OBO, a small company in Palmerston North, has become a world leader in field hockey equipment. Most Olympic hockey goalkeepers, including from New Zealand’s Black Sticks, wear the company’s gear.
OBO founder Simon Barnett has never played field hockey himself. However, with a daughter on New Zealand’s under-17 Junior Olympics team, he was understandably keen to find her the safest, strongest equipment around. With typical Kiwi chutzpah, Barnett put together his own product development lab.
A major challenge in hockey equipment is to make gear that can protect the human body from high-speed balls (up to 160 km/h) but still allow the wearer to move with instinct and precision. Simon’s team spent weeks testing as many brands of helmet as they could get their hands on in their Antipodean Collider. Using this collider, they filmed balls being fired at the helmets at lighting speed.
With their understanding of how different materials protect different parts of the body, they combined high-density foam with a polycarbonate chassis to create protective headgear and helmets. Their boldly designed OBO headgear has taken the hockey world by storm and made goalkeepers the least injured players on the hockey field. Next up, they plan to tackle cricket and softball gear, while always improving their hockey equipment.
Find out more about OBO.
If a hockey ball is travelling at 160 kilometres an hour and there are 13,000 field hockey goal keepers on the planet, how many of them will look like this?
The answer is none. They should all be wearing helmets. Simon Barnett has never played field hockey before, but he has a soft spot for goalies, including his Junior Olympics-competing daughter. Thanks to his OBO range, goalies are now the least injured players on the hockey field.
This is closed cell foam, it’s made in Christchurch, it’s the base of many of our hockey products. It’s very light, it’s very durable, it protects like nothing else on earth and it’s got great colours as well.
It’s hard stuff to protect the human body from ball speeds 160 k’s an hour but still let them move. So when you play sport if you hesitate even for a moment, just a fraction of a second, you then can’t play the game that you’re demanded to play.
With most Olympic hockey goalkeepers and the Black Sticks now wearing OBO kit, OBO and its goalies have raced to the top of the game.
But where hockey kit was falling down was in head protection. OBO began research to design better penalty corner defensive gear.
The goalkeepers are in charge of the short corner and the defenders are there to help them. If someone can put something on that protects just the front of their face rather than the whole head, it’s lighter, it’s quicker to put on and take off. And they are totally focused on what they are facing which is the ball coming straight at them.
So with funding support from the Ministry of Science and Innovation, OBO built a research laboratory including what they called the Antipodean Collider.
The laboratory we set up has got an air cannon and I can fire either hockey balls or softballs, speeds between about 8 metres a second and 45 metres a second, which is the top sort of speed that any ball sport is producing.
The first part of the actual design process was to get as many of the competing or existing products as we could get, and I tested those. I spent weeks firing balls at them seeing how they broke. Looking at the high-speed videos, seeing how they reacted to the forces.
As a father you stand on the sideline and watch people play these games and once I realized how much damage it can do to the human face, I was shocked by that. And it was a real motivator in terms of getting out there and doing something better to enable people to play the game they love, but do it in a safe way.
Two years design work lead to unprecedented protective results.
This is the ‘Face Off’. It’s got a strong poly carbonate outer chassis to keep the ball off the face. Inside it’s got high-density foam to absorb the impact. It’s even got removable sweat pads so you can keep it nice and clean.
We understand now what different materials do to protect different parts of the human body for our other hockey products. So it’s been a huge step forward for us. It enables us to know really accurately what the hell is going on.
OBO are now developing new full helmets for the goalie but there’s no shortcut to making it work.
This is a rapid prototype, once we’ve put it on the players they said it was too passive, it didn’t have the aggression that they needed as goalkeepers. So $20,000 worth of work in terms of play and time down the drain.
Once the sport psychology sorted OBO will make molds for helmet sizing and then go into production, while also expanding in other directions.
We’ve conquered field hockey goal keeping but we recognise we can do quite well in protecting the human face so that gives us opportunities of field hockey, in cricket and in softball. That’s a lot of people.
The small team from Palmy are already the world’s largest supplier of hockey goal equipment, and with the strength of their ongoing innovation work, eventually no one will mind a shot to the face.
This is part of the Innovation Stories series produced in partnership with the Ministry of Science and Innovation, it featured on TVNZ 7 during the Spotlight on Science + Innovation month in August 2011.