A FEW MINUTES after the Carolina Panthers punched their ticket to Super Bowl 50 with a blowout win over the Arizona Cardinals, reporters asked stud linebacker Thomas Davis how his arm was feeling. “Yeah, it’s broken,” he replied. He’d run into Arizona tight end Daniel Fells, who jumped and kneed Davis in the right forearm. “It hurt,” he said, laughing, “that’s all I can tell you.” That was two weeks ago.
The Panthers need Davis in the Super Bowl—though he’s in his 11th season, he’s having perhaps his best year yet, and is an anchor in the team’s stout defense. He wants to play, too, injuries be damned. The day after the game, a surgeon installed a 5.5-inch plate and a dozen screws in his arm. In theory, the surgery would allow him to play long before the bone healed—though it’s still supposed to set you back for six weeks, according to one expert in the field. Best case scenario, it might hurt like crazy, but he might be able to play. Or a lot of things could go wrong. “Since the bone’s not completely healed, it’s a risk of breaking the hardware,” said Ned Amendola, an orthopedic surgeon at Duke. Davis could do something to the surgical incision. Or who knows what else?
Desperate to play, Davis and the Panthers started exploring their options. On the morning of Wednesday, Jan. 27, they called Whiteclouds, a 3-D printing outfit in Utah. “Someone knew someone who knew us,” says company CEO Jerry Ropelato, as if he’s still unsure exactly how it happened. The Panthers had two questions: Can you make Davis a brace he can wear during the game? And can you do it, like, yesterday?
Whiteclouds doesn’t make medical devices, per se. It’s the world’s largest full-color 3-D printing facility, and can print just about anything you can imagine. It has kiosks in Target stores where you scan your face and make yourself into an action figure. It’s worked with NASA, Dreamworks, and Marvel. Its 53 employees know exactly what they’re doing when it comes to 3-D printing, but this was a new one.
They didn’t have time to prototype and iterate, or to stress-test their designs. They didn’t have time to do anything beyond make something. Anything. And fast. “[The team] wanted it on a plane the next day,” Ropelato says. He asked for an extra day because 3-D printers just don’t work that fast—“we knew this was going to be a large print,” he says, “and there was no way we could pull that off”—but he knew they had one shot to build Davis a brace.
Using a hastily-made 3-D scan of Davis’ arm, and working through a company called 3-D Elite, Ropelato’s crew set to work designing a brace everyone thought might work. It had to be breathable enough to be comfortable to wear, and as light as possible. Davis didn’t want to wield a club where his right arm should be. If they could make it good-looking, that’d be good. Oh yeah, and it had to protect his arm and the incision. “We had a number of questions,” Ropelato says. “We had to call back and talk to one of the orthopedic guys.” They wanted to make sure it didn’t slide down Davis’ arm when he lifted it, that it had enough padding, and that it didn’t run afoul of the NFL’s extremely specific rules about casts and braces.
Whiteclouds has a whole design methodology, which it promptly tossed out the window. “If you were doing this brace,” Ropelato says, “you might have a whole team of experts doing their various testing, and math calculations from an engineering perspective. A lot of this was just bypassed, it was just quickly, dive in and get this thing done.” Around 9:30 that night, a handful of designers—been ripped from whatever they were doing when the call came that morning—finalized a design. It doesn’t look like much, a black wrap with holes throughout—it’s like Whiteclouds just flattened out a rubber dish rack with Davis’ number 58 and the Whiteclouds logo on it. “The final product ended up being kind of a hard plastic spine,” Ropelato says, “with a rubber-like material” called Poron XRD. “To the touch it felt almost rubbery.”
The brace runs almost the length of Davis’ formidable forearm, and took a full 30 hours to print. They shipped it to Davis last Friday night. By Monday, at the media day ahead of the Super Bowl, Davis had already tried it out. “It was a light day” of practice, he told reporters, “but I took every opportunity to hit it on something.” The Panthers released a picture of Davis clubbing a tackling dummy with his left arm, the brace wrapped in black tape on his right. Ropelato says he’s heard stories about Davis “going around the room and hitting the tables as hard as he could” after he tried it for the first time, “seeing what it feels like.” Davis had a handful of different off-the-shelf braces to try out, but has stuck with the one made just for him. If he plays, he’ll be far from the first to do so while wearing a cast or brace, but he’ll almost certainly be the first to do so with a 3-D printed one. It doesn’t look like a club and it won’t restrict his movement; it’s made specifically for him and specifically to let him play the way he wants to.
There’s still no final word on whether Davis will play, of course, though his comments make him sound hell-bent on doing exactly that. The guy’s already made it back from three ACL tears on the same knee, so it’s hard to imagine a fractured arm keeping him down. If he does play, Ropelato and the Whiteclouds team will watch intently. “To think, if we had a little bit of a hand in maybe the outcome of the Super Bowl?” Ropelato says. “We’re pretty excited about saying that.”