By Eric Peterson | Sep 19, 2022
Recycled carbon-fiber parts and sheets
Olliges learned about the aerospace industry's problem with waste carbon fiber while attending the University of Southern California. "There's a lot of carbon-fiber scrap in the aerospace industry, and nobody has found a great use for it yet," he says.
And "a lot" might just understate it. Manufacturers generate about 20 million pounds of carbon-fiber scrap in the U.S. annually, according to industry estimates. "There's a decent amount of stuff that's being thrown away," says Olliges. "Our goal is to be able to collect and recycle all of the carbon-fiber scrap that's generated in the U.S."
In 2015, he launched 121C Boards to make skateboard decks out of waste carbon fiber. The company delivered about 4,000 decks in three years and expanded into office furniture before looking to diversify into a broader market.
While maintaining the skateboard deck business -- often supplying established brands -- Olliges pivoted to contract manufacturing under the Elevated Materials brand in 2019. "We weren't the best at consumer product marketing," he explains. "Really, the skill set we developed making skateboards was a lot more applicable in other markets. We're just doing molded, machined carbon-fiber parts, and there are a lot of industries that need that."
Elevated Materials now collects trash bags of leftover carbon fiber from aerospace manufacturers across the U.S. -- often charging them for waste collection -- to convert into a standardized format. The company both sells recycled sheets and uses them as raw material for contract manufacturing; sales are roughly evenly split between the two.
"There's a little bit of a trick to the trade," says Olliges of the recycling process. "It's not too different than the way that a standard composite laminate is made once we are able to standardize the incoming material."
The company offers CNC machining and waterjet services in-house and leverages a network of machine shops when a job calls for more capacity or complex geometries. There are no minimums, says Olliges, with typical order volumes ranging from "one part to thousands."
Customers are "all over the place" in terms of industry, says Olliges, with concentrations in medical devices, industrial robotics, and aerospace. "We're getting into more and more complicated machining every day," he adds.
Olliges says recycled carbon fiber is "comparable" in cost to virgin materials and often "slightly more cost-effective" for customers. "A lot of our customers don't care as much about the recycling aspect as they do about just making sure that they have a quality part that works for their application," he notes.
The model is working. The company doubled its employee count to 12 since the pivot as the annual volume of recycled scrap neared 100,000 pounds in recent years. "The skateboard decks capped out for us," says Olliges. "With the contract manufacturing, we're in a lot more industries, and there's a lot more customers that place bigger orders."
Challenges: "The biggest challenge is just getting the word out about the new types of products that we're making," says Olliges, highlighting a carbon-fiber billet that Elevated Materials launched in late summer 2022.
Balancing incoming scrap with outgoing orders can also be challenging. "It's expensive to store; it's expensive to purchase," says Olliges. "The recycled stuff doesn't store well at all -- it goes bad. So, if we ramp up our supply chain before we have customers, we'll be sitting on a lot of inventory that'll go bad. And if we ramp up our customers before we have the material to fill their orders, that's probably worse."
Opportunities: The aforementioned carbon-fiber billet, says Olliges, along with "building up machining capacity" to handle larger and more orders. "This is a trend I'm hearing all over the place," he continues. "Domestically in the U.S., there's not a lot of idle machining capacity. I think there's a big opportunity for a lot of people, us included, to increase their capital investment and stock up on machines. If you have machines that can make quality parts, then you'll have customers."
He also sees a path to growth beyond the company's home state in terms of both supply and demand. "For the most part, our customers and suppliers are based in Southern California," he notes.
Needs: Olliges says Elevated Materials needs more CNC machines and either a new space that's two to three times the size of the company's current 8,000-square-foot facility or a second location in another aerospace hub. "The reason we would do that is just proximity to the supply chain for the recycled materials," he says of the latter