Additive Manufacturing in the 21st Century

Fortify President and CEO shares insights on the evolving nature of 3D printing.

(Image courtesy of Fortify.)

(Image courtesy of Fortify.)

As a technology, 3D printing of traditional materials is transitioning out of limbo. We’re well-past the Peak of Inflated Expectations in the Hype Cycle, but we arguably haven’t yet hit the Plateau of Productivity except for a few specific combinations of technologies and applications. At that point, a 3D printer will be no more remarkable on a shop floor than any other machine tool. In order to understand where the technology is today and where it will be tomorrow, it helps to have an inside perspective on the additive manufacturing (AM) industry. had the opportunity to sit down with Joshua Martin, President and CEO of Fortify, to get his insights on the past, present and future of AM.

Can you give us some background on Fortify and how you got started with 3D printing?

Fortify is an additive manufacturing company headquartered in Boston, MA. We are commercializing Digital Composite Manufacturing – which enables strong, high-resolution composite parts at scale. The core technology spun out of Northeastern University, where I did my PhD. It’s the culmination of more than a decade’s worth of research in advanced materials. I joined the Directed Assembly of Particles and Suspensions (DAPS) lab under Professor Randy Erb, who had done his training at ETH in Switzerland and Duke University. The DAPS lab is focused on manipulated soft-matter, with expertise in controlling fibers and particles within different types of materials.

Joshua Martin, President and CEO of Fortify. (Image courtesy of Fortify.)

Joshua Martin, President and CEO of Fortify. 

(Image courtesy of Fortify.)

I’ve always been captivated by advanced materials, and specifically wanted to study biological composites such as bone and nacre (a particular mollusk shell). These are surprisingly strong and tough despite being made from relatively simple material building blocks. We were focused on finding ways to mimic the micro-architectures that nature employs in order get such impressive mechanical properties. Specifically, I wanted to take biological reinforcing principles and implement them using more advanced engineering materials such as carbon fiber, different types of ceramics, and advanced polymers. It was clear from early on that the only way to manufacture materials with such a fine level of control at scale and with design flexibility was through additive manufacturing.

At Northeastern, I met one Fortify’s co-founders, Karlo Delos Reyes. He had brought in funding from the University to empower graduate students to transition benchtop technology into start-ups. The timing was about right, if you look at how additive manufacturing was starting to mature and the demand of higher performing materials. In addition, the technology was hitting a stage of maturity where we could start to think about commercialization. Went through MassChallenge in 2016—one of the largest start-up accelerators in the world—and we were fortunate enough to take home a gold award and non-dilutive funding.

Since raising our Seed round, we have thankfully been award most innovative startup at the JEC Composites Conference, and most recently the Top Five Startup award at the Formnext. The team has grown from about five initial technical founders to ten people now and we’re looking to grow even further this coming year as we bring out printing system to the market.

Was your first exposure to 3D printing during your PhD, or did you have previous experience with it?

I did my undergrad at the University of Delaware because they have a really well-funded composites program. While I wasn’t exposed too much to additive there, I did have the experience of holding my first 3D printed part. It was from one of the early powder bed systems and I literally broke the part in my hands. So, I thought, “Okay, that’s interesting, but it’s not ready for real engineering applications.”

I decided to go deeper into the conventional aerospace composites industry, and did a bunch of work with ballistic panels and other structural components through the Center for Composites at UD and at Cytec Industries. After leaving school, I started working on advanced materials at the Army Research Labs, which funds most of the composite research at the University of Delaware.

That’s when I really started to get exposed to 3D printing. My lab was next to the Micro-Compositronics 3D printing center for ARL—the Army Research Labs—in Aberdeen. That’s where I kept sneaking into the other groups’ lab to play with their printers.

So, you’ve been working with 3D printing for about a decade now?

Wow. When it you say it that way, I suppose its been a little less than a decade; seven or eight years.

How has the industry changed in that time?

You can plot the mean experience within the additive industry on the Gartner Hype Cycle.

When I really started to pay attention to it, this was right about the time MakerBot was starting to become a big deal. The focus and the hype was all on the consumer; more the entry level, everybody has-to-have it type of 3D printing. As I’m sure you’re aware, that went through I think what’s called the ‘Trough of Disillusionment.’ The prototyping or desktop market has become quite commoditized by now, although there are a few really strong companies in this space. Since then, there has been a renaissance of higher-end capitol equipment, which has breathed life into other segments of the industry. When I was at the Army Research Labs, all of the machines there were within the industrial grade segment, and that’s what’s always intrigued me.

It’s what the greater plastics, metals, and composites manufacturing industries have needed for additive to get adopted at a much larger, more appreciable scale: production-grade, high-precision machines. My experience has been that the technology is just barely ready for manufacturing end-use parts at scale, but it is quickly getting there. That’s where my focus has been drawn.

What applications is Fortify targeting?

The market has initially drawn us into high-performance tools and fixtures, particularly injection molding. Additive is seeing a lot of adoption within tools, jigs and fixtures right now and we’re interested in that space. Since our materials have best in-class strength and stiffness at elevated temperatures, one of the under-served areas that we have a unique advantage in is the 3D printed injection mold tooling segment. A lot of our customers are consumer product manufacturers with an intense need for quickly getting tools and the conventional mode is to machine cut it out of aluminum.

(Image courtesy of Fortify.)

(Image courtesy of Fortify.)

