Secrets of Successful Baking

Text: Oliver Ahrens • Photography: Oliver Ahrens, NOLAN

Head protection is one of the most important jobs of safety gear, and motorcycle helmets are high-tech products. Nolan, Europe's largest helmet manufacturer, gave our writer Oliver Ahrens a close look behind the scenes at their production facility in Bergamo, Italy.

Wolfram Schleicher's last name means "slow goer" in German - which is about the only thing slow about him. We recently met up with the CEO of Nolan Germany in the southern German town of Lindau for a ride across the Alps to Bergamo, to visit one of the world's most modern helmet plants. At first we plodded along at the speed limit on the Swiss autobahn to Chur, but on the curvaceous stretch up to the Julierpass our fully-loaded K1200 LT didn't stand a chance of keeping up with him on his CBR 1100XX. Only the last new snow of the season at the top of the pass slowed him down long enough for us to catch up.

Wolfram Schleicher makes the Stuttgart - Bergamo run 10 to 20 times a year. An enthusiastic biker, he makes the trip across the Alps to northern Italy on two wheels instead of four whenever possible. Strictly for business reasons, of course.

For just outside Bergamo in northern Milan are the production facilities of his employer, Europe's largest helmet manufacturer. Since 1972, motorcycle helmets have been produced in the little town of Brembate di Sopra near Bergamo. Today, the 350 employees of this high-tech plant build over a million Nolan, X-lite, and Grex helmets every year, and Nolan exports helmets to more than 70 countries. We were delighted to accept the invitation to learn some of the secrets of high-end motorcycle helmet production.

First, get the crust right...
Lander Nocchi, founder of Nolan (LANder NOcchi - get it?), recognized very early the importance of the material used for the hard outer shell. In the event of accident, not only must it protect the wearer against mechanical impact and penetration, it must also interact with the inner shell to absorb as much of the impact energy as possible. Today, two fundamentally different manufacturing processes are used for helmet outer shells. Thermoplastic shells are produced in a largely automated injection-molding process. Plastic granulate is heated to 570°F and the resulting liquid is injected into a two-part mold, which is pressed together at 125 psi. Every 80 seconds, a shell leaves the mold complete with shield opening, recesses and holes. Downstream machines deburr, polish, and prepare it for painting.

Duroplastic, on the other hand, requires a substantial amount of manual labor. Fiber mats are cut to millimeter tolerances, and workers manually place them in precisely calculated positions on the outer shell. They are then soaked in resin and hardener and "baked" in special ovens for 8 minutes at about 340°F. The resulting shell is just that - a shell, without shield opening, holes, or recesses. Special robots have to mill them out before the shell can be deburred and polished. The process takes significantly more time and effort than injection molding, but the resulting helmet is stronger and longer lasting.

Duroplastic helmets are more expensive to make, because of the complex processes involved and because the fiberglass, carbon fiber and Kevlar raw materials are more expensive than Lexan and Urtal thermoplastics. A table shows the basic differences between the thermoplastic and duroplastic processes.

However, it would be premature to draw conclusions on helmet safety from this comparison of shell materials. The maximum protection is only achieved with the right combination of outer and inner shell, as the technicians in Nolan's certified test laboratory demonstrated most impressively. But more about that later. First, let's pick up our helmets where we left them, just coming out of the oven and injection mold.

Then decorate it nicely...
Whether thermoplastic or duroplastic, every helmet gets painted, and the steps are the same. First, the outer skin is mechanically roughened, degreased, and thoroughly dusted to ensure good paint adhesion. High-performance nozzles then spray on a water-based, environmentally safe paint while the helmet slowly rotates its way through the paint booth. Once the paint is dry, the helmet is checked for irregularities such as drop formation. Any small irregularities are polished out, and any helmet with larger irregularities is taken out of the line. Only perfect shells make it to the dust-free decor room.

The decor room is a nice quiet change after the racket of the injection molding, sanding and polishing machines next door, and we involuntarily take a deep breath of relief. The people who work here need a deft, delicate touch, experience, and total dedication to detail. With over 20 very different designs to render, the job doesn't get boring, which is fortunate, because it takes concentration to apply the decals just right. This is a manual job right down to the fingertips, and it can take up to 15 minutes for an experienced worker to apply all the decals in a complicated design. The designs can be artistic, fantasy-based, reserved, or aggressive - Nolan's designers draw inspiration everywhere, particularly from the colorful world of MotoGP. And they play an important part in the market success of a helmet, with surveys revealing design is what sells a large part of any given helmet manufacturer's product range.

Our freshly decorated, dried, and inspected shells go into another paint booth where they get a protective clear coat. Now they are ready to meet their inner selves, which have been assembled in another part of the plant.

And check it...
Large injection-molding machines make the inner shells out of EPS (expandable polystyrene), a high-tech plastic from the laboratories of chemical giant BASF. The variable density of this material allows it to be tuned for maximum energy take-up from the outer shell. The right combination of outer and inner shell is a matter of life and death - and Daniele Rota, who leads the Nolan research lab, proved it to us with his enormous, deafeningly loud bolt gun.

