Continuous Composites enters into tech partnership
3D printing equipment maker plans to double staffMay 23rd, 2019
Coeur d’Alene-based Continuous Composites, which develops and manufactures 3D printing robotic arms able to work with high-end materials, recently entered into a strategic partnership with Broomfield, Colorado-based Spatial Corp. to help develop software designed specifically for printing with high-end materials.
The 4-year-old company, located in 5,500 square feet of space at 215 E. Lakeside in downtown Coeur d’Alene, designs and manufactures robotic arms and 3D printing to build composite parts. In this process, strands of material, such as carbon fiber, fiberglass, and Kevlar, are layered on top of each other using a robotic arm, during which a resin is rapidly cured using ultraviolet light, eliminating the need for a mold or to bake the part in an autoclave for hours.
The company also can print using fiber optics, copper wire, and nichrome wire, which can be used to embed sensors, circuits, and heating, respectively, into composites during the printing process, according to its website.
Spatial, a 3D software development company, is a subsidiary of Dassault Systèmes and provides 3D software development toolkits across a range of industries.
“Think of it like the building blocks to the house,” says Tyler Alvarado, cofounder and CEO. “Spatial offers these building blocks, Siemens offers these building blocks, there’s OpenSource, and we actually evaluated all three of those options … and we found that for many reasons Spatial was the right strategic partner for us to be developing our software suite on top of.”
Spatial and Continuous Composites’ software team are now developing software that creates a tool path for printing fibers in three dimensions.
He describes it as similar to computer-aided design software for Continuous Composites’ technology.
“This type of software doesn’t exist in the world because traditional 3D printing and traditional composite manufacturing is limited to stacking two dimensional slices and our technology isn’t limited to stacking 2D slices — we can actually steer the fiber out of the x, y plane into the z-direction,” he says.
For the next 18 to 36 months, the company will be working with several leaders in industries such as aerospace, defense, automotive, and energy on nonrecurring engineering projects, Alvarado says.
“(They) basically pay us to focus our (research and development) efforts on their objectives with the idea that we’re maturing the technology with their specific use case,” he says.
Alvarado declined to disclose the company’s annual revenue.
The company, which currently has 22 employees, also is expected to nearly double its staff this year, says Alvarado, who projects that staff will grow to at least 40 employees by the end of the year in positions such as controls engineering, software engineering, mechanical engineering, and business development.
With that growth, the company also is expanding into an 8,250-square-foot facility next door in the former Northern Pacific Railroad warehouse, where it plans to install larger versions of its 3D printing machines for large-scale projects.
Within the space, 40-foot-long linear rails will be installed that will have two robots mounted on them that can travel along the rails to print composites up to 40 feet long by 20 feet across by 15 feet high.
Renovations on the warehouse should be finished within the next two months, he says, and then the company will begin landscaping the adjacent parking lot and convert the outdoor space into a courtyard for employees to enjoy, creating what he calls the “Continuous Composites campus.”
Alvarado and cofounder John Swallow also own McAlister Technical Services, an engineering and material manufacturing company in the material sciences industry. McAlister manufactures the end effectors — or the print heads — for the 3D fiber printing machine, which are designed by Continuous Composite engineers.
Alvarado says Continuous Composites has a robust patent portfolio, with 15 U.S. granted patents, 90 nonprovisional patents pending, 250 concepts covered provisionally, and 50 international patent cooperation treaty applications pending that the company plans to file in 15 different countries. Currently, he says, it also has 10 internationally granted patents.
When the company first started, it hired a Washington, D.C.-based law firm to oversee its patent portfolio.
“Our foundational patents were our lifeline,” he says.
One of the patent attorneys eventually was hired on to Continuous Composites and relocated to the Coeur d’Alene area and now manages the company’s patent portfolio.
“One of the interesting things about our company is that it’s a very unsuspecting area for this kind of disruptive technology to be invented and to rooted in being developed … We really view this technology being able to change the lives of everyone involved,” he says.
Alvarado says it’s hard to determine where the company will go next but says in the near term — within the next 18 to 36 months — it will take its technology to market and begin selling its machines, as well as selling its software to companies as a service.
“None of us have a crystal ball, so we don’t know where it’s going,” he says. “We believe this technology is explosive, it’s going to change the world, it’s going to change every industry … right now we’re taking it one step at a time.”
Alvarado says the company also plans to announce more strategic hardware partnerships this year.
“You’re going to see our technology change drastically over the next 12 months,” he says.
Currently, a team is working on a new design for the end effectors, says Andy Stulc, mechanical engineer with Continuous Composites.
“(Right now) it’s a lot of testing in the lab, using solid works to draw new designs, new concepts,” he says.
“Basically, the machine we’re building is made up of maybe five or six submachines, and right now all of those machines, they exist as independent machines in the world, and so we’re kind of taking multiple processes and putting them into the same head,” Stulc says.
Those processes include a resin impregnation process, an automated fiber placement machine, and a photopolymer curing machine — all of which normally exist on their own. The company is working on how to stack the processes on top of one another efficiently in a single machine, he says.
The company also plans to begin a Series A round of fundraising within the next two weeks, which will be used for the technology readiness level, Alvarado says. This is a standard set by NASA that qualifies how mature the technology is on a scale from one to nine, with nine being the most mature technology.
Alvarado declined to disclose how many funding rounds have been previously held, and how much the company has raised in funding.
“We’re targeting in the next 12 months being to a TRL of a six,” he says.
Level six means the company is “prototyping implementations on full-scale realistic problems.”
Representatives of Continuous Composites also travelled to Paris in March to participate in the JEC Innovation Awards, which is the largest composite trade show in the world, Alvarado says.
“From the pool where they gather the three finalists (of each category), they said they get hundreds of applications in each category, so it’s a pretty big pool of talent,” Simon says.
The company ultimately took home the 2019 JEC Innovation Award in 3D Printing and was the only American company to win an award.
The idea for Continuous Composites originated from co-founder Ken Tyler in 2012 after his skin was punctured by a piece of fiberglass while working in a boat manufacturing facility, and he began researching how to combine 3D printing with composite manufacturing to create stronger parts at a fraction of the cost of traditional composite manufacturing.
Tyler, Alvarado, and John Swallow, who is also president and CEO of Coeur d’Alene-based New Jersey Mining Co., officially launched the company in 2015 in the McAlister facility and moved it to its current location in 2016.