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Auburn University, XO Armor sign three-year contract

Justin Hokansonby:Justin Hokanson08/17/21


AUBURN | Homegrown startup company XO Armor has watched its business go from a simple idea to an evolving, and potentially revolutionary service in the blink of an eye.

And Auburn Athletics is about to be a big beneficiary, as the company and Auburn signed a three-year contract this month. The contract gives Auburn unlimited custom, 3-D-printed guards for their athletes.

Who is XO Armor?

The founding team of XO Armor actually runs the Biomechanical Engineering lab at Auburn University, led by 2007 Auburn University graduate, Michael Zabala. XO started with a request from Auburn Athletics to help develop technology to modernize the creation of protective gear for Auburn football players in 2019. Zabala is a Mechanical Engineering graduate from Auburn, with a Masters’ Degree and PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford, and a current Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Auburn University.

XO Armor designs and creates custom, 3-D-printed guards for the body. From shoulders to ankles and everywhere in between, XO has machines that can scan and create custom guards that fit perfectly to the body. These guards are lined with padding and attach to the body seamlessly.

Zabala had begun working with the football program when his next-door neighbor, Auburn trainer Robbie Stewart, asked Zabala before the 2019 season opener against Oregon if his team could make something to protect the surgically repaired hand of receiver Anthony Schwartz.

That worked, so Zabala’s team then made a shoulder guard for Seth Williams later in the season. Since, XO has created guards for numerous Auburn, Alabama, Clemson, West Virginia football players, and more. And it goes beyond football. XO is creating custom shin guards for college soccer players, and even created a guard to protect the finger of Auburn basketball freshman Chris Moore last season.

XO has quickly become a full-fledged business after winning a grant in 2018, and are located on the campus of Auburn University, inside a building dedicated to new business ventures. In addition to college programs, XO is talking to the NFL to bring the product into the professional ranks.

The benefit of what XO Armor does

According to Zabala, XO is offering athletic departments access to a subscription service that would put printers and scanners and the company’s proprietary software in the hands of athletic trainers for those teams. XO can create custom protective gear for their players. For example, a linebacker might sprain his AC joint at practice and have a working guard the following day. Depending on the size of the area, it can take between 30 minutes and two hours to print a guard. Conceivably, a football player who suffers a first-half injury might be able to get scanned and have a working guard printed by the second half. That’s Zabala’s hope, anyway.

“It would be a whole new level,” Zabala said. “There’s nothing stopping Auburn football from having one of our 3-D printers on the sideline. The day I see an XO Armor 3-D printer on the sideline working, making a device, and when I see someone put it on a player, that is when I think everything will have to come together.”

[The valuable intellectual property here is the ability to combine the correct printer, the scanning software, the correct printer settings, the correct medium and the print software to make guards that are strong but can also be printed quickly.]

The fact that custom-printed guards aren’t the norm is fairly remarkable considering the arms race that college football programs are in. The ability to fit an athlete with a guards that fits the exact contours of their body could be a huge competitive advantage. A guard that isn’t designed to fit a player’s body won’t allow the force of a blow to dissipate evenly. So certain points on the body must absorb more force. A guard made to fit the contours of the athlete’s body reduces that issue.

The material is thin and resilient. It can withstand a grown adult standing on the guard without breaking. Former Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn drove over one guard with his truck. The guard didn’t break.

Testimony to the quality

In 2019, Anthony Schwartz injured his left hand. It kept him out of action until XO created a custom guard that fit underneath Schwartz’s glove. When Schwartz returned to action, he took a reverse for a touchdown on the road at Texas A&M. In the photo below, you can barely see the guard underneath the glove.

COLLEGE STATION, TX – SEPTEMBER 21: Auburn Tigers wide receiver Anthony Schwartz (5) runs the ball during the game between the Auburn Tigers and the Texas A&M Aggies on September 21, 2019 at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas. (Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

That same season, Seth Williams injured his left shoulder. XO created a custom guard for Williams’ left shoulder and got Williams back in action. And when Williams took a vicious late-hit from a Mississippi State defender on that shoulder, the guard didn’t break and Williams remained in the game.

“I was glad our wide receiver had the XO Armor brace on,” Auburn team physician, Michael Goodlett, said. “He took a hit directly to the place he was hurt. If we didn’t have that one piece, we would have had two different pads, and I don’t think they would have protected him nearly as well. The brace obviously worked like a charm.”

“Seth Williams said it felt like it wasn’t even there,” Zabala said. “He said he wished all his pads felt like that.”

The same goes for Alabama linebacker Christian Harris, who was injured in the 2020 Iron Bowl. In order to get Harris back on the field for the SEC Championship game against Florida, XO quickly created a custom guard. The protective equipment was delivered overnight to Alabama, and Harris was able to play in the title game, where he recorded an interception and a sack.

Zabala proud of his Auburn connections

Zabala, who grew up in Birmingham, Ala. before heading to Auburn, is proud of the newly-inked deal with his alma mater.

“It was always my dream when I left Auburn to return to Auburn,” Zabala told Auburn Live. “I love the university and I love the teams. It became my dream to teach at Auburn, and that dream is realized in 2016. It’s amazing every day.

“When we stated doing work for Auburn football, given I’m a huge Auburn football fan, that was tremendously fun. I got to help our players get back on the field and play. Then watch them play and perform and score touchdowns — that was extremely rewarding.

“As an Auburn engineering alumni, to be a part of technology-based company that’s come out of Auburn that’s benefitted Auburn and other sports is rewarding.”

Ja’Tarvious Whitlow wore these guards on his shoulders against in Florida in 2019. (Photo/Auburn Live)
The underside of the guards are lined with Shock Shield, a gel-like padding material.

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