You see that batting helmet Joe Mauer wears when he steps to the plate at Target Field?
Maybe that’s not the first thing you notice when the All-Star catcher for the Minnesota Twins is at bat, but you may want to take a closer look.
That helmet, and all helmets worn by every team in Major League Baseball, was designed by a team of engineers at Miken Sports in Caledonia.
The company was contracted to come up with an innovative new model meant to protect players’ heads from the fastest of major league pitches — those upward of 100 mph.
Designing equipment for professional sports leagues isn’t new to Miken. It already has worked with the National Hockey League to produce composite sticks as well as bats for MLB. But the baseball helmet holds special esteem in the company, as it recently won an Edison Award for Innovation in the material science — composites category. For its design, it took gold in its division.
The helmet, patented by Rawlings and named the S100 Pro Comp, was piloted by a handful of players in 2012, and after the positive feedback it received, it was officially named, according to Doug Heimer, senior research and development engineer with Miken whose team developed the helmet.
It’s an improvement on what the pros used to wear. As opposed to the traditional injection-molded plastic helmets, the S100, using aerospace-grade carbon fiber/epoxy resin construction, is 300 percent stiffer and 130 times stronger than the former headwear.
And with minimal yet effective padding, it’s no heavier.
Until recently, Miken focused mainly on manufacturing bats. Helmets, Heimer said, are a relatively new venture. They’re made by hand at the Caledonia facility before being shipped to other locations for testing and installation of padding.
“It’s up to us to design it, whether it’s getting new tooling (or) actually make sample prototypes and do the testing,” Heimer said. “We get parameters and then build toward that.”
Rawlings actually came out with a shell a couple years ago, said Mike Thompson, senior vice president of marketing for Rawlings, but because of its size and weight it was unacceptable to players.
“There was just cause for concern from the players,” Thompson said.
That’s when the company approached Miken, knowing the work it does with composites, and asked for a high-strength, low-weight model with a sleeker profile.
The team’s challenge was to create a helmet that could withstand a direct hit from today’s big-league pitchers. Many times, those pitches can reach 100 mph, which upped the standard from a helmet that previously only needed to protect from a 68 mph throw.
“That was the baseline of the challenge: How do you get a helmet that will protect up to speeds of 100 mph but design a product to fit their cosmetic needs?” Thompson said.
Once a prototype was created, the engineers did a number of tests and evolved the original design more than 50 times before it reached the final product. The process took about a year, starting in 2011, before it was piloted last year.
The players were happy, and MLB soon required all of them to begin wearing the new helmets.
That decision caught the eye of the Edison Award steering committee, which aims to recognize and honor innovation and innovators that create a positive impact on the world.
Miken’s helmet was one of the finalists presented to a panel of judges, which included more than 3,000 senior business leaders and academics from across the country.
The judges decided the helmet deserved the top prize.
The award, the most prestigious in the industry, is a proud one for Heimer, who’s worked at Miken since January 2010 after earning a composite materials engineering degree from Winona State University. He said it’s an accolade that’s not only great for the team that worked on it, but one that will help promote the forward-thinking work the company does.
He said it’s exciting to see their helmets on the heads of big leaguers.
“It’s definitely something cool to be working on, especially when you’re looking on a national scale. Everyone’s viewing your product on TV that you helped design,” he added.
But it’s just as important, he said, that the team created a product that will keep elite athletes safer.
“It’s a game-changing product,” he said. “It’s being used at the very highest level of the sport.”