In a booth of modest dimensions, tucked away to the side of the hall with a dozen or more other start-ups, Fortify was stood amongst the rest of the additive manufacturing industry, with a small team, a tray of business cards, and a shelf of sample parts.
Formnext was the company’s first public showing into the additive manufacturing (AM) world, and first experience exhibiting at a trade show. It left with a trophy marking its status as one of the top five start-ups at Formnext 2018, returning home to Boston, MA, to embark on what is to be a busy, and it hopes prosperous, two years.
The company was founded after Josh Martin, who had been working in the Army Research Lab researching composites, decided to do his PhD inside Randy Erb’s lab at Northeastern University, the former now the CEO of Fortify, and the latter the resident scientific advisor. Erb was studying unique ways of manipulating reinforcement particles using magnetics, and together with Martin, looked at materials like carbon fibre and glass fibre, and began using the method to study nature’s ‘most impressive biological composites.’
“Fundamentally, it’s based out of the structured property relationships you find, in things like bone, which is extremely lightweight, tough, strong, and stiff, and looking at how the strengthening mechanisms of these natural structures can be translated to more engineering grade materials,” Martin told TCT. “My research was really focused on how do we properly take advantage of today’s engineering materials in a more sophisticated manner. Additive was the obvious direction.
“The technology was at the point where we had characterised the physics of how to manipulate these reinforced fibres in a bulk suspension, and what came next was how do we do it in very specific domains and have control over how we cure a part so you can actually define the geometry. From early on I started to explore different technologies within additive, and eventually the pieces came together where we are now leveraging a DLP engine to drive light curable reactions.”
Martin’s first prototype of the machine used a rastering laser, he had looked into sintering techniques, and even extrusion-based processes too. But he and Erb had the goal of enabling scaled production with a high degree of reproducibility, and agreed ‘DLP really makes sense.’
The result is the Fluxprint process, which uses a magnetic field to orient and guide reinforcing fibres so they are in the best position to take stress from within the UV cured matrix. A DLP projector then polymerises the composite resin multiple times per layer as the build plate moves up to enable parts to be formed.
Fortify has packaged its proprietary technology into the Digital Composite Manufacturing (DCM) platform, the initial machine boasting a build area of 5 x 6 x 12 inches (approximately 127 x 152 x 305 mm), with the company evaluating the potential to increase it to a cubic foot on the next series. Before then, Fortify is heading into a beta phase off the back of a $2.5m series funding with two ‘market-ready’ material systems. The first, Fortify Digital Tooling, is referred to as the workhorse, capable of producing engineering tooling applications with a ceramic-filled resin for the injection moulding of propylene, elastomers, polycarbonate, and glass filled nylon. The second is geared more towards engineering final part production, better equipped to achieve a higher strength-weight ratio, and will use glass filled or carbon-fibre filled resins, for example.
Key to these machines being harnessed beyond the 10-12 beta customers that will take on the Fluxprint process this year is the material selection. Upon announcing its series funding last month, Fortify also revealed a partnership with DSM through its Fiber Platform. This network will see Fortify work with chemical experts to develop materials fit for its Fluxprint process. The company says it’s not ‘married’ to a particular resin system, nor is it to particular additives or fibres, and so it’s looking at ESD materials with super high level resolution, electrostatic discharge materials, and then improving some of the thermal properties of the materials it has already tested in-house, to name a few examples. But by aligning itself with the likes of DSM, it wants to continuously expand the materials able to be processed on its machines.
“We’re working with groups that are essentially bringing raw materials to the table that will boost our thermal conductivity, so in the case of an injection mould, for example, your shot cycle time will be dramatically reduced and that’s just the next steps in the material platform,” Martin said. “To give you another example, there are a lot of materials today for radar-absorbing or RF radio frequency-absorbing applications, and a lot of those materials are still cut out of casted billets, rod sheets, you name it. There are these field polymers that are just machined to shape and you can directly print those parts, and so that’s something we’re really excited to build out from a material power perspective.”
On the software side, Fortify is also utilising collaboration. It has developed InForm, short for Intelligent Fibre Orientation Method, which is a print preparation tool supported by Finite Element Analysis (FEA) capabilities, allowing users to customise the reinforcement for each particular part and simulate the performance of a design before it is printed.
To facilitate more efficient and effective implementation of Fortify’s Fluxprint technology, the company has struck two software partnerships. The first, with Materialise: “most groups don’t want to jump on another piece of software, so we’re keeping things familiar through that line,” and the second, with MultiMechanics: “which enables us to do multiple scale FEA, so we’re looking at how different types of fibres interact with a matrix on a fibre by fibre level, and that can help us drive conclusions on how a part will perform depending on its level of reinforcement.”
And with that all in place, Fortify steps into the field. This year it will ship out the first 10-12 machines through its beta phase, with full commercialisation being targeted by early 2021. Its initial systems will come to market in the $150,000 price range, but in the meantime, it’s wanting to refine its additive manufacturing platform, the ergonomics, the effectiveness of its software, and find out which materials customers would like to use going forward. The feedback is likely to be varied, just as the customers are, and just as the applications will be.
“A lot of our customers right now are within the consumer product manufacturing realm and so these are groups that typically are vertically integrated, they might have some off-shore manufacturing sites, and they’re really looking to innovate on their designs, move faster shipping product, getting things to market much faster, and are exploring additive not just as a supplemental tool to drive design processes and prototyping, but as a means of replacing some of the [methods used to produce] end use parts,” Martin divulged.
“Outside of that bucket there’s a relatively large segment of service providers that will host dozens of printers and will take on a small part production for third party customers, and then there’s the automotive and aerospace manufacturers, those are the groups that are looking towards using the engineering system as more of a functional end use part production.”
It will all amalgamate to push Fortify along the path. The gateway to that path has been the $2.5m it raised, which is helping to bridge the gap between research in the lab to a production process on the market, and see the company on its way to a greater presence at AM trade shows, where attendees will be greeted by a larger team, a working machine, and a shelf of real-world applications.