Using automotive expertise to tackle concussions

Detroit has long been known as “The Automotive Capital of the World,” but now some Motor City engineers are using their auto-industry tech to make sports fields safer.

The engineers at Viconic Sporting, a privately owned company based in the Metro Detroit city of Dearborn, have created a new energy-absorbing shock pad that can be installed under artificial turf fields and will be commercially available this summer.

This underlayment system, which was adapted from their parent company’s automobile impact-protection technology, can reduce the risk of injury when an athlete hits the turf.

Although many companies offer shock pads for synthetic turf, Viconic’s pad is unique because it features an array of thermoplastic cones that collapse when a player hits the ground. These cones absorb a lot of the force from the impact, which decreases the amount of force that the player’s body experiences.

“Our technology is engineered to start to really buckle and collapse at what we feel is starting to be an injurious load level,” said Joel Cormier, Viconic’s Director of Development Engineering. “Then it recovers quickly for the next impact.”

So low-energy impacts — like running on the turf — will barely engage the energy-absorber or not engage it at all. On the other hand, high-energy impacts — like getting slammed to the ground — will cause the shock pad to crumple. This means the field will remain firm for normal gameplay, but it will become “softer” upon impact when a player falls forcefully.

Cormier believes shock pads are necessary for synthetic turf systems because the turf is usually laid over crushed stone or gravel, which isn’t always good for shock absorption. While modern turf carpets are built with energy-absorbing infill systems — usually consisting of a mixture of rubber and sand — these infills are often insufficient and will migrate over time.

Infill migration is most often seen on fields that experience heavy use. When athletes run on a synthetic turf surface, they track some of the infill with them. This causes the infill to thin out in high-traffic areas of the field, leaving almost no shock-absorbing material between the player and the stone base. That creates some obvious safety issues, but the presence of a pad can mitigate those concerns.

“When the energy-absorbing infill systems migrate from specific areas of the turf, you see increases in the G-levels that would be transferred to the body,” Cormier said. “So that’s one of the benefits of our technology…Regardless of what happens with the surface, you’ve got a high-efficiency energy-absorbing layer that’s always there.”

While the engineers at Viconic are using unique technology for their energy-absorbing layer, other types of shock pads are already in use. At the NFL level, three stadiums currently have a mixed rubber-gravel elastic layer (or E-layer) underneath artificial turf.

New Era Field (home of the Buffalo Bills) and MetLife Stadium (home of the New York Giants and Jets) have both had E-layers for several years. Those E-layers are “in situ,” meaning that they were permanently paved in place and won’t get removed during the offseason.

More recently, the Houston Texans installed a slightly different E-layer under their turf at NRG Stadium, where this last month’s Super Bowl was played. Their E-layer is “pre-engineered,” which means it was built before being installed, allowing for removal after the season and reinstallation before the next season.

Since high-quality E-layers can cost around $400,000, industry experts are pleased that NFL teams are embracing the technology.

“That’s an expenditure that was very progressive for the Texans and speaks volumes regarding the premium that franchise places on player safety,” said Mark Nicholls, a consultant at TURFconsultants.

Nicholls’ family also owns Turf Nation, a company that manufactured five of the 12 artificial turf fields that were used in NFL stadiums last year, including the fields at MetLife and NRG. Turf Nation previously manufactured all of the UBU Sports-branded installations, which includes those five NFL fields.

In addition to the game-day fields that have E-layers, a rising number of NFL practice fields have also been given shock pads in recent years. Although Viconic doesn’t currently serve any of these NFL clients, the company did receive a financial boost from the league, with help from a couple other large organizations.

“We began developing the technology on our own dime, and about a year into that development, we became aware of the Head Health Challenges that the NFL, General Electric, and Under Armor were sponsoring,” Cormier said. “So we saw it as an opportunity to defray some of our R&D costs.”

So Cormier and his team submitted a proposal for their underlayment system as part of the Head Health Initiative, a series of competitions that challenged innovators to develop technologies that could improve the diagnosis and prevention of brain injury. Out of 475 submissions, Viconic was chosen as one of three winners in Head Health Challenge II. The company was awarded $1.5 million, which it largely used for research and testing.

Viconic currently has shock pads installed at four different locations for beta testing. One of these sites is at the Center for Athletic Field Safety at the University of Tennessee, one of the leading institutions in sports turf research.

There, the company teamed up with John Sorochan, a plant sciences professor who has a PhD in Turfgrass Management and is a member of the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA). Sorochan was happy to see a company that wanted to address football safety from a field-surface perspective.

“When Viconic Sporting won the NFL Head Health Challenge, they were the only group that won that actually looked at playing surfaces,” Sorochan said. “The other ones were more focused on head impacts using helmets or testing brains and things like that.”

Viconic Sporting’s original focus actually was helmet protection, as its first commercial product was a helmet-liner system for lacrosse helmets. But as the company’s knowledge of player safety grew, its forward-thinking engineers realized that their technology was a good fit for playing surfaces.

Of course, as development moved forward, some obstacles emerged. The biggest challenge was maintaining the playability of the artificial turf. While shock absorption is important for reducing the magnitude of impact injuries, the engineers at Viconic didn’t want to make the surface too soft and cause other types of injuries.