The bolt gun shoots 10.5-ounce bolts at 110 mph against helmets pulled from the production line at random. This brute force makes a dent in the naked outer shell the size of a child's fist, which would undoubtedly cause massive damage to the wearer's head. But with the inner shell in place, the helmet absorbs almost the entire impact energy, showing only a small scratch in the paint and ring-shaped heat discoloration of the inner shell. The impact still destroys the helmet, but the wearer's head would be protected.

Daniele Rota proudly showed us around his torture chamber. In drop towers, helmets fall 10 or more feet to impact on iron wedges on front, sides, and at all angles, while sensors measure the residual energy reaching the sensor-stuffed dummy heads in the helmets. Next door, nails are driven against Nolan shields to simulate the most dangerous kind of gravel impacts, while at another station a complicated pulley mechanism attempts to pull a properly mounted helmet off a dummy's head. "Only this kind of testing guarantees that our helmets meet, and usually substantially exceed, all safety regulations and guidelines." And of course, they have to do it in any kind of weather, not just in sunny Italy. To make sure, Daniele's team freeze helmets to 14° or heat them to 120° before putting them through their paces. Compared to this kind of abuse, the average ride is a piece of cake for an ECE-approved Nolan helmet.

Speaking of safety, along with a proper fit the most important criterion for choosing a motorcycle helmet is that it meets safety standards. The ECE R 22.05 standard is required in 50 countries, and is stricter than the DOT standard in some ways.

Back in the real world of Italian helmet production, we wrap up our tour in the extensive final assembly hall. This is where it all comes together, literally - outer and inner shells, hypoallergenic padding, impact-resistant shields, chin guard - to stay together for life. Nolan produces almost all the parts for its helmets, which makes for very good production management since it does not rely on outside suppliers with the attendant risk of delayed delivery. Most of Nolan's production is to order, which further simplifies things.

Quiet music from portable radios plays as the men and women fit or glue padding and rubber to the insides of the helmets. Just a few steps away, the finished insides are stamped under high pressure into the lovingly decorated outer shells, never more to be separated. Both parts of the chinstrap are riveted to the shell, and the full-face models get their patented and often quite complex shield hinges. Women's nimble fingers glue rubber seals around the mechanisms and shield openings before the shield, previously fully coated in multiple immersion baths, is mounted on the helmet. Safety, function, and size labels are added, and finally experienced employees check each helmet for proper functioning, clean it, degrease it, and remove any production residue. Only now is the finished helmet bagged and boxed, and ready to set out on its journey into the world.

What is the ECE standard?
The Economic Commission for Europe, or ECE for short, developed Rule 22 to create a Europe-wide standard for motorcycle helmet safety certification. All ECE-marked helmets must undergo standardized tests to demonstrate their protection effectiveness. Helmets that do not bear the ECE seal of approval may not be sold within the EU.

What do they test for?
Penetration and impact tests ensure that sharp or sharp-edged objects cannot penetrate the helmet. Tests use objects shaped like curbs to give the most realistic results possible. Four defined points on the forehead, sides, and rear of the helmet are tested, and sophisticated electronic sensors measure the residual energy at the dummy head. This energy may not exceed very narrowly defined limit values. All helmets must show a defined lateral stiffness, and the chinstrap may stretch only a limited amount under tension, but not break. Shields must pass tests for optical clarity, surface quality, scratch-resistance, and field of view.

Naturally, newly developed helmets are subject to particularly stringent testing. Once a new model has passed the so-called "qualification check" of 50-60 helmets, just 3,200 of the new model may be sold. Thereafter, at least five out of every subsequent batch of 3,200 helmets have to pass testing again. In addition to all this, representatives of test institutes make annual checks of the manufacturing facility, where they have the right to pull helmets at random directly off the production line for testing.

How can I tell if a helmet meets the ECE standard?
It will have a seal, usually sewn onto the chinstrap or in the inside padding. Stay away from helmets that don't bear a safety seal!

What is the most recent ECE standard?
The ECE R 22.05 standard has been in force since January 2002. ECE R22.04 helmets should not be in stores any more, but may be encountered on the used market. The ECE R22.04 standard was substantially less demanding, and we strongly advise against choosing such a helmet.

Helmet shell Thermoplastic Duroplastic
Basic Material Plastic granulate, ABS or polycarbonates like Lexan, Urtal, etc. Mats of fibreglass, carbon fibre, aramid fibre (Kevlar)
Production process Injection-molding, largely automated further processing Manual positioning of mats followed by "baking" of mats soaked in resin and hardener
Advantages Low weight, high toughness and tear-resistance, consistently high production quality without high production tolerances, economy of scale Greater resistance to all mechanical effects such as impact and penetration resistance to weathering and solvents
Disadvantages Lower impact and penetration absorption material can age Higher weight, can be much more expensive to manufacture