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Making cycling safer with HPC and 3D printing

The project is using 3D-printing technology to develop next-generation bicycle helmets. Image courtesy knehcsg, Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

A project is examining how 3D-printed materials can be used to manufacture ultra-lightweight customized bicycle helmets to improve their safety performance during impacts.

Between 2005 and 2013, over 26,000 cyclists were either killed or seriously injured in the UK. This project, led by Peter Theobald and Philip Martin of Cardiff University, UK, seeks to reduce these numbers in the future. Backed by High Performance Computing (HPC) Wales's Research and Innovation Fund, the researchers are using supercomputing to optimize the mechanical structures of 3D-printed bicycle safety helmet designs, comparing the effects of different designs and 3D-printed materials on impact performance.

The project also seeks to improve current safety guidelines for bicycle helmet designs in the UK and beyond, as existing guidelines consider only the impact performance of bicycle helmets. The researchers are examining the requirement to develop regulatory guidelines for evaluating bicycle helmet impact performance during impacts where 'rotational' impacts also occur - which is where the brain rotates inside the skull following the impact of the collision.

Researchers are using supercomputers to develop 3D-printed helmets to improve their structure and to stop deformation of the helmet and transfer of energy to the head. It is this impact and relative rotation of the brain inside the skull that causes most traumatic brain injuries. Allowing the brain and the skull to keep moving, and being slowed down in tandem, is believed to reduce the risk of brain injuries after collisions.

Phillip Martin at Cardiff University. Image courtesy Matthew Horwood Photography.

"It is scary how similar traditional bicycle safety helmets on the market actually are," says Martin, who is a research associate at Cardiff University. "If you went into a helmet shop with an unlimited sum of money, you would come out with essentially the same thing, in regards to safety, as there is no superior product. The only real differences are in shape, color, and design - merely aesthetics. Everything is made out of polystyrene, which fails to offer adequate protection during 'oblique' impacts."

He continues: "The use of advanced supercomputing technology has helped us speed up our research to produce results much faster than any system I have worked with before. Currently, without these supercomputing capabilities, we would have to physically manufacture every new structural design, and then test every single one of them in a lab, to evaluate their impact safety performance potential. This would be both extremely time and cost intensive, rendering the project unfeasible. We are delighted that HPC Wales has given us the opportunity to take our project forward with this funding, as there is a significant opportunity to improve the performance of, not just bicycle safety helmets, but all personal protective equipment - and this is something that has the potential to save many lives."

"This innovative research project has the potential to save thousands of lives across the globe and we are proud to support its brilliant work," says Rick Hillum, CEO of HPC Wales. "As access to research funding becomes more and more difficult to obtain, we are pleased to be able to offer this support for projects at the leading edge of scientific research, providing businesses with access to academic support and introducing them to world-class supercomputing technology. With our support, businesses can engage with academia and boost their knowledge and performance, helping them to compete on a global scale."

HPC Wales is Wales's national supercomputing service provider. Host to the UK's largest distributed supercomputing network, HPC Wales provides businesses and researchers with local access to world-class technology, as well as the support and training necessary to fully exploit it. HPC Wales is a unique collaboration between Aberystwyth University, Bangor University, Cardiff University, Swansea University, the University of South Wales, and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

HPC Wales has funded five collaborative projects at Cardiff University, Swansea University and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, helping businesses engage with academia and upskilling their employees to harness the power of supercomputing. Other projects benefiting from this funding include innovative research to improve bus routes within Cardiff's city center and revolutionary work to significantly improve stroke rehabilitation.

HPC Wales, backing these projects and providing the state-of-the-art supercomputing technology to support it, is part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund through the Welsh government. The venture is committed to boosting the Welsh economy by providing academic researchers and businesses with some of the most advanced computing technology in the world.

This article is republished with permission from the HPC Wales website. It was originally published online under the headline 'Groundbreaking Welsh research project seeks to substantially cut cyclist deaths' here.

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