What now stands as Auburn University faculty member Michael Zabala’s primary passion began as a favor for a neighbor.
Zabala is an assistant professor in mechanical engineering and the director of Auburn’s biomechanical engineering lab, and last football season his neighbor, Auburn head football trainer Robbie Stewart, had a question. Auburn wide receiver Anthony Schwartz had fractured his hand, and given Zabala’s background Stewart wanted to know if Zabala could create a custom brace Schwartz could wear under his glove.
Zabala — who earned his undergraduate degree from Auburn in 2007 — created the brace, which drew high praise from Schwartz and Stewart afterward. Schwartz’s brace was just the beginning for Zabala and his graduate students, and now they have their own company to show for it.
Zabala was part of a group that formed XO Armor last December toward the end of a football season in which they not only created Schwartz’s brace but also customized equipment for fellow wide receiver Seth Williams, running back JaTarvious Whitlow and quarterback Joey Gatewood.
The company, which has the university as a part-owner and now has an office in the “New Venture Accelerator” on Devall Dr., has the draw of not only being able to create customizable braces for athletes — built to the exact contour of each individual’s body — but also using 3D printing to produce a durable, dependable brace in a time-efficient manner.
“It's very difficult to 3D print strong materials. It's traditionally been one of the most difficult parts of pursuing 3D printing technology, but that's something we've figured out how to do,” said Zabala, who is XO Armor’s CEO. “We're able to give these guys stuff that's not only perfectly customized to their body shape, but it's also extremely strong and can withstand all the abuse that it would see during the season.”
Zabala and his three grad students’ workload with Auburn athletics hasn’t let up since 2019. This football season, XO Armor produced finger guards for defensive linemen Daquan Newkirk and Big Kat Bryant along with a shoulder guard for running back D.J. Williams, who scored a touchdown against Kentucky while wearing it.
They also created a thumb guard for Auburn soccer goalie Maddie Prohaska, who wore it against Mississippi State on Sept. 18 when she made eight saves and earned SEC Freshman of the Week honors.
Zabala said XO Armor has received positive feedback from athletes, who have said they can’t even tell the braces are there. Zabala stressed how valuable the individual-specific contours are, as the ability to go beyond one-size-fits-all braces avoids unnecessarily bulky equipment and in turn builds confidence in the athletes that they can play to their full potential.
XO Armor has plans beyond just Auburn athletics, as at least one other university in Alabama as well as others across the southeast have expressed interest in their products. West Virginia has received sample shoulder guards and are working with the company to develop even more options for their teams. They also recently created a shin guard for a soccer player in Buenos Aires, Argentina, who Zabala said noted “the fit is just right.”
It’s just the beginning for XO Armor, which is utilizing technology and techniques Zabala feels can revolutionize the world of athletic equipment.
“I know it's not completely unheard of, and it happens at other universities — that is, 3D printing of specialty braces for various athletes,” said Zabala, who joined the Auburn faculty in 2016. “What we have done — which is a little bit different — is we have determined a means of essentially automating this process so that we can offer these guards or braces not just in reaction to injury, but we can offer sporting gear itself to be worn that's customized for athletes across the country — and if you think about it could potentially be even across the world.
“We're turning this into technology that can actually make gear that they're already going to be wearing in a lot of cases. Now it's extremely strong, flexible and perfectly customized to them. That's the biggest effort that we're working on.”
Zabala explained XO Armor’s initial focus is on shoulder guards — which are worn under shoulder pads for football players — thanks to the company’s usage of what is essentially a combination of a shoulder pad and a compression shirt. XO Armor is also interested in manufacturing more shin guards for soccer but would need National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) certification to do so, which Zabala felt can be achieved in a reasonable amount of time.
The company has also submitted two provisional patents involving their techniques and methods to automate the production process. If XO Armor is granted these patents, it would provide protection against potential competitors and would allow the company to expand and scale to an extent that would otherwise not be possible.
Without giving away all their plans, Zabala said the company intends to decrease wait times for those ordering customized gear to only a matter of days.
As for what’s next, Zabala explained XO Armor is looking to develop their own personalized app with which a customer such as Auburn University could scan their athletes so the company can generate the equipment. XO Armor is looking to expand to other universities as well as find a new CEO in place of Zabala, who would shift his focus to contributing primarily with research and development through the lab.
“The plan is to hire a CEO, begin a high level of fundraising to — let's say venture capital firms or even angel investors — and try to scale this thing and move it to the next level,” Zabala said.
Zabala said he’s heard from someone in athletics that the NFL is inquiring about XO Armor’s product, which further highlights how much interest there is. Zabala sees 3D-printed customized sports gear as the future for pro and collegiate sports, and he believes eventually it will trickle all the way down to high school, middle school and recreation-sports leagues as well.
Thanks to Zabala being a courteous neighbor, Auburn is now home to a company that could be the driving force in making that possible.
“Customized 3D-printed gear is absolutely the future. The question is in the details of how can this be done at that level of a scale,” Zabala said. “That's where we feel like we have our strength, and that's where our IP sits.”