Alloyed CEO Michael Holmes: ‘The destination is the right material for the right application’

“We were lucky, we were really lucky.”

Alloyed CEO Michael Holmes is sat deep within the Formnext show floor as he contemplates the COVID-19 pandemic, its timing and what it has meant for his business.

That business is the result of a merger between OxMet Technologies and Betatype, the former with its expertise in metallurgy and the latter with its core competencies in digital manufacturing. The deal was announced in December 2019, closed in Q1 2020 and weeks later the world was thrown into chaos.

By the time the UK – which is where Alloyed is headquartered – went into its first lockdown, Alloyed’s senior management had brought the two teams together in the same space, attracted backing from JX Metals who now owns between 15-20% of the business, and had started diversifying away from aerospace – perhaps the industry hit hardest in 2020.

“I suspect if the Coronavirus thing had happened six months earlier, the world might have turned out to be pretty different for us,” Holmes notes.

Prior to 2020, OxMet and Betatype were two very separate entities. OxMet had come to market in 2017, founded by researchers from the University of Oxford to develop, license and manufacture proprietary alloys for traditional and additive manufacturing (AM) technologies. Its play in AM took up about 50% of its time, most of which was spent within aerospace, but there were also a few projects ongoing in medical. That’s where the company first started working with Betatype, a digital manufacturing service that had successes with Safran Electrical & Power and nTopology, while also proving out its capability in automotive. Owed to the partnership they struck up while working in the medical space, the companies decided they could serve their customers better as one merged outfit.

“The ultimate motivation [of the merger] is that we think that the optimal components will be a function of optimisation at every level in the stack from the nanoscale, from the materials, all the way up to the component,” Holmes says. “So, it’ll be the right choice – if necessary – design of material, it’ll be the optimal processing parameters to give the best performance cost balance, in a way that reflects the properties in the material and the needs of the component. Being able to optimise throughout that stack is going to be very important.”

Alloyed is now in the process of taking these insights and establishing its presence in automotive, electronics and medical, in addition to its long-held play in aerospace.

I don’t want to talk too much about our medical plans because they’re so exciting. First of all, I don’t want to tell the world about them until we need to. Secondly, they sound naïve.

As Alloyed builds up its activity in the industrial sectors, Holmes and his team have identified that anything that isn’t military is being driven by decarbonisation. From his perspective, to achieve goals on decarbonisation, manufacturers are going to need new materials, new ways of manufacturing, parts that are lighter, cleverer, and that aren’t being shipped all around the world to be where they need to be.

“Whether its car manufacturers wanting to move from steel to aluminium, whether it’s people using aluminium wanting to use more recycled aluminium, whether it’s any of these guys trying to make something lighter, whether it’s people who are stuck with combustion as a means of generating energy or generating propulsion, wanting to run it hotter because that improves efficiency,” Homes pauses for breath. “All these things are great opportunities for us.”

In electronics, meanwhile, the focus is on miniaturisation and is driven by a desire to fit more computing power into smaller form factors.

“And then there’s medical,” Holmes continues. “I don’t want to talk too much about our medical plans because they’re so exciting. First of all, I don’t want to tell the world about them until we need to. Secondly, they sound naïve. But I think additive manufacturing offers an opportunity in medical which is not being exploited because it’s not in the interest of big implant manufacturers, and that’s about putting more power in the hands of surgeons and using additive manufacturing to democratise the orthopaedics industry.”

Alloyed is not finished in the aerospace industry either. Prior to, and then accelerated by, COVID-19, the company decided to explore other industries. Its activity in aerospace was expected to pick up again this year, but Holmes stands by the decision to apply its capabilities elsewhere because ‘as a venture-funded company, you don’t want to be all about aerospace – that is a slow sector with a lot of things you can’t control.’

That said, the industry does offer plenty of value for Alloyed.

“The thing about aerospace which is helpful is that, as a sector, it’s always been pushing up the limits of materials technology and manufacturing technology because God or whatever you call it didn’t design metal to fly,” Holmes says. “So, it’s always been pushing at materials technologies. What’s quite interesting about that is that there is a whole load of other sectors which haven’t historically had to push at the edges of manufacturing and materials technology, [but now do].

