Two seasons ago, when Daniel Jones suffered a broken collarbone, he was able to return to the field in three weeks, thanks to a custom-made 3D-printed brace.
That was well-publicized at the time. Less well-known was the fact that three walk-ons on the 2018 Blue Devils football team were the ones to design and print the brace for him.
“We had already gotten Hap (Zarzour, Duke’s athletic trainer) really excited about the applications of 3D printing in football,” former center Clark Bulleit said. “He actually came to us, because we’d talked to him about 3D printing in athletics so much. So when they didn’t have a solution to protect (Jones’) swollen collarbone, he asked if we could improve on their current solutions.”
Working with teammates Kevin Gehsmann—a linebacker—and Tim Skapek—a kicker—the trio ended up printing nine different prototypes.
“We got (Jones and Zarzour’s) feedback with every shape that we made and every material that we 3D printed,” Bulleit said.
When they found one that fit, it was significantly smaller and more comfortable than what Jones had been using—a hand-molded thermo-plastic brace that wasn’t properly sized to him. The 3D printed one gave him better range of motion and didn’t leave him scratched up and bruised when he took it off.
Now graduated from Duke, Bulleit, Gehsmann and Skapek have founded a company—Protect3d (pronounced “protected”) to market their 3D scanned and printed custom braces to athletes around the country.
Protect3d took a big step toward accomplishing that last weekend, when they won the NFL’s First and Future Innovations competition, a Shark Tank-style pitch presentation against three other companies who made products to enhance player safety.
The prize included $50,000 and tickets to the Super Bowl.
“We spent the beginning of the week down here in Miami Beach,” Gehsmann said. “We got here on Tuesday and presented on Friday. The first half of the week we were indoors most of the time, preparing for what ultimately felt like gameday for us. Afterwards, we were able to enjoy Miami Beach over the weekend, and to cap it off with the Super Bowl was one of the coolest things I think any of the three of us have ever experienced.”
Protect3d has also worked with other Duke sports teams, including lacrosse and men’s basketball. In his presentation to the NFL, Gehsmann said the company 3D printed a brace for a member of Coach K’s team who was recovering from a broken hand. Protect3d couldn’t release the name of the player they worked with, for medical privacy reasons. However, Wendell Moore, a freshman who just returned to the court after a broken hand in early January and was seen wearing a brace with his name printed on it, is a likely suspect.
Protect3d is also doing a pilot program with NC State athletics and is beginning work with several other colleges.
So, while Gehsmann, Skapek and Bulleit may have combined for a total of 48 snaps in college, they were able to get a victory on football’s biggest stage.
"We know how intellectually advanced they are individually,” coach David Cutcliffe said, “but it's especially rewarding to watch from afar as they use principles learned from athletics — teamwork, leadership, work ethic, innovation and selflessness — to achieve success. All three are outstanding representatives of their families, Duke University and our program. We could not be more proud of them while knowing their finest accomplishments are yet to come."