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

Toyota’s Misguided Chase After the Mirage of a Solar Vehicle: Panasonic’s HIT Cells Don’t Get the Car Too Far

The idea of a solar-powered car has drawn another attempt from an optimistic manufacturer. Toyota has announced an optional 180 W Panasonic HIT (heterojunction with intrinsic thin layer) module for the roof of its plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), the 2017 Prius Prime. This comes as Toyota’s second attempt; the 2010 Prius infamously could not connect its rooftop panels to the drive battery without strangely broadcasting radio signals, so the 50W panel only powered a fan to cool the interior. With more than triple the original wattage and new optimism from Toyota, the new module is intended to charge the drive battery and power unspecified car accessories. Toyota estimates that the module will add about 3.7 miles daily to the PHEV’s current range (25 miles electric, 615 miles gasoline). Continue reading

Recent Lignin Announcements Show Repeated Mistakes, Not Progress

February 2017 had two noteworthy announcements pertaining to lignin-based materials: VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland announced the development of a reactive lignin product to replace phenol in phenol formaldehyde adhesives and the Institute of Textile Chemistry and Chemical Fibers (ITCF) Denkendorf announced its participation in the “LIBRE Project” (Lignin Based Carbon Fibers for Composites). However, lignin’s successful use in materials has faced challenges including processing, derivatization, lignin’s unpleasant odor and dark colors, and questionable cost and performance benefits ([see the report “Assessing Lignin-based Material Innovations“] client registration required). As such, we have given Lux Takes based on the probability of these announcements for overcoming these issues: Continue reading

Artificial Intelligence Cannot Make Better Batteries Just yet, but Stanford Researchers Are Making Progress

Stanford University researchers have published a new study in Energy & Environmental Sciences that applies artificial intelligence (AI) techniques to accelerate the development of advanced batteries. Specifically, they looked to improve solid-state battery electrolytes, which are a very promising class of materials that could potentially improve the safety, performance, and cost of energy storage, affecting important applications like plug-in vehicles. While this initial Stanford study did not physically result in better batteries yet, it does present an early and important case study in how AI will impact how science will be done in the future, and how it can accelerate progress on open problems like next-generation battery development. Continue reading

SolidWorks Takes a Step Closer to an Integrated Digital Thread in 2017

SolidWorks, a supplier of computer aided design (CAD), computer aided engineering (CAE), and other manufacturing and design software, recently announced that in 2017, it will integrate currently separate software suites to provide a “fully digitized design to manufacturing ecosystem.” Currently, part designers using CAD software need to design a part capable of performing its function while making sure the part is manufacturable given manufacturing equipment availability, configurations, and limitations. The software can currently perform certain sanity checks based on established Design for Manufacturing (DFM) rules, but Dassault Systemes (SolidWorks’ parent company) CEO Gian Paolo Bassi reported that in 2017 the company plans to go much further in allowing the software to make and optimize such decisions. In particular, SolidWorks plans for its software to keep track of what kinds of manufacturing equipment a given user has available, along with the capabilities and limits of that equipment, and even parts that are available off-the-shelf commercially, in order to determine whether a given design can be reliably made in a given manufacturing environment. The company plans to let the designer input the performance parameters for the part, which will allow the software to modify designs to make them manufacturable. Once a design is finalized, the same software will be able to configure equipment to manufacture the part. The goal is to make the design and manufacturing process as seamless as possible by identifying and fixing potential problems earlier in the design process, and to notice issues human engineers miss. Continue reading

Approaching Open Innovation With Open-Mindedness: A Lesson From Bayer’s Partnership With Trana Discovery

Lux recently spoke to Trana Discovery (client registration required) CEO Steve Peterson about the company’s research partnership with the Crop Science Division of Bayer. The partnership was announced in February, with the stated intention of discovering novel fungicides for agricultural pathogens. Trana will use its platform to screen for fungicide candidates, and pass those candidates to Bayer for testing in fungi. Trana’s approach is to use information about an organism’s gene expression machinery to uniquely and specifically target pathogens including viruses, fungi, and bacteria. Its platform is species-agnostic, though the company’s initial development work was in pursuit of treatments for HIV, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), and vancomycin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (VRSA) in humans. The partnership leverages Trana’s screening platform to generate candidate fungicide chemistries with more agility than Bayer could do on its own. Continue reading

