Expert Interview: Fortify CEO Josh Martin on its Digital Composite Manufacturing Technology
[Image credit: Fortify]
Fortify is a Boston-based startup that has developed a new approach to composite 3D printing. This approach combines magnet alignment of composites with Digital Light Processing (DLP) technology, enabling users to produce high-quality composite parts that would be otherwise impossible to manufacture.
The technology, called Fluxprint™, powers Fortify’s Digital Composite Manufacturing (DCM) platform. The platform is firstly aimed at enabling companies to produce durable tools like injection moulds and end-use production parts.
In today’s interview, we’re joined by Fortify’s CEO, Dr. Joshua Martin to learn more about Fortify’s exciting technology and discuss what is driving the growth of composite 3D printing.
Could you tell me a bit about Fortify?
Fortify is a Boston based additive manufacturing company bringing to market the next-generation platform for composite printing.
At Fortify, we focus on combining the performance you get from fibre-reinforced materials with the resolution you would traditionally expect from photopolymer technologies such as SLA and DLP.
We founded the company because we were tired of having to choose between form and function. Traditionally, there has been a trade-off between having a prototype that looks like the real thing but is typically poor in terms of performance, or having a part that is a functional prototype but is very far away from the fit and finish of a production-ready material.
At Fortify, we believe that polymer chemistry alone can only reach a small part of the property space needed by engineering applications. Within photopolymers, a lot of the baseline materials haven’t really changed in the past few decades. For the last 25 to 30 years, it’s been pretty much based off the same sorts of chemistry, although things have been accelerating in the last five years or so.
Fortify is bringing to the table a technology that allows us to fill the high-resolution chemistries with reinforcing additives, with the critical benefit of being able to control the alignment of the reinforcing particles.
If you look across all existing 3D printing technologies, SLA/DLP based platforms have come the farthest in terms of surface finish and accuracy of parts when they come off the printer.
We have developed a technique that allows us to magnetically orient fibres within a fluid medium. The parts we are printing are essentially the highest resolution composites produced to date. When compared to other forms of additive composites, you’re typically relying on shear forces to align particles to optimise for strength. However, shear is not always the easiest directed force to control.
With the magnetic assembly, we’re able to control multiple properties like strength, stiffness, thermal conductivity in three dimensions within each voxel.
Is this what comprises your Digital Composite Manufacturing (DCM) platform?
Yes. The DCM platform is everything that allows us to tune the fibre architecture to optimise it for performance. That covers hardware, software, and materials.
The specific magnetic alignment technology is called Fluxprint™, which pertains more to applying magnetic fields to the build area to orient a magnetically sensitive material.
Which industries and applications would be best suited for your technology?
We have a rollout strategy that enables us to first capitalise on the tooling space, as we work on certain benchmarking needs for end-use part production
In regards to tooling, our competitive advantage is that we can provide the same level of resolution you would expect from a photopolymer technology, with the ability to withstand temperatures close to 300°C, whilst maintaining best in class strength and stiffness.
We’re very well poised to disrupt the injection moulding market, where tooling investments are significant and the manufacture of tooling takes a lot of time. The injection molding market has been primed for the last decade or so by other solutions that haven’t quite cracked the performance-resolution problem. We can print in an hour, whereas it might take 10 weeks to conventionally source that same tool.
We’re driving heavily into the market because our tools are able to handle significantly more shots and cycles than competitive solutions. We’ll soon be able to demonstrate how they can handle low volume manufacturing for high-value applications.
That said, we have several active projects that will open up end-use part production using the DCM platform. Our technology enables us to augment physical properties beyond strength and stiffness, such as enabling high performance parts with certifications such as FST (flammability, smoke, and toxicity).
We believe that the future of adoption in the additive space relies on opening up the material palette to cover applications currently addressable by the standard suite of polymers. Cost and throughput are necessary of course, and there are no better examples of hitting proper marks than the photopolymer based technologies.
What is your view on the current state of composite 3D printing, and how is the technology developing?
What’s interesting is if you look at the 3D printing industry over the last 10 years and the areas where companies are investing, it’s very asymmetric.
What I mean by that is that there are literally billions of dollars going towards polymer 3D printing companies and metal 3D printing companies. Just recently Carbon announced that they received over another $260 million in funding. That one company alone has raised over $600 million in roughly six years.
In the composite space, there are maybe five companies that are really exercising technology and producing parts in this segment, such as Markforged, Arevo, Continuous Composites and Impossible Objects. But Carbon alone, which is one of maybe 150 companies in the polymer 3D printing space, has raised more money than all of the composite 3D printing companies combined.
