d3o's body armour claims to be soft and flexible throughout the day, but to harden up instantly under impact. As such it's been a big hit in the snowboarding market, where it can make clothing protective and impact-resistant without it looking like you're wearing armour. But now d3o are branching out into the motorcycle armour market - so how does this thin, bright orange wonder armour compare against the traditional thick foam CE armour pads you find in bike leathers? Editor Noel McKeegan attacks Loz Blain with a heavy frying pan to find out.

Dilatant plastics: "intelligent molecules"

You've probably seen d3o's bright orange impact-resistant armour around the Internet in recent times. Instantly identifiable due to a great colour choice, d3o's claim to fame is that it's made from a dilatant substance - that is, one in which viscosity increases with the rate of shear. That means that it's highly flexible when moved slowly, but if you try to move it fast - for example, by banging it with a hammer, it hardens up.

A mixture of cornstarch and water is the most famous example - stirring it slowly is easy, but as you try to stir it faster, it becomes very thick and viscous.

The benefit when you use this sort of substance to make body armour is that the armour can be very flexible, comfortable and form-fitting for the 99% of the time that you're not experiencing any impacts - but it will harden up and distribute the shock very effectively if you do hit something. Take, for example, the fun Sky News video report showing d3o CEO Richard Palmer, who lets the reporter bang him on the head with a shovel while he's wearing a d3o beanie.

d3o's success in winter sports

d3o's biggest success has been with winter sports - snowboarding in particular, where you've got people travelling at high speed, jumping in the air for tricks and spending a fair bit of time landing on their heads. A proper helmet is the best kind of protection in this sort of game, but snow-bunny fashion dictates that anything more than a beanie is plain dorky - so d3o's comfortable, flexible armoured beanies have been a very well thought-out product.

In addition to the beanies, the orange pads have found their way into ski jackets and pants, speed suits (such as those worn by team USA at this year's Winter Olympics), skater gear, lacrosse armour, polo pads, ballet shoes and even shock-resistant iPhone covers.

Smart armour that's comfortable and flexible until it's needed and then hard and impact-resistant as soon as it takes a hit - what a great idea! So when we heard that d3o was branching out into motorcycle armour, we thought it was time for a comparo test.

The Comparo test - d3o vs thick foam CE armour

In the right corner, fresh out of a set of RST off-the-shelf motorcycle leathers, standing nearly 3cm at max thickness, is a conventional thick foam CE elbow armour pad, made by Knox.

In the left corner, in the bright orange trunks, with a max thickness of around 1cm, is a dilatant elbow armour pad made by d3o.

With the d3o armour in the right elbow of my leather jacket, and the standard Knox armour in the left elbow, it was immediately apparent that the d3o was much more comfortable. It doesn't strictly cup the elbow joint the way the Knox armour does - instead, it's totally flexible and much less noticeable. But then, the feeling of a big, chunky elbow pad can actually be quite reassuring when you're ripping into a mountain road.

On to the trauma test then - showing the real value of the armour when it's needed. We went with a fairly simple methodology - Gizmag editor Noel McKeegan took a large-ish frying pan and whacked me on the elbows with it, going from the Knox side to the d3o side until I surrendered in pain, or he got bored. See the video below:

Our conclusions

Now, it has to be stated, Noel was really wailing on me there. With no armour at all, any one of those hits would probably have smashed my elbow.

So for the d3o side merely to get a bit painful after a half-dozen very solid whacks is really quite an achievment. At roughly a third the thickness of the Knox pad, it did an incredibly good job. But the simple fact is that Noel could have kept on swingin' at the Knox side all afternoon and it wouldn't have fazed me in the slightest, whereas the d3o side was immediately more painful.

Not to mention, by about 15 minutes after the video was finished filming, my right elbow, on the d3o side, had swollen up quite noticeably and was feeling pretty sore, whereas the left side felt as if nothing had happened.

To me, the effectiveness of this armour comes down to a simple question - are you more interested in fashion and comfort, or outright protection?

There's no doubt that the d3o pads are thinner, lighter, and more comfortable on the body. They don't distort the shape of the clothes they're in, so there's none of that power ranger-style big elbow effect that thicker armours can have on a set of leathers.

The Armadillo range of urban scooter-wear is a great example of the targeting of this product - looking through the range, it looks more like a series of thickish winter coats than dedicated protective clothing. And that's the point of it - scooter and commuter riders don't all want to show up at work looking like spacemen, giant reflective strips and chunky armour pads alerting all and sundry to their choice of transport.

But when it comes to the hardcore motorcyclist who gets out and rides hard, I think it's fair to say that effective protection is a much higher priority than fashion. Leathers with thick foam armour might be a bit annoying when you're off the bike, but they're both comfortable and reassuring when you're riding. And our frying pan test convinced me that they do a better job of impact protection when the chips are down.

That said, we were all surprised how effective the d3o material was, given how slim and flexible the pads were. So the potential is definitely there - we'd love to run the same test again with a thicker, more heavy duty d3o pad. I wouldn't mind betting it would deliver better impact protection than the CE foam, while being more comfortable to wear. It seems to us that d3o has a bright future ahead of it, and that we're only just beginning to see its potential.

Update: Ruth Gough, VP Brand and Marketing from d30, got in touch to let us know that the company is already working on thicker armour for better protection. Her (slightly edited) email appears below:

Just read the review of our T5 pads v the knox pads you tested and I have to say it was a very well written article, it’s actually nice to get some good feedback like this and I often find that journalists are the best place to get it!

Just wanted to contact you directly to let you know that you are quite right that we have had some feedback from some brands who make products designed for more hardcore riding, that they would like them to be more protective, so we are just finishing off a new range of protectors for this purpose. We have 2 new ranges, they are called T5 pro (which is 13mm thick and designed to withstand fluctuations in hot and cold temperatures), and T6 which is the same thickness as the pad you tested, but has a section of hard shell to protect against some penetration or sliding.

Our first step into this market was as you say with Armadillo, and the T5 (8mm thick) pads are perfect for this application as you are not reaching nearly such high speeds, and are more concerned about comfort and style, this is where this product really originated. The T6 product actually resulted from some work we were doing with the MoD, we have won 3 development contracts with them to develop a helmet liner, ballistics protection, and integrated, soft knee & elbow protection into combat uniforms. For the combat uniform project the MoD wanted a knee pad that was soft and flexible but also offered penetration resistance from flinty ground like you would find in Afghanistan. We then found that a lot of the motorcycle customers we were talking to wanted to use a product like this too, so we changed the design to suit these applications, and T6 was born!

The US is completely different again, with a lot of people, unbelievably, not even wearing protection, especially in the hotter states, so the thinner d3o is at least giving them the chance to wear some protection! And even though d3o is as thin as it is, it still passes the European standard (EN1621-1) to a good level, and for many consumers and brands, this is what they recognise as an appropriate level of protection. The knox pad you tested was probably one of the thickest pads on the market and in our experience is not that commonly used.

When we have some samples of the thicker pads, I’d love to send some over to you to get some feedback, I’ll let you know when we have some ready for the frying pan test!

All the best, and thanks for the honest article,


Ruth Gough VP Brand & Marketing