If you played sports as a kid—or have a kid who plays sports—you're probably familiar with the cheap, ubiquitous and not terribly effective "boil and bite" mouth guards sold at most sporting-goods stores. Scott Wilson was certainly familiar with them—he remembers watching his daughter struggle to mold one in preparation for lacrosse season, with tears of frustration running down her face. "I was like, 'Okay, there has to be a better way to do this,'" says Wilson, who is the founder and CEO of the Chicago design firm MINIMAL.
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So when Dr. David Frey, DDS, reached out saying he had an idea for a better mouth guard, Wilson was intrigued, and agreed to a meeting with the Beverly Hills dentist in late 2013. Frey had been using a silicone impression material called PVS in his dental practice, and wondered what would happen if the same material was used to create a mouth guard. "He had the dental putty and we made a rough prototype right there, to prove how fast it could set up—and how it could be used for protection in terms of flexibility, stamina, strength," Wilson says.
Wilson brought the idea back to his team in Chicago, where they agreed that it would be a good fit for MINIMAL's "design venture" bucket, a series of projects where the company takes an equity stake in return for providing design and development at a discounted rate. "We had to think about the opportunity, look at the market and assess the feasibility and viability," Wilson says. "We realized that the mouth-guard industry was ripe for disruption."
Sketches of potential mouth-guard configurations
The team jumped right into rough prototypes. "It's one of those things where it's so dependent on materials and the process that you have to get your hands dirty pretty quick—even before sketching," says Kyle Buzzard, a design director at MINIMAL. "When we started, we weren't really sure what the putty material's capabilities would be."
"We realized that the mouth-guard industry was ripe for disruption," Scott Wilson says.
Early on, the team discovered that the dental putty lacked a lot of the qualities needed to make a durable mouth guard. "It was too brittle," Wilson says. "We needed something longer lasting that could mold to your teeth and could be spongy enough for impact testing as well." Designed for temporary impressions at the dentist's office, the putty needed to be engineered to live in the mouth long-term, especially in high-impact conditions. "We had to go out and find a supplier that was willing to work with us, who believed in the project enough to experiment and try things out," Wilson says.
MINIMAL ultimately worked with a PVS silicone manufacturer and its factory's chemical engineers to modify the base material and create a range formulations—seeking an ideal consistency with a quick set time as well as the perfect viscosity for flowing through the mouth guard. "It was a lot of back and forth with the factory to really nail all of those properties," Buzzard says.
The final product—called ZONE, and available exclusively at Dick's Sporting Goods—comes with two containers of putty, a base and a catalyst, which are kneaded together by the user. (Each putty has its own color, making it easy to see when they're fully mixed.) From there, the user rolls the putty into a tube shape, places it in a plastic frame and bites into it—holding that position for a couple minutes until the material sets.
Making this system user-friendly required negotiating a number of tricky issues—for instance, determining the perfect amount of putty. "If it's too much, it just squirts out of the back or the top," Wilson says. "And then if there's not enough, it doesn't create a good lock around the teeth and doesn't protect you well enough."
The frame itself posed its own set of challenges. Designed to be a universal fit, Wilson also wanted the mouth guard to have lots of organic curves—a nightmare for most CAD programs. "A lot of the mouth guards on the market are very mechanical looking, very rigid and blocky," Wilson says. "We were going for a form factor that was a little bit more appropriate for a human mouth to use. That challenge alone, from a geometry integration [standpoint] and from a CAD standpoint, made it difficult to use traditional CAD tools. We ended up really leveraging Autodesk's T-Splines, a polygonal modeling software plugin for Rhino."
The user kneads together two types of putty, then rolls the material into a tube that goes inside the plastic frame.
MINIMAL worked with local shop Designcraft to create high-fidelity prototypes and cast urethane molds for models from those files. Those prototypes were what Wilson and his team brought to the team at Dick's Sporting Goods, which led to the exclusive licensing deal.
User testing was an integral part of every stage of the process, with most of the team at MINIMAL taking on the brunt of the work themselves during the earliest stages. "We were advised actually not to put the 3D-printed material in our mouths, but at this point there aren't any FDA-safe 3D-printing materials that we could find or easily use," Wilson says. Buzzard adds that for the majority of the next four or five months during that phase, he could be found at his desk with a mouth guard in while doing CAD work. "Really kept me focused," he says.
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The final frame was injection molded with a clear, FDA-food-safe UVA plastic, allowing for UV light to reach even the deepest corners of the mouth guard. "UV light naturally kills bacteria, so a clear frame is good for eliminating any kind of nasty things," Buzzard says. Once MINIMAL reached a final design, Dick's took the reins and brought the product through to mass-manufacturing—working with MINIMAL's putty vendor in the U.S. and outsourcing the plastic frame overseas.
The ZONE mouth guard is designed to last one season—and each ZONE comes with a $15,000 dental insurance guarantee, which seems like a pretty good value for something that can be bought off the shelf for $20.