Famous for its active wear and sports apparel, Russell Athletic has recently gotten into the gear game with CarbonTek, a “revolutionary padding system and exoskeleton.” Built from a dual-density foam that’s been harnessed by high-calibre carbon fiber — leftover from the production and construction of commercial airplanes — this new line of protective technology is already making waves in the NCAA, with sites set on the NFL.
Any of the 26 million people that tuned in to watch the 2014 BCS National Championship game saw CarbonTek in action as 11 of Auburn’s starters lined up wearing the innovative new football pad technology. “The Russell Athletic CarbonTek Shoulder Pad System has revolutionized the way we protect our student-athletes at Auburn,” says Clark Pearson, head athletic trainer for the school’s football program. “It is lightweight and allows excellent shoulder mobility without giving up shoulder protection.”
Much of that mobility comes from the fact that CarbonTek boasts a 10% reduction in weight, an attribute attained from being the first of its kind made from 100% aerospace-grade carbon fiber. “We didn’t want to come out with a shoulder-pad system that was like [what] everyone else had by just changing the color or coming up with a new name,” says Sarah Gholston, Russell Athletic’s vice president of design and technology. “We wanted to change from the inside out with materials that had not been used before and had been proven in some other industry.”
After partnering up with a top-tier automotive supplier, and coming up with the idea for their OS technology — which involves using a dual-density foam that allows for increased impact dispersion (see above) — they were then required to find a high-quality exoskeleton for this new brand of technology.
“We knew we didn’t want to go in the direction of a standard plastic shell,” Sarah explains. “Then through our conversations with the automotive folks, we got connected with some aeronautical carbon fiber suppliers.”
One of these suppliers just so happened to be the world’s leading manufacturer of commercial and military-grade aircrafts.
In compliance with the company’s environmental goals, Boeing allowed Russell Athletic to use the scraps leftover from the fabrication of their line of 787 Dreamliners to help with the execution of the new project. Julie Felgar, managing director of Boeing Commercial Airplanes environmental strategy, sums it up nicely. “Our collaboration with Russell Athletic is a fabulous opportunity to utilize the strength and lightweight characteristics of 787 carbon fiber to support elite athletes on the field.”
“It has a lot of fantastic heat-release properties as well,” Sarah tacks on, adding to the list of carbon fiber-themed benefits, which include its superior form. “The carbon fiber shell is already molded, so you don’t need a heavy buckling system to create the arch in the pads.”
What with the many safety concerns inherent in America’s new favorite past-time — concerns that have resulted in hundred million dollar lawsuits and sizable donations to safety related research and development — it remains to be seen if innovations like CarbonTek will aid in reducing the many injuries seen on the field.
Preliminary results are promising. On the professional level, Mark Ingram, Colt McCoy and Pierre Garcon — NFL athletes and spokesmen for Russell Athletic — are using the product to high praise. And those on the defensive end are claiming a cleaner tackling technique thanks to the range of motion that the vests provide.
But a vest doesn’t prevent concussions; the true plague that has been steadily demoralizing the sport since safety became of concern.
“We’re probably not going to take this into any helmetry at this time,” Sarah concludes, though she admits there are plans to extend the technology into “other protective categories.”
Regardless of football’s future, however, it appears that carbon fiber has found its way into yet another booming industry. And that alone, is something to cheer for.
Touchdown, CarbonTek. Six points for composites.