Innovation abounds at Century, where brilliant creativity meets ingenious engineering. The elite Century Research and Development team is made up of talented designers and engineers, many of whom are they themselves martial artists. Training in-house, they gain valuable insight into producing equipment unparalleled in quality, function and style. And Century innovation extends beyond product, with a mission to continually reinvent and improve the entire martial arts experience.
This past July the world got its first glimpse of Tegu headgear, the newest, state-of-the-art addition to the Century lineup. It has since garnered global attention from coaches and athletes alike, making its humble beginning all the more remarkable. Tegu started more than eight years ago as no more than a simple idea: Improve martial arts headgear.
For six years, Century’s new headgear proposal was an on-again, off-again venture. With a pile of discarded sketches and no clear direction, it seemed like a lost cause. Then, in January 2012, Tibor Siklosi joined Century as the Director of Innovation. Along with fellow Research and Development team members Kurt Hafeken and Jeffrey Woodson, Siklosi spearheaded the project just two weeks after starting at Century — and quickly found himself neck-deep in all things headgear.
“We spent the better part of two days just digging through all the designs to see what we could pick up and start with,” Siklosi says. “We hoped that after six years of trying, there’d be something there that we could use.”
What Siklosi discovered, however, was an extensive list of requirements, covering everything from the headgear’s general look and fit, to its function and performance. The list had gradually grown to include more than 50 benefits and features, compounding the intricacies of an already challenging process.
“The designs were insane, as far as the number and the complexity,” Siklosi recalls. “The R&D team did amazing work, but with every design, someone would say, ‘We want the headgear to do this, we want to add that.’ Before they knew it, it was too big, too costly, too complex. So we basically said, ‘Let’s just clean the slate.’”
Part of cleaning the figurative slate meant re-examining the drawbacks of headgear already on the market, most especially traditional dipped foam.
“Foam-dipped headgear, which is the standard, has a patent that is 40 years old,” says Century R&D Manager and industrial designer, Kurt Hafeken. “Nothing has really changed for that long. Other sports and other industries have progressed, but martial arts has been the same.”
While both Hafeken and Siklosi agreed that dipped-foam headgear is functional and necessary, there was also room for change. Many martial artists commonly reported that dipped-foam headgear could be uncomfortably hot, slippery, and require readjusting during sparring. Having trained in the headgear themselves with similar results, the team realized the experience of wearing headgear could be improved by narrowing their focusing to comfort, secure fit and coverage.
The process of choosing those three main objectives was in and of itself a challenge for the team. It required a drastic mental shift for the visually-oriented designers. Instead of beginning with sketches, they started over with words.
“It’s almost counter intuitive, but you get a lot more creative when you don’t try to design with drawings right out of the chute,” Siklosi says. “So, on all of our projects we start with the key benefits, not features. Then later, we begin designing the features that generate or produce those benefits.” “You can’t start with the ‘how,’” Hafeken continues. “You have to start with the ‘why,’ because without the ‘why’ you don’t know anything else.”
Two-dimensional renderings of the headgear shortly followed the pared-down requirement list, with the team keeping in mind the three key requirements of comfort, fit and coverage. The conceptual drawings found influences in unlikely places, including wrestling headgear and construction hardhats.
Having been a wrestler himself, Siklosi knew from experience that incorporating features of wrestling headgear could help fulfill both the secure fit and comfort requirements for the Century project.
“You forgot you were wearing it,” Siklosi remembers. “You never even gave it a thought. You can grapple in it, from take-downs to groundwork, and it doesn’t move. You never have to reposition it. It just stays right where it is.”
Going forward with their wrestling-gear inspiration, even greater insight came from a construction hardhat and a U.S. Coast Guard helmet brought in by R&D industrial designer Jeffrey Woodson.
“The observation he brought to the table,” Siklosi explains, “was that you can hit yourself on the head with a wrench while wearing a hardhat and you don’t feel it at all. The impact is just dispersed by the shell.”
The team discovered that the helmet’s rigid construction and internal suspension system design acted to diffuse impact energy better than foam alone (which mainly absorbs impact, but does not disperse it). In addition, the suspension system aided breathability and comfort through minimal skin contact.
“What we ended up doing was elevating the headgear, like a hardhat would, and putting the hardhat [concept] sandwiched in the middle of the foam,” says Siklosi.