When you look at how this plays out, you have significantly more dollars going towards polymer 3D printing and metal 3D printing versus composites. But when you look at the market opportunities between plastics, metals and composites, they are very much similar. They’re all greater than $300 billion worldwide.
You have a massive polymer market, where you have a displacement of injection moulding, for example, and you have a massive metal market where you have a displacement of cut metals, cast metals and metal injection molding for some applications.
Then you have this massive market for composites, which consists of hand layup, injection moulding, fibre-filled plastics and so on.
They’re all huge. But the investment on the 3D printing side is very much going to the older technologies like the extrusion of thermoplastics and light-based processes.
That said, the composite space is perhaps the newest segment in 3D printing. There are challenges that come with this, but there are also a lot of opportunities.
The way we see it is that most of the companies in the composite industry so far have been focused on extrusion-based techniques like FDM. The problem is that this doesn’t really get around some of the major faults of FDM in the first place, which would be poor surface finish and anisotropy — where you have a material that’s 10 times stronger one direction than it is in another.
There are going to be very strong applications for that but I think in the composite space, looking for ways to hit better levels of isotropy, predictability, better levels of control and performance that aren’t just dictated by maximising strength in a couple directions, is going to be key.
Our mission at Fortify is to enable 3D printing on a high throughput scale, with materials that typically need to be cut or manufactured using traditional means.
There are, for example, a lot of materials that are traditionally either assembled by hand, or they’re sourced in a huge block that’s very expensive, and then machined down to get the part. We’re building into our platform these types of materials so that you can 3D print them directly.
Why has it taken this long for the industry to recognise composites as a great opportunity for 3D printing?
That’s a very good question. I think a lot of it is due to the maturity of the buying market. In other words, back in 2000 to 2014, the industry was in a state where there was much lower hanging fruit to grab.
When Formlabs introduced the Form1, it was the first real high-resolution desktop 3D printer at that price point. That’s what their branding was able to capture. Now, there are 10s to 100 companies trying to do the same thing.
If you look at Markforged, they released the first composite 3D printer in 2014. On the other hand, FDM has been around for decades and SLA has been around since Chuck Hull invented it back in the 80s.
The industry wasn’t necessarily ready to adopt composites because it’s still learning how to adopt 3D printing in general. There are a lot of barriers in terms of design and benchmarking, which is taking some time to resolve.
There’s a reason why composites traditionally have only been used on very high-performance, very high-cost applications such as aerospace components or high-end recreational equipment such as car parts and bicycles.
If you look at the Gartner hype cycle, we’re at a point now that applications in the industrial space are really starting to get their footing.
The general approach was to try and get 3D printing everywhere. Now this perspective has changed to focus much more on specialisation. The industry as a whole is becoming more specialised to ensure the scope for technology really fits with specific application needs. There’s more of a focused effort on solving very specific problems, and that is where composites are really beneficial.
Thinking about the AM industry more generally, how do you see it evolving over the next five years?
If you participate in the annual circuit of industry conferences you can typically pick up in what direction all of the companies are really looking to take the industry.
Looking back to five years ago, that’s when we really started to hear whispers about industrial printing. The goal was no longer to take 3D printing technologies to the consumer, but to take them to high-end industrial settings, where we can do “lights-out” manufacturing.
Companies like Carbon have taken big strides in trying to make this happen, although there’s still a long way to go. I think that one of the threads that we will be focused on within the next five years come from hardware, software and materials innovations.
To be specific, if you look at what the pharmaceutical industry has done with batch genealogy, that’s starting to get implemented through the use of machine learning.
The idea is how to track the digital thread all the way from the batch number of your raw materials through all the processes the material experiences during the print to post-testing and validation. That’s something that 3D printing has to take more seriously because it’s pretty well defined in the traditional manufacturing space.
Another way to say this is that in the next five years, companies are going to need to focus on demonstrating high levels of repeatability and reliability.
The reason it’s comforting to use different types of conventional materials is because if you source cold rolled steel, you know what to expect in terms of properties and performance and how to work with it.
The issue with 3D printing right now is that there’s still a large range of variability. For example, if you buy two of the same printers and you print for two weeks straight on both of those, you’re just gathering specimens to test.
When you test all those specimens, you end up with a big cloud of data that, in some cases, is all over the place. So the question is how is an engineer supposed to exercise any level of predictability, especially if they’re to use the technology at scale.
So part of the machine learning process is to introduce a high level of repeatability and enable the user to more easily predict how performance is going to function.
What are some of the challenges the industry will need to overcome?
