Miken, knowing the work it does with composites, and asked for a high-strength, low-weight model with a sleeker profile.
The challenge the team was presented was to create a helmet that could withstand a direct hit from today’s big-league pitchers. Many times, those pitches can reach 100 mph, which upped the standard from a helmet that previous only needed to protect from a 68 mph throw.
“That was the baseline of the challenge: How do you get a helmet that will protect up to speeds of 100 mph, but designed a product to fit their cosmetic needs,” Thompson said, “small profile, sleeker and more along the design and shape lines of the old helmet.”
Once a prototype was created, the engineers did a number of tests and evolved the original design more than 50 times before it reached the final product that met all the criteria. The process took about a year, starting in 2011, before it was piloted last year.
“(MLB) is happy with the performance and happy with the look and weight, so they mandated the product across the board (this year),” Heimer said.
That caught the eye of the Edison Award steering committee, which annually goes through nominations submitted for the honor, which aims to recognize and honor innovation and innovators that create a positive impact on the world, according to its website.
The finalists are then presented to a panel of judges, which includes more than 3,000 senior business leaders and academics from across the country. The top three are ranked with gold, silver and bronze awards.
The award, the most prestigious honor in the industry, is a proud one for Heimer, who’s worked at Miken since January 2010 after earning a composite materials engineering degree from Winona State University. He feels it’s an accolade that’s not only good for the team that worked on it, but is one that will help promote the forward-thinking work the company does.
And it’s exciting to see their helmets on the heads of the big leaguers.
“It’s definitely something cool to be working on, especially when you’re looking on a national scale. Everyone’s viewing your product on TV that you helped design,” he added.
Thompson said the award speaks to the team taking on a challenge and meeting it.
“It’s a game-changing product,” he said. “It’s being used at the very highest level of the sport.”
The winning has to do with protection, which makes its achievement even more significant.
“It’s not just, we created a new widget that’s very cool,” he said. “This one actually changes the game and has the protection element to it. It takes protection to the next level.”
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