Cyclists are spoiled by cool equipment. However, of all the cutting edge cycling gear you can own, it’s easy to overlook the marvel of engineering that is a bicycle helmet. If it’s doing its job correctly, a helmet should be something you never have to think about. But when you consider the balance of weight, aerodynamics, ventilation, fit, comfort, good looks and, crucially, safety that must go into a helmet to make it sit perfectly and forgettably atop your head for mile after mile, that’s easier said than done.
To find out exactly what it takes to create a helmet, MET gave us a peek behind the curtain at its northern Italy headquarters where the brand, family owned since its inception 35 years ago, develops, prototypes and brings to life a constant stream of cutting-edge bicycle helmets.
For as technically advanced as the process of bringing a helmet from concept to finished product has become over the last 35 years, things still start humbly: with a pen, paper and an idea.
A designer begins with a brief of the attributes the new model should possess, including weight, ventilation, price and more, and begins sketching out ideas. With a lead designer in Filippo Perini who used to head up design for Lamborghini, the brand develops plenty of forward thinking ideas during this step.
From there, the helmet concept gets turned into a 3D CAD file. Computer modeling has revolutionized the design process, doing away with the cumbersome and time consuming handmade models of the past, where any slight modification required creating an entirely new model.
That 3D model is then modified until MET engineers and designers settle on something they approve of. Again, computers have slashed time out of this process, helping MET’s small team work super efficiently. Computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and finite element analysis (FEA) help the team predict aerodynamics, airflow and crash performance before even getting a model in hand to test in the real world. It means that when it comes time to create a physical model of the helmet, it’s already close to what MET wants the final product to be.
And MET doesn’t have to wait long to get those physical models in hand thanks to three types of 3D printers on site. In at most a little over a day, MET can have in-hand a model that used to take weeks to create. Overnight, designers can have a model that mimics the final surface of the helmet. In 25-30 hours, they can have a melted-wire 3D printer create a lightweight model that mimics the fit. A third type of resin printer allows for modeling smaller parts — every single helmet component including straps, retention system and even electronics for lights is designed by MET.
This capability makes creating physical models throughout the design process possible, and allows MET to more quickly develop impact-testable prototypes with confidence that they will surpass safety standards.
MET’s biggest advantage as a brand is a world-class testing laboratory, capable of recreating the impact requirements for every helmet market’s safety standards, now including the American CPSC standard. MET’s testing capabilities are so thorough that it has one of 10 existing machines worldwide for one of the tests it runs — many of the remaining nine are at the helmet safety certification labs themselves.
Whether it’s a free-fall with a rebound, fridges and heaters to test the helmets across a wide range of temperatures, or deflection tests, MET has a veritable helmet torture chamber to ensure final products sent out for certificadtion will pass, and surpass, every test standard. That’s bad news if you’re a helmet, but great news if you have a head that needs protecting. MET project manager Matteo Tenni estimates the brand performs about 700-800 impact tests, four per test helmet across about 200 samples, in the course of creating a new helmet. And MET’s personal standards are so high that the brand even impact tests random samples from each production batch to ensure quality.
But even once MET develops a rideable product, they’re still not quite at the finish line. Before the helmet can get into the hands of riders like you and me, it needs to get into the hands of — or on the heads of, rather — the top pros, like two-time Tour de France champion Tadej Pogačar.
“It’s not just marketing,” says MET’s Ulysse Daessle about getting the brand’s products to the pros before final release. “It’s really something important for development.”
Daessle is very aware of what he and his colleagues are good at, and where they fall short. “We are experts in how to make the helmets,” he says. “Unfortunately, we cannot be satisfied by the riding that we do. The pros are a bit faster than we are,” he quips.
And with that expert feedback, products often do change before final release, whether it’s optimizing ventilation in a TT helmet or adjusting the fit.
All said and done, even with all these time slashing technologies and innovations, a new helmet takes about a year to develop, says Tenni, though it’s different for every model. The Trenta 3K Carbon took 16 months, for example. So much goes into developing every helmet that “there’s a reason we do only cycling helmets,” says Daessle. With only one category to focus on, there’s little doubt that MET puts its all into each product bearing its name.
MET has parallel projects running at any given time, with employees having a hand in creating many different products, for everyone from pros to kids just weaning off of training wheels. And when it comes time to reimagine a helmet for a new model year, it’s back to square one.
“Restarting means a total renovation of the product,” says Tenni. “In a helmet everything is so interconnected that any small change requires modifications elsewhere and retesting. “It’s pretty much doing it from scratch.”
Back to a pen, paper and an idea.