Right now there is a lot of barriers in terms of having 3D printing realise the goal of Industry 4.0. We’re talking about distributed manufacturing, for example, higher throughput, high repeatability and lower cost per unit.
To get to those goals, the industry needs to treat the machines less like 3D printers and more like manufacturing units, and put in place a lot of the checks and balances that a traditional manufacturing system would have.
If you go to the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS), it’s humbling because there are around 140,000 attendees, and about 90% of them come from traditional manufacturing. 3D printing is just a drop in the ocean.
You get a sense of how mature a lot of these traditional systems are. We’re getting there in the sense that AM machines are now starting to look and feel and have the same level of inputs and outputs that a traditional manufacturing system like a CNC would have.
How long will it take the industry to get to the point of being more than just a small percentage of the overall manufacturing market? Or do you think the technology should be seen in its own lane, so to speak?
I think comparing the size of the AM industry with the overall manufacturing market isn’t the best way to look at it because the industry doesn’t exist just to replace injection moulding or CNC. It would be a shame if the goal was simply that.
A lot of emphasis needs to be put on the new types of applications and new types of benefits that can only be achieved with additive.
That’s a big part of what we’re looking forward to at Fortify: the ability to use a variety of AM technologies to create a part that’s very strong, has a unique geometry and also has a high level of thermal conductivity. That will create new markets.
But I do think it will take some time before we completely reach this goal — although, of course, it’s not a zero-sum game.
This year Fortify announced a funding round of $2.5 million. Could you talk a bit about what this investment means for Fortify going forward?
The funding round that we announced in January was a recap of funding that’s already closed. The intent is to essentially get our system ready for beta testing, and put it in the hands of users that we’ve been working very closely with now. We have just closed an additional 10 Million dollar Series A, led by Accel Partners.
We want to get the system ready so that our customers, who are paying us to produce parts for their current manufacturing needs, can actually utilise it.
Our first two material systems gave us good feedback on the workflow between hardware software and materials.
So the next step is to deliver on the tooling opportunity and then start to identify and work on producing end-use parts for other engineering systems.
Could you tell us more about your collaboration with chemical company, DSM? What does this partnership mean for Fortify and your customers going forward?
DSM was the first partner on our open material platform. The idea behind this platform is that we don’t want to own everything when it comes to material formulation. We want to be able to focus on the additives, the hardware systems and software control to allow customers to have more than one choice when it comes to suppliers.
When it comes to companies like BASF, DSM, Mitsubishi and Henkel, each has their unique advantages and unique applications within the additive manufacturing space. And we would love to work with them in a way that allows us to create more value than if we were to just control the entire supply chain.
With DSM in particular, we’re looking at ways to take some of their systems that have applications in the under the hood space. They have reasonable amount of toughness, they can maintain strength and stiffness at maybe 100°C.
Layering on top of that, the Fortify technology platform can hit much higher levels of strength, stiffness, creep resistance and it can perform at higher temperatures. This would allow our material partners to provide solutions to their existing customer base that isn’t necessarily getting everything that they want out of the technology.
For Fortify, it’s great because DSM is one of the premier photopolymer producers in the world. We’re excited to work with them. They’re a great group of people and together we can go pretty far with our technologies.
You’ve touched on the open materials model. Do you think that this is the future of 3D printing materials?
If you look at the computer industry in the 80s, it was vertically integrated. For example, IBM would make memories and processors and would also have to build software and peripherals.
Then the industry changed. Now, if you look at where it is today, there are companies specialising in each of these segments: software, processors, memory chips and so on. The market has been decompartmentalised.
In some ways, the 3D printing industry is following that trajectory, where you have traditional companies like Stratasys and 3D Systems building the hardware, developing the software and producing their own materials, meaning you can only buy within that supply chain.
However, there are a lot of customers that want to have more options. They want to be able to choose what materials they run and know that there’s another option there.
The open materials model is going to take time to be standardised across the whole industry.
What do the next 12 months hold for Fortify?
We’re scaling the team to make sure we can achieve our product milestones. We’re hiring rapidly, and we want to scale the team further to be able to get our beta programs in place, sometime early to mid-2020.
Then we’ll be able to scale up in terms of moving this platform to general availability.
We feel that we’re in a position where we can deliver the technology in 2021. We will most likely be looking for a little more capital at the end of 2021 to get a system manufactured for late 2021, early 2022.
There’s a lot of really exciting work in front of us. We’re already in high touch engagements with customers.
If people are interested in getting involved early on there’s capacity to do so. But we have our work cut out for us in terms of getting systems into the hands of people we are working with right now.
To learn more about Fortify, visit: https://3dfortify.com