Casting a Solution for Football?

Brian Sandalow, Associate Editor
Click here to see this article as it appears in Modern Casting

John Pizzuti was frustrated.

The founder of Zuti Facemasks, Pizzuti was trying to create a new football mask but running into problems.Using the conventional method of welding quarter-inch cold rolled steel, he was unable to achieve the look he wanted. Pizzuti wanted to add intricate designs to the mask but welding simply wouldn’t allow him to do that.

His mother, Pamela Pizzuti, had another idea.

The two sat down together and talked about the problems John was having. He laid out his issues with the designs and, as the cliché goes, this mother knew best.

“She said to me, ‘Well, you need to change your method of manufacturing,’” John Pizzuti recalled. “I said ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘Well, there’s other ways to shape and form steel, and if it’s taking you a long time and it’s very labor intensive, you don’t think you’re going to be able to turn a profit because it’s taking you 30, 60 days to build one of these things, you need to change your method of manufacturing.’”

Pizzuti listened to his mother, did his diligence and found investment casting. Based in Birmingham, Michigan, Pizzuti searched the internet local facilities and in the fall of 2014 happened upon Acra Cast, Bay City, Michigan, a small 20-employee investment caster.

Together, Pizzuti and Acra Cast are working to introduce a new kind of mask to football. It looks cool, and more importantly, they say it’s safer. It was due to hit markets in June, which they hope will be a milestone in football safety and maybe preserve the future of America’s favorite sport.

But before that, a lot of work was necessary.

Casting the Mask
Pizzuti came to Richard Singer, president, Acra Cast, with some sketches and an idea but it needed much more development. Singer knew they needed something in the 3D CAD format and sent Pizzuti to an engineering firm in Saginaw, Michigan, that had performed some finite element analysis work for Acra Cast.

After Pizzuti did that and came back with designs, they continued to consult engineers on the use of fillets, where to place the gating and other items to improve castability. The 3D rapid prototyping was subcontracted to Express Prototyping in Almont, Michigan. Material was removed, the diameter was trimmed and other parts of the mask were modified to achieve weight targets and address other additional issues to make it more practical for use.

The final mask weighs between 1-1.25 lbs. and measures 9 x 7 x 6 in.

“There were quite a few versions over the course of several years, and even today, if we were to develop a new concept we’re still going to prototype those first to see how they cast and run them through the testing,” Singer said. “There’s virtually no difference once we go to a rubber mold and a wax pattern in the test performance of a casting made off a printed pattern vs. a poured wax pattern. So we’re still using that as new product and new designs are developed.”

The decision to use 309 stainless steel came down to fluidity and ductility. Singer said it flows well into molds and fill the thin wires of the mask, something he said has “worked out pretty good.”

“We’re still struggling with some shrink issues at some of the junctures, so we’re doing a little bit of cosmetic welding, not any structural welding,” Singer said. “You get the occasional shrink and pits, at some of the intersections, so we’ll do some cosmetic welding and blending there.”

In terms of actually casting the masks, Singer said there isn’t a practical way to make a metal injection mold that would be used with other parts because of the complexity of the shapes within the mask. To help, Singer contracted an art metalcaster to build rubber molds around masters, which were used to build silicon rubber molds backed up
with fiberglass backing.

“Making the wax patterns has been one of the more complicated aspects of this whole project,” Singer said.

So has filling the molds. Singer said Acra Cast is running the molds at 2,000F when they typically pour into an 1,800F mold.

“We’re bumping up our mold alloy temperatures and you have to pull that out of the furnace and pour it quickly in order to avoid non-fill issues,” Singer said.

The result is a radical and unusual mask.

Cosmetically, the masks look different than the traditional versions but they are made to fit the products of the most prominent helmet manufacturers. One design has honeycombs in the front grille; other geometries with smoother corners are also possible.

Like traditional masks, they are rubber-coated by another facility in any color the end-user needs, adding a distinctive look for a team looking to stand out.

That, however, might be the secondary benefit to the masks.

Changing the Game?
Cast stainless steel is ductile, and when not heat-treated it is still tough.

To demonstrate that, Singer said he’s pulled the masks apart and pushed them together, bending and flexing them to show their toughness.

They don’t snap and shatter and, most crucially, Pizzuti and Singer say they dissipate energy more efficiently than the traditional welded mask, and this could lower concussions and make football safer.

“As we started to talk about this project we theorized that one singular piece of steel would absorb energy better than multiple pieces that were welded together,” Pizzuti said.

Singer said that as the energy goes through all of the individual elements of the mask, it will hit an intersection that slows it down and splits it. So by the time that energy gets to the helmet, Singer said, its impact is less because it’s taken more time to reach the head of the wearer.

“We believe that’s happening because if you were to lay it out flat it’s all one plane and then it’s curved like wrapping it around a soccer ball,” Singer said. “Whereas the wire masks, if you were to lay it, bend it flat and lay it down on a flat table you would see some wires are touching the table and then other wires that are stacked on top of it. That energy is not being transferred to those other elements. It’s bypassing those intersections and going more directly straighter and faster to the helmet, and therefore faster to the head of the wearer.”

During standard drop testing, the masks were dropped five times from a height of 12-15 ft. and, in Pizzuti’s words, they wanted to “beat the snot out of them.”

“On virtually every drop of the five drops, the investment cast mask scored anywhere from 25-30 percent lower on the severity index,” Pizzuti said. “Lower is better, and it means less energy is being transferred to the head and ultimately the brain of the wearer.”

This spring, the masks took a step towards seeing the field in the NFL and college football when two models achieved certification from the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE). They were expected to hit the market in June, and samples have been sent to some collegiate and professional teams.

“We should see them on the field this year,” Pizzuti said.

Though the NFL and NCAA have concerns the masks are overbuilt–a classification that would prohibit their use–Singer hopes the institutions will see the potential benefits of the cast masks designed by Pizzuti and cast by Acra Cast.

“Things have to be done differently and they have to embrace new technologies and new methods of manufacturing,” Singer said.

That sounds like something Pamela Pizzuti would say.