“What [electronics, for example] are trying to do is pack as much processing power into as little volume as possible. They’re pushing at the edges of mechanical properties of materials and thermal properties of materials, and the accuracy of existing manufacturing techniques. So, I think aerospace is a good place to come from, but not a good place to stay with all your businesses. Our aerospace business is going to grow again [in 2022], but it’s never going to be 100% of the business.”

Within Alloyed’s armoury to penetrate the above industries is its Alloys By Design (ABD) platform. Through ABD, Alloyed designs, develops and tests high-performance alloys tailored to specific end-use applications for both traditional and additive manufacturing processes. This could see existing alloys optimised or new customised alloys ‘developed rapidly’, with the company applying data and advanced physical models to simulate the performance of millions of potential alloys simultaneously.

Customers who use this platform come to Alloyed with a request for a material that requires certain mechanical, thermal or economic properties, with the ABD platform then optimising the trade-offs that would usually occur to get them down to just a few options.

“Sometimes we have projects that are a hole in one, sometimes you just get the ball on the green,” Holmes analogises. “Either way, you save yourself a lot of shots.”

Where Alloyed hopes to leverage the expertise of Betatpye is in optimising the performance cost of parts. To do this, the company proffers Betatype’s supposed ability to control the laser inside its 3D printing machines to a ‘pretty unrivalled degree.’ The aim, as Holmes puts it, is to have the lasers spend as little time as possible doing nothing and as much time possible melting metal. Supplementing this laser efficiency, the company is also hoping to use the minimum metal required for each application.

“In casting, the cost of complexity is very high, but the cost of metal is very low, and additive is the other way around,” Holmes says. “Starting with that mindset and saying, ‘how do we use as little metal as possible to do the job’ is part of it. We’ve got the tools to let us do that. We’ve got a tool that allows us to manage the design complexity, a design or slicing tool, and then we’ve got the processing tool that allows us to tell the laser what to do. And then we’ve got the know-how [around] if you don’t want porosity here in this alloy, keep the laser going for this long.”

In its role as a service provider, Alloyed runs a fleet of metal laser powder bed fusion systems supported by the Engine build processor and compatible with a range of metal materials, from those that are standard in the industry today and the more specialty grades that the OxMet team can enable.

It’s frustrating because you’re running on sand but that’s what makes it exciting.

Whether it’s Betatype or an external manufacturer wanting to tap into that material expertise, Alloyed tries to solve their problems in as little as two months, with Holmes pointing out that nobody ever comes to them with easy problems.

But with the company targeting such innovation within materials, is there a concern that Alloyed may be slowed down by the capabilities of technologies out of its control, such as 3D printing hardware?

“It’s frustrating on a day-to-day basis,” Holmes admits, “but it’s pretty exciting when you step back. I mean, it’s frustrating because you’re running on sand, but it’s what makes it exciting and it’s what provides the demand and the opportunity.”

Alloyed hopes its metals and digital manufacturing proficiency will allow it to take advantage of that opportunity. At root, the company is a bunch of metallurgists with the aim of being the ‘fastest translator of insight that is being developed in universities’ into the commercial world. Holmes jokes he’s useless in comparison and makes clear he wouldn’t consider himself an industry sage, but he is steering the ship at Alloyed. And the company is making headway.

“A lot of people want stuff hotter than Inconel 718, we’ve got a material for that. A lot of people want stuff that’s a bit stiffer than the normal aluminium, we’ve got a material for that. In our medical implants, we’re putting Ti64 into people at the moment, and so is everybody else, but Ti64 is an aerospace alloy and most people’s bones are pretty different to the undercarriage of aeroplanes. So, we’re developing an alloy that’s going to be more bone-like in all sorts of ways.

“I think the destination is the right material for the right application. The right material will ultimately normally not be the material that’s being used today. In the meantime, the right material is what does the customer’s job fastest and that might be, ‘look, we’ve qualified this material, we don’t want to start using another material now.’ Fine. It might be, ‘look, I can see the bespoke materials better, but, for the first generation of this component, let’s use a material for which there is already a supply chain.’

“We’re pragmatic. But the destination is the right material, the right processing and the right component.”

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