Q&A: Fortify discusses Continuous Kinetic Mixing, reinforced 3D printing materials & the pandemic’s impact on its 2020

It’s been more than a year since TCT caught up with Fortify, not long after it announced itself to the world with the promise of a digital light processing (DLP) platform that processed reinforced resins with the help of a magnetic field.

Since then, the company followed up a $2.5m seed round with a $10m Series A round; it welcomed Henkel as a materials supplier; unveiled a short-run injection mould tooling case study; and last month announced the launch of its Continuous Kinetic Mixing (CKM) technology.

In lieu of being able to walk up to Fortify’s stand at RAPID + TCT or share a drink at the bar at AMUG, TCT spoke to CEO Josh Martin via a video conferencing platform. We discussed CKM, got an update on materials development, talked Finite Element Analysis, and touched on the unavoidable topic of conversation: COVID-19.

TCT: Firstly, could you run us through the benefits of Continuous Kinetic Mixing?

JM: The reason it exists is because if you’re looking to print filled or otherwise challenging resins, you have to deal with combating sedimentation with fibres essentially getting stuck together or fibre aggregation. And that’s something that this system has been doing internally for a while now. The piece that we recently pushed from an R&D stage into more commercialisation is the material handling aspect. CKM, or Continuous Kinetic Mixing, allows us to essentially take a K cup style approach to resin delivery. So we’ll be able to use resin bottles with fibre containers, everything is metered and mixed so that the user does not have to worry about supplying resin material to the build area and the mixing devices themselves will keep things in suspension, making sure that you have a nice homogenous material for processing

TCT: Fortify recently shared a video online showing uniform particle distribution within a part printed with Fortify’s technology – can you explain the impact of having that ability?

JM: If you do not have uniform distribution or particles that are properly treated, then you end up with a lot of aggregations that are essentially defects. They act, almost akin to like an air pocket would within the material. And so, if you are printing with multiple materials, and you don’t have this platform, there are a lot of risks for material properties such as strength and stiffness that aren’t consistent, because you suspect some of these defects in the part. It’s all about the quality of the output, the quality of the part.

TCT: Is CKM that has always been on the roadmap or was the need for it identified later on?

JM: We’ve always known that this is a really significant factor. Within the field of composites, particle distribution and uniformity of distribution is a big topic. If you look at how most composites break, when you study that source of where things initiate from the initial crack propagation is usually from some type of defect like a bound mass of reinforcing material. And so, it was one thing we knew would always be a factor and we’ve been able to sidestep that using other post-processing methods in house but as far as productising the system and getting that into the hands of customers, this is something we wanted to make sure we removed from the user error, or at least the attention to detail that a customer would have to provide.

TCT: How is the beta programme going?

JM: The beta phase is actually rolling out this summer. We have been able to get significant feedback from users during the last eight months because they are visiting Fortify, getting trained using the system and providing feedback. It is essentially like running a beta but not having it in their facility. And so, it allows us to more rapidly iterate and improve the product before its first release.

TCT: So you’re working on developing applications together and your beta customers will bring that in-house in the summer?

JM: That’s right, so the application development typically starts with some pilot phase programme where a customer says, ‘this is my application, can you provide value?’ Fortify’s application team will home in on a very specific project and will typically go into a paid development programme from there where Fortify will help out on the design side where needed but will print the parts, post-process and then send them out to the customer for validation. And then once that application is nailed down and the success criteria is met, we’ve typically rolled into more of an internal, I would say, extended pilot programme where we’re essentially being paid to produce multiple parts for the user. And that’s when we start to bring in their dedicated staff for testing, to get certified, it’s all in line with getting the system during this next phase.

I will say the applications development is also specifically using willingness to engage with a system purchase as part of the criteria for qualifying a lead. And so, right now, we’re hyper focused on working with partners that have unique challenges that we are solving that also have a capability and a hunger to bring a system in during this next phase. If you talk to companies who have been through this cycle, the largest common denominator for advice is really to be specific about who you engage with in this next phase, because somebody might be here to bring a printer in without ever really testing it.

TCT: Since the technology Fortify is bringing to market is a unique take on the DLP process, is it challenging to convince companies that this can provide value to them?

JM: I think the piece that’s very encouraging is that within the first minute or so speaking with potential contractors or contract manufacturers or partners, it’s clear that they identify with this message that pure polymers will only take you so far and that using reinforcing additives will be able to provide value to high performance applications; that is very clearly understood. If you look at the injection moulding space to glass fill a nylon dramatically improves its reach far as performance goes.

TCT: Talk to us about your materials approach and how many you have validated for use on your technology.

JM: We have three resins that we’re planning to release in June and that’s going to target the injection moulding space and functional components space. So, we’re going after some of these applications, such as electrical connectors, that need strength, stiffness, and toughness, which is a quite a hard combination to get at temperature. And so that, we’re releasing in June. We have two materials right now that we’re close to releasing. One is in the RF space and we’re excited to make some announcements later on this summer.

Right now, [validation] is one of the main jobs within the materials team at Fortify; to take these combinations of third party resins and new sets of additives and run through a gamut of testing across not only mechanical thermal performance, but printing quality so that we better understand sort of this operating space of performance that we can enable.

“We were really excited to take the CKM announcement and do that in person; make it real and undeniable.”

TCT: Do you recommend certain reinforcements for different applications and needs?

JM: We do. The standard set that we work with right now is a fibre that use a lot of cerami additives; ceramics are great for generally reinforcing a part to be thermo-mechanically robust, increasing stiffness, wear resistance and maintaining good operating temperature. So, we have our set of what we call our additive package that is a combination of a few different types of ceramics that are targeted for making parts stronger, stiffer and more wear resistance at temperature.