“Concussions are obviously a very important consideration, but so are lower extremity injuries as well, so we don’t want to reduce one but increase the risk for the other,” Sorochan said. “So we’re always trying to look at the balance — how do we reduce head impact criteria values and maintain the performance and agility of an athlete without tearing an ACL or rolling an ankle?”

That’s where the testing comes in. At the University of Tennessee, Viconic tested its pad on dozens of mini-fields. The company wear-tested the technology up to 500 simulated football games, applying many different variables including a variety of field surface conditions and a number of different infills.

After years of research, Cormier feels that Viconic has achieved a satisfactory balance between surface impact protection and surface playability. He’ll be heading back to the University of Tennessee this spring to do final validation testing on the full-sized field.

But not everyone believes shock pads are the best solution to the safety issues associated with artificial turf. The manufacturers at FieldTurf, a synthetic turf company that claims to hold 60 percent of the industry’s market share, believe that the crux of the problem lies closer to the surface.

Like Turf Nation, FieldTurf manufactured five of the 12 artificial turf fields that were used in NFL stadiums last year. While FieldTurf supports the use of shock pads and even offers its own high-drainage shock absorber — which is currently installed in the New England Patriots’ Gillette Stadium — the company’s philosophy is that heavier infill systems are the key to improving player safety.

“Yes, some of our NFL clients utilize an underlayment (shock pad) under their game fields,” Darren Gill, FieldTurf’s Vice-President of Marketing, wrote in an email. “More importantly, all of our NFL clients utilize our heavyweight infill system.”

To back up the company’s views about shock pads, Gill directed us to a 2016 study by a Spanish university, which found no difference in shock attenuation between a soccer field with an E-layer and a soccer field without one. On top of that, another 2016 study found that the incidence of high school football injuries increased with lower levels of infill.

The study’s author, Idaho State professor Michael Meyers, found that injury on artificial turf is much more likely to occur when the infill system weighs less than six pounds per square foot (many high school and youth-level fields fit that criterion). Meyers conceded that 40 percent of the study’s funding came from FieldTurf, but he maintained that the results were independent and unbiased.

While industry experts may disagree on the “best” way to curb artificial turf-related injuries, most of the people interviewed for this article agreed that shock pads can be part of the solution. Nicholls, in particular, is confident that a good underlayment system would be beneficial under almost any circumstance.

“I believe everyone in their right mind, armed with common sense, would desire a pad underneath their system,” Nicholls said. “But like many things in life, it is often driven by finance.”

Indeed, the cost of Viconic’s underlayment system could be a determining factor in its success or failure. One of the primary benefits of artificial turf is that, over the long run, it’s more cost-effective than natural grass.

According to Nicholls, a new artificial turf carpet would cost roughly $350,000-$400,000. If you assume a normal 10-year life cycle for the turf, along with $15,000-$20,000 in annual maintenance costs, that puts the total 10-year cost somewhere in the $500,000-$600,000 range.

Maintenance for a good natural grass field, on the other hand, could cost about $60,000-$80,000 per year — or $600,000-$800,000 over 10 years. So choosing artificial turf over natural grass could potentially save buyers hundreds of thousands of dollars over the lifetime of the surface.

The problem that pad companies like Viconic encounter is that shock pads can cost anywhere from $100,000-$400,000, depending on the company and the quality of the pad. That cost alone can negate any savings that buyers earn when they choose artificial turf.

On top of that, the market for shock pads (and artificial turf in general) is largely price-driven. In an effort to sell their product, vendors are often thrown into a public bidding process in which the lowest bidder frequently gets the nod. So making the price affordable is a crucial consideration.

Although Viconic hasn’t yet released a price point for its shock pad, Cormier believes that the company will be able to compete with rival underlayment systems. When asked about cost concerns, he replied with the following statement:

“System cost and performance optimization has and will continue to be a focus for Viconic. Our proprietary patented pad system will be cost competitive with other technologies currently in the market place.”

When Viconic’s pad hits the market this summer, Cormier thinks the company’s distinctive thermoplastic technology will ultimately put it a step above its competitors. On top of that, he says Viconic’s pad will be easy to install.

“Part of the (Head Health Challenge) grant money was spent on engineering a system where panels interlock and snap together, making installation simple and easy,” he said.

While Viconic doesn’t offer installation services themselves, it does provide training for the people who are typically contracted for that type of work — usually the turf system installer or the builder who does the base work preparation.

Regardless of who is performing the installation, Cormier says that Viconic will do everything it can to make it a painless process. That also means the company will customize the pad to the needs of the buyer.

“With our technology, we feel we can engineer it for any level of play from youth sports to professional athletes,” Cormier said. “NFL players like to play on a very firm surface and that’s not going to be the same type of surface that your average high school or middle school athlete is going to play on.”

In the end, shock pads like Viconic’s require a delicate balance. They have to maintain a firm playing surface but also be soft upon impact. They have to be meticulously engineered but also reasonably priced. They have to be continuous across 100+ yards of turf but also be practical to install. That’s no small task, but Cormier believes his company has achieved it.

“I think it’s been viewed quite favorably overall from the turf manufacturers,” Cormier said. “Time will tell how successful we are at competing in that marketplace.”

Until that time comes, we can only guess whether Viconic will establish firm footing in the market or buckle under the pressure of competition. For now, Viconic’s level of success will remain a mystery, hidden beneath the surface.