With a solid foundation and clear direction, a final 2-D drawing was completed for what would become Tegu. Then the real work began. Woodson was put in charge of creating the 3-D rendering, spending hundreds of hours on what proved to be the most demanding part of the product’s development.
“It is easy to lose the style and detail of a design while engineering a product for manufacture,�� Woodson says. “We were exceedingly conscious of this fact, and it took many revisions to get the finished design to live up to the original design art.”
“That’s what leadership signed off on,” Hafeken adds. “That’s what they liked. So we had to make it look like that in 3-D.”
Working on the headgear’s complex design not only tested Woodson’s skills, but his patience as well. An unforeseen change in manufacturing companies forced him to start over on Tegu’s rendering after spending months to complete it.
“Rebuilding five sizes of headgear with 15 component molds each was definitely a challenge,” Woodson says. “We were up against development deadlines for the MASuperShow and production deliveries, but getting parts right was critical.”
His perseverance — and that of the whole Century team — paid off, though. The first physical prototype of the multi-plated headgear arrived in plenty of time for all the necessary testing and checks. Made of SLA material and foam, the preliminary version was refined, engineered, and molds were built to create a pre-production sample of the headgear. From there, the team began extensive testing with ballistic-impact specialist Cynthia Bir, Ph.D., at the Wayne State University facility in Detroit.
“The first weekend of testing I sat there and watched our headgear get pummeled for days and days,” Siklosi recalls. “Waiting for the results, it was almost like we were expectant fathers. We went through five rounds of testing [at Wayne State], and every time we had to come back and fix something.”
Armed with new data and ideas, the R&D team tweaked and reworked the five-plated, precisely-strapped headgear, adjusting foam thickness and densities, arch heights, strap placement and even the fabric piping. “No one knows how much we agonized over these little details,” Siklosi says. “But they all affect performance and fit.”
In addition to lab testing and in-house Century sparring matches, a major outside contributor to Tegu has been Greg Jackson, whose MMA gym in Albuquerque is known for producing championship fighters. For a little more than a year, Century R&D worked directly — and semi-secretly — with Jackson and his athletes to improve on the prototypes the team had already created.
“They would come, they would get feedback from us, go back to the laboratory, tinker around with it, and then bring it back,” Jackson says. “You almost felt like Batman, and you had… people designing your suit. At the end of the day, we’ve got the perfect Bat Suit, if you will.”
Among the many features of Tegu, Jackson points out the low-set forehead plate — which provides crucial coverage for the eyebrows and eyes — and the headgear’s custom, secure fit. For Jackson and his fighters, though, Tegu isn’t just a convenient accessory; it’s an essential and one-of-a-kind piece of sparring equipment.
“The development of this headgear was born out of necessity,” Jackson says. “We needed to change. We needed to evolve. When you get the headgear, you already know it’s been battle-tested. It’s been through the ringer.”
After more than two years of non-stop research and development, the correct ratios and components finally combined to fulfill the team’s three key headgear requirements. Now officially known as Tegu — deriving its name from an armored lizard — the headgear has proven to be more than just an equipment update. Five individual pieces lace together to provide a secure, customizable fit; the now-patented arched-plate and foam technology expertly absorbs and disperses impact energy; And elevated sections allow for airflow, creating breathability and comfort.
“There’s something extraordinary about how this came about,” Siklosi says. “All of our minds produced something that there’s no way that just one of us could have done alone.”
The journey was far from over, though, even after the first official box of Tegu headgear came in. With the help of elite coaches and instructors who were the first to try out the finished headgear, the Century team saw their work where it really belongs: on the heads of students, athletes and fighters. “From Krav Maga to traditional martial artists, taekwondo, and MMA, we learned that it truly is a cross-functional headgear,” Siklosi says. “You can grapple in it, and go all the way up to boxing and anything in between.”
For the Century team, headgear is just the beginning when it comes to using the Tegu technology. Already in the works is a face-mask version of the headgear, plus guards for shins, insteps, arms and hands. For Siklosi, the ability to develop such innovative products is a reflection of Century leadership.
“They want us to push our comfort zone and push the boundaries on product development,” Siklosi says. “That’s a testimony to a true product-development company — when we want to see the boundaries not just pushed, but, I think in this case, we blew up the boundaries.”
“We have a passion for improving not only the industry as a whole, but also each individual martial artist’s experience,” Hafeken says. “Tegu is another demonstration of our dedication to innovation and producing state-of-the-art equipment like no one else.”
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