We can deliver these tools in at a much faster rate and it’s cost efficient from their standpoint. Instead of being five to six weeks and several thousand dollars, we can get a part turned around that functions within a couple days, if not less. That’s really been a neat area to provide services to and is essentially our beachhead market. Most of our customers now will be using our systems for that.

Something we are very excited about is the end-use part arena. Our technology produces functional components at scale with the same aesthetic quality you would expect off a traditional photolithography system. On the aerospace side, there’s the ability to create high strength lightweight parts. Of course, any time you’re working against gravity, that’s going to be the main metric: strength to weight. We have a very interesting collaboration with a UAV group that has these very unique geometry propellers and components. The only other way to get them down to the weight and strength value as we’ve been able to achieve would be with a conventional fiber composite lay up, which is very labor intensive.

We’re working on a project with an automotive manufacturer that we’re hoping to announce publicly soon.  Under-the-hood applications for high-strength, high-temperature parts is a market segment that is ready for adoption.

You’re talking about making molds from composite materials that perform comparably to aluminum molds. Is that right?

That’s right. If you think about applications that composites typically make their way into, injection molds is definitely not one of them because it’s really complicated to have a tool that you would then have to lay up or whatever the compression molding tactic is going to be to make the composite part.  Our Digital Composites Manufacturing Platform will allow composites to be applied in areas  in which they typically would be too expensive or geometrically limited from entering.

Can you tell us more about the technology involved?

The technology platform that Fortify is building leverages what I would argue is the most validated high-throughput 3D printing technology: DLP [digital light processing] and light cured polymers. We’ve developed specifically engineered reinforcing agents, processing hardware, and software for printing heterogeneous materials. One of the unique aspects is that we’re able to control fiber orientation and distribution throughout each part with a process that we’ve termed “flux print,” which uses low magnetic fields to manipulate fibers within the 3D printing resin.

This platform gets around a lot of the optimization problems you face with composites—it lets you use anisotropic materials to your advantage. Since it’s DLP based, you can play an optimized curing pattern across the build area as you’re changing the orientation in sync. You stay one step ahead of the light with your magnetic alignment and perform your print process.

How big of a build area are we talking about?

The system that we’re sending out in beta is going to be roughly four by six inches in the X-Y and roughly a foot in Z. We learned from our analysis that the majority of tools that require the level of complexity we can provide fit within a 10 cubic inch build volume, and future systems will scale to meet larger part or throughput needs.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for additive manufacturing today?

Three big ones come to mind.

The first one would be the material properties that you can tap into. Having a part come off a printer is one thing; additive manufacturing has the ability to produce very unique and intricate geometries. But, as I’m sure most people who read this have experienced, a lot of those parts don’t perform as well as a traditionally manufactured part. For it to be taken rather seriously or for people to favor additive over traditional manufacturing, they better perform as well if not better. Material properties, that’s a big issue. A lot of that comes down to fundamental material science. Currently, most 3D printed materials are monolithic. Pure polymers can only go so far for some applications, which is why we are focused on enabling composite printing.

(Image courtesy of Fortify.)

(Image courtesy of Fortify.)

The next big challenge is design. If you just look around the room that you’re in right now, most things are made in a very simplistic manner. We have been trained to think in bulky, simple designs where you typically start with a big piece of material and machining it away to make your desired part. That mentality is not the best way to take advantage of additive manufacturing. Being able to teach new design tools to the workforce of the manufacturing segment is going to take a large amount of re-tooling and re-training. Generative design and topology optimization tools are making the workflow for additive a bit easier, but there is still a lot of progress to be made.

The last challenge is the level of precision and reliability. Right now, if you have a printer on the east coast and a printer on the west coast, let alone two printers a foot apart from one another, they’re probably going to produce parts that are slightly different. It’s a very challenging problem to solve, but with the industrial machines, you can afford to buy better components and employ closed loop systems that make the manufacturing process much more reliable and repeatable. That’s a really big problem because if you’re a Ford or another manufacturer looking at additive, you need to be guaranteed that each part you produce is going to perform reliably.

Where do you see additive manufacturing going in the future?

That’s an interesting topic. If you look at were recent investment dollars are going, it is pretty clear that there is a strong thesis on additive manufacturing for end-use parts at scale. We’re probably still a while out before we realize the Industry 4.0 dream of distributed manufacturing centers and hubs of printers, but I think the industry is directionally heading the right way. We need to earn our way into the traditional manufacturing setting by really delivering reliable processes, advanced materials, and seamless workflows that make it a no brainer to adopt.

It’s worth noting that the industry still has plenty of room to mature just around making traditional manufacturing more efficient. There is so much room for adoption just in that setting alone, because the buying market needs to mature along with the technology. Many companies are just starting to think about how to apply AM, and supplementation of an existing manufacturing process is usually a low-risk, high-reward place to start.

Do you have any advice for someone who’s considering using AM in a production setting?

I would say the state of the industry is such that companies are willing to have high-touch relationships with customers that may be considering adoption, but who still have unanswered questions. There are really low-energy barrier ways of testing technologies and one of the things we do with early stage customers is to setup a pilot study where they can de-risk the technology before taking the plunge and outfitting a 3D printing lab.

I would suggest working with specialty groups, such as the Barnes Group, where you have very experienced engineers from many different industries, who can come in and take a look at a number of workflows and help determine where the best place to start is.

For more information on AM materials, check out this great pair of articles:

Where Do 3D Printing Plastics Come from? and Where Do 3D Printing Metals Come from?