Assessing Startup Promise in Continuous Fiber-Reinforced Composite 3D Printing

Three composite additive manufacturing companies have established themselves as the leaders in continuous fiber-reinforced composite 3D printing. Although there is an entire ecosystem of fiber-reinforced composite 3D printing companies and printable materials, only Continuous Composites, Markforged, and Arevo have demonstrated technologies that incorporate continuous fiber into each layer of a printed part, making them the startup technology leaders driving widespread adoption of automated chopped and continuous fiber-reinforced part production without large-scale capital expenditure.

Multiple interviews with founders and executives at each company have resulted in composite scores from 1 to 5 for business execution, technology value, and maturity as shown in the below graphic. All three companies were founded in 2013, have raised angel or venture funding, and have numerous patent applications filed, with all three having at least one U.S. patent granted.

Material and printing technology differences result in unique value propositions for each company:

  • Continuous Composites uses fast UV light-curing thermosets reinforced with any combination of continuous fibers including fiberglass, carbon fiber, Kevlar fiber, copper wire, or fiber optic strands on a five-axis gantry system. The company’s process can print single or multiple tows simultaneously. The multimaterial capabilities allows part production with integrated circuitry for sensing, data transfer, and/or resistive heating functionality. The fast-curing materials can be printed into free space without product supports, and the use of thermosets does not inhibit post-processing machining steps. Continuous Composites continues to develop its technology for industry applications, specifically aerospace, and has recently been granted a key patent having the earliest priority date of patents granted to the three companies discussed here, which will enable its licensing business model for 2017.
  • Markforged uses a nylon or chopped carbon fiber-reinforced nylon that can be reinforced with fiberglass, carbon fiber, or Kevlar fiber on a three-axis gantry system. The company includes cloud-based software that gives users multiple fiber placement options within each part layer, and can incorporate laser micrometer data (on its top printer model only) to monitor dimensional accuracy. The extensive software control combined with the mid-grade engineering thermoplastic makes for an ideal alternative to machined metal for manufacturing tooling applications. Markforged has three printers available with continuous fiber-reinforcement, all with sub-six figure price points. The company has also entered into a second 3D printing category with the recent announcement of a metal 3D printer.
  • Arevo uses high-performance engineering thermoplastics such as polyetheretherketone (PEEK) and polyetherketoneketone (PEKK) reinforced with chopped carbon fiber and/or continuous carbon fiber using a six-axis robotic arm. Using PEEK and PEKK allows for structural high temperature applications up to 400°C, and the additional degrees of freedom via the robotic arm allows printing onto complex surfaces. The company combines this with a custom finite element analysis (FEA) software that provides toolpath optimization and strength analysis to determine fiber orientation and material usage in order to maximize a part’s strength-to-weight ratio. Arevo is developing its continuous fiber-reinforcement technology and expects to release it in late 2017 for aerospace and defense, among other industrial applications.

In addition to materials selection, business model differentiation keeps these companies from competing directly for customers in key industries such as aerospace, automotive, oil and gas, and consumer packaged goods:

  • Continuous Composites looks to license its patented process, IP portfolio, materials, printers, and software through industry partnerships
  • Markforged sells printers and materials while providing hardware and software support
  • Arevo helps design and manufacture parts as a service provider with its custom software and hardware capabilities targeting high volume production parts

The licensing and service provider business models are more fitting to Continuous Composites and Arevo, respectively, because their technologies have many degrees of freedom and require technical expertise to implement successfully. Markforged has focused on making its fiber-reinforced composite printing technology accessible and dependable to provide performance beyond traditional fused filament fabrication systems. Although Markforged leads the fiber-reinforced composite 3D printing technology space in terms of business execution, certain aspects such as interlaminar shear strength between printed layers and limited fiber inclusion by part weight remain to be fully addressed. Despite this, Markforged’s early success in this unique part of the additive manufacturing technology landscape is an indicator of things to come for Continuous Composites and Arevo, and increases awareness towards 3D printed continuous fiber-reinforced composites. The high technology scores of Continuous Composites and Arevo relative to their maturity and business execution indicate the technology’s core strength and promise in creating functional and high-performance composites that ultimately compete with metals and conventional manufacturing technologies across industries. The question to answer now is how to take advantage of a growing technology space determined to bring performance materials and automation together in a cost-competitive package.

By: Dayton Horvath