Now, we’re working on a few more tailored applications in the RF space where you’re not so much driven by the value of the parts, not so much driven by strength and stiffness, but more dielectric constant and how lossy the material is. That uses a different set of ceramics to tune those properties. To give you one more example, we have a proof of concept for electrostatic discharge materials and that doesn’t use ceramic at all; it actually leans on the use of metallic or carbon-based materials.

TCT: Can you touch on some of the design considerations users need to take into account when using reinforced materials?

JM: We can provide material properties that you would expect to see from any off the shelf resin or even traditional manufacturing material, like some aluminium alloy. And the designers can use that within conventional software for optimisation, what our software does is essentially apply different modes of alignment, depending on the application. And so, we do a lot of injection moulding and there are a few alignment schemes that provide for a robust tool that’s a little less dependent on the exact geometry. That’s the first layer of input there and it’s really just how do we make this as simple as we can for the user.

But on the back end, we do have integrations with Finite Element Analysis (FEA) that allow us to take a direct simulation and that will drive the alignment precisely within each section of the part. So, that’s something that we’re excited to continue the productisation of. Right now, we can work with any off the shelf finite element analysis engine, so that is finding use in, I would say, the high value lower volume sets of applications.

TCT: Can you elaborate on how users can harness FEA and touch on Fortify’s approach to software?

JM: We’re not going to recreate the wheel and have an internal FEA tool within our first release, because there are a lot of third-party packages that are quite robust and users already know how to use them. If you’re an engineer that needs finite element analysis as part of that workflow, using your standard set of tools, you can essentially import the results of the simulation into Fortify software. And Fortify will use those principal stresses and strains to essentially come up with your alignment schema for the part. And from there, you can either re-import it and run a closed-loop type of simulation to try to better understand how that changes your performance or you can go to printing that part knowing that it will be significantly stronger or stiffer than what you’d get on another system.

TCT: Before we started today, you mentioned you’re working on some PPE equipment, tell us some more about that.

JM: What we are trying to do is work with some of the leading efforts that are designing different types of masks and swabs using, primarily, 3D printing and converting those into quick turn injection moulding [parts] using our platform and leveraging our contract manufacturing network so that we can quickly validate a moulded device and then spin that up and slingshot it through to a traditional level of throughout on production.

I guess I’m not too confident that the 3D printing industry is going to be able to meet the level of demand we’re going to see over the next month by 3D printing alone because you’ve got thousands of printers that aren’t necessarily going to have the same outputs. You’ve got to post-process those [parts] which is very human intensive, and these healthcare professionals are relying quite a bit on this. And I think for the system to come through the more traditional manufacturing process, injection moulded out of the medical grade material in a process that’s highly repeatable and much easier to ramp up, that’s what we’re trying to enable in the short term.

TCT: Has the outbreak of COVID-19 affected Fortify’s plans this year?

JM: Surprisingly, it has not. We were really bracing for impact, but our systems team has done such a good job keeping our supply chain quite flexible; we started switching suppliers to domestic vendors and also started placing our orders to stock up on critical pieces of inventory. And so, we feel that we’re quite well positioned as far as our supply chain goes to really execute on our upcoming milestones.

Now, how that plays out in mid 20/21, I think that’s something that our current suppliers are trying to understand how their suppliers and their suppliers are going to see ripple effects. But generally speaking, we’re not a terribly front loaded, just in time-style of inventory. So, we’re not necessarily feeling like there’s the same level of risk you might expect to see in the aerospace or the automotive sectors or, quite frankly, the PPE right now, which is top of mind for everybody.

TCT: It might not have disrupted the business too much but it has prevented you from exhibiting and visiting trade shows and conferences this spring. What were you looking to get out of the likes of AMUG and RAPID + TCT?

JM: There’s no way around that, it definitely hurts, because we were really excited to take the announcement that you saw last week and do that in person; make it real and undeniable, have system displays and demos to work through customers and users. AMUG and RAPID are so unique because you do have a lot of the purchasers in the room.

We’re retooling now to reach those same individuals digitally, but I would say, the biggest thing for us is we want to make the platform known; that things are getting ready to ship this summer, make it more clear that we have very unique value propositions that I would say are outside of what the traditional additive manufacturing, especially in the DLP world, is going after, and connect with folks that feel like that is going to provide value for them. I think that that would be the number one priority that we were hoping to leverage those opportunities for.

TCT: Finally, 2019 was a good year for Fortify, with a lot of funds raised to help you move towards commercialisation. Will you be looking to leverage some of that cash to accelerate R&D and if so what kind of things is Fortify exploring?

JM: The biggest area that that gets applies to is on the materials palette because our major premise here is that we need to open the aperture for what materials can be processed using additive. And we have, I would say, three years’ worth of roadmap products that we’re making smart bets on. We’re not using a considerable amount of what we’ve most recently raised to do those efforts, there are a number of smart bets that we think a small amount of energy will allow us to open up quite large opportunities.

To give you one example, there’s a space of pre-ceramic polymers that we’re doing development work with now that allows us to use our Continuous Kinetic Mixing to reinforce a pre-ceramic resin with ceramic fibres, which dramatically improves the toughness of the ceramic. And the alignment matters quite a bit when you think about optimising for performance, but also for how that part will start to change shape when it’s fired. And then fire these parts and have essentially a top shelf technical ceramic, using the very same platform that we use to produce these fibre reinforced polymers.

We view the materials development as part of this growth engine for allowing us to provide value to customers with unique challenges in different verticals.

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