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Olin Team Building Better Protective Body Armor

Protective body armor is an essential component for instructors of full-force self-defense classes. For years the armor, used by many in this community, has been hand crafted by one individual who would now like to retire. While he holds decades of knowledge about the design and creation of the suits, he has done little by way of documentation and the craft is at risk of being lost, leaving full-force self-defense organizations at a loss.  That’s why IMPACT Boston approached Associate Professor of Bioengineering Alisha Sarang-Sieminski about conducting a fact-finding mission into these essential suits.

IMPACT International is an organization that teaches self-defense through scenario-based teaching. They coach partipants in verbal and nonverbal de-escalation techniques, as well as full-force physical techniques. The organization has chapters throughout the world, including one in Boston.  IMPACT  Boston offers classes to a wide range of individuals and organizations and has a focused outreach to people with disabilities, women, the LGBTQ community and other marginalized or at-risk communities. They take a trauma-informed approach to their work and work closely with trauma experts; the result is that survivors can feel empowered.                        

In an IMPACT training there are suited and non-suited instructors working with the class. Both instructors coach the participants. During scenarios, the suited instructor plays the role of the aggressor and the non-suited instructor acts as a coach and observer to keep both parties safe. To keep suited instructors safe during full force defense practice, they wear a suit of armor that has been specially developd for full-force defense work. The armor consists of a large helmet with mesh covering the eyes, shoulder pads, a groin and a chest protector, as well as commercially available knee and elbow pads. A key element of the full-force approach is that participants actually get to experience and practice what it feels like to use their full force, in a realistic scenario, to defend themselves. Having the physical and emotional memory of those movements, while also knowing how to overcome their inhibition around hurting another person is important to the overall success of the program.

IMPACT Boston contacted Sarang-Sieminski with the task of reverse engineering the armor in order to document its construction so that IMPACT chapters, and other full-force self-defense organizations, could construct their own armor. In addition to allowing IMPACT to reproduce suits as needed, the detective work will also allow for updates and improvements along the way.

For the better part of July, Olin students Cecilia Diehl and Alex Li spent their days taking apart one of IMPACT’s suits layer by layer--no easy task for foam that has been stuck together for years. The armor is thick, made with  assorted materials including foam and duct tape. After taking pieces of the suit apart, Diehl, Li, and Sarang-Sieminski traced the outlines of the old material in order to make digital patterns for future manufacturers. A key element is to create patterns than anyone can print on standard paper and use to make the armor.

In addition to making patterns the team is cataloging the materials currently being used in the suit.  It turns out that the world of foam is a big one and sourcing foam has had the team on the phone with manufacturers all over the country and even scouring New York City on foot. Current materials are being catalogued, and materials that are lighter, more effective, and more easily available are being explored. Some of this exploration involves getting samples mailed from many companies; some of it involves doing mechanical analysis of how much energy the different types of foam absorb upon impact.

“A lot of things are outdated, so we’re looking at some newer materials and designs,” said Sarang-Sieminski. 

 Li said he and Diehl are working to improve the technology as well as record their process through blueprints and templates. “The helmet design is 30 years old,” said Li, holding up a two-foot wide foam-and-duct-tape shell fused around an old football helmet.

The students recently attended a week-long course with the original manufacturer, which will be incredibly useful to supplement their documentation and provided insights into some of the manufacturing processes. The ultimate goal is to create an electronic packet that will be distributed to IMPACT chapters instructing them how to build the new armor. “In some ways it’s really complicated, and in some ways it’s foam and duct tape.” Sarang-Sieminski laughed. “But so far, I think our designs are working pretty darn well.”