Voice-Based Assistants Are Beginning to See More Uses Outside of the Smart Home

What They Said

With the increasing availability and competition between voice-controlled smart home assistants ([see the October 18, 2016 LRSJ] client registration required), Lux recently interviewed Dawn Brun, Senior Manager of Public Relations from Amazon, about its Alexa platform and its future direction. Dawn said that Alexa, like many other voice-based assistants, relies on four key components to drive its conversational interface – Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR), Natural Language Understanding (NLU), Dialogue Management, and Text to Speech (TTS):

  • The first step to answering correctly is speech recognition – hearing correctly. ASR is how we “hear” the user’s speech and convert it to text that we can then process. This is the challenge we had to overcome for Amazon Echo and Alexa – how do you get the machine to understand you from a distance, (i.e. in the far-field environment)?
  • Second, we need to make sure we understand the user correctly. NLU helps us parse the user’s request into their true intent. This enables us to find the meaning behind the speech. NLU is a particularly interesting problem, as we want to clearly understand what you are saying. A human-being is very good at disambiguating multiple responses, but with a voice interface you want to try to make the one, right choice from the very beginning for them.
  • Third, we need to decide how to respond to the user and take an action to address the request. We call this dialogue management. There’s also a personalization element here. We need to give the user the right response based on past behavior and preferences. So when a user asks to skip a song, we have to quickly deliver a new song that they will like.
  • Finally, TTS – we convert text back to speech to respond to the customer’s request. And of course, the TTS needs to be very natural.

When asked about the initial vision for Alexa’s implementation and its vision going forward, Dawn said, “We wanted to create a computer in the cloud that’s controlled entirely by your voice – you could ask it things, ask it to do things for you, find things for you, and it’s easy to converse with in a natural way. We’re always inventing and looking at ways to make customers’ lives easier. We believe voice is the most natural user interface and can really improve the way people interact with technology.”

Asking how Alexa compared to other voice-based assistants, such as Google Now, Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri, or Facebook M, Dawn said, “Alexa is different than a voice assistant on a phone or tablet, which is designed to accompany a screen. Alexa was designed with the assumption that the user is not looking at a screen; therefore, the interactions become very different than with other voice assistants. Alexa isn’t a search engine giving you a list of choices on a screen; she’s making a decision on the best choice and delivering that back to the customer. We also leverage AWS, which is a huge advantage – things like huge processing power, Lambda, IoT.”

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How Wearables Are Being Used to Monitor and Treat Stress

With a range of fitness devices capable of being diagnostic tools ([see the July 15, 2016 LRWEJ] client registration required), many developers are now turning to wearables to monitor and alleviate stress. This includes wearables that contain one or more of the following sensors: optical/ECG heart rate sensors, EEG sensors, temperature sensors, and impedance/galvanic skin response sensors.

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Theranos Is Now “On Life Support”; We Make Sense of the State of Innovation of Blood Diagnostics

It was back in June of 2016 when Forbes had revised its valuation of Theranos from $4.5 billion to $0 following a series of investigations and allegations that the company’s blood tests were inaccurate. And yet, earlier this month Theranos made headlines again when The The Wall Street Journal published more information on violations of policies and procedures, which it topped off with commentary that the company is now “on life support“. Specifically, The Wall Street Journal had revealed that Theranos employees improperly operated blood testing machines and that the company did not ensure that all patients who may have received potentially inaccurate blood test results were notified. Although Theranos had shifted its focus and is now developing the miniLab– a tabletop laboratory which it will sell to health care providers– the original vision of running hundreds of tests using just a finger prick remains appealing. The question then becomes ‘what are the technology gaps that prevented Theranos’s original promise from becoming a reality?’ To better understand this gap we outline the state of innovation of blood diagnostics today: Continue reading

Dramatic Shift in China’s Plug-In Market Makes 2016 Another Record Year

Lux recently updated its Automotive Battery Tracker (client registration required) product to include vehicle sales through 2016 and the data revealed impressive, albeit expected, results – another record-setting year for plug-in vehicles and Li-ion batteries. Passenger plug-in vehicle sales were up 40% globally in 2016 compared to 2015, as sales jumped from 523,000 to 711,000. More notable growth came from overall battery demand, which grew by 72% in 2016 compared to 2015, as demand reached 21.2 GWh globally. Most of this growth came from the strong growth of battery electric vehicles in China, which is now the world’s largest passenger plug-in vehicle market with 49% market share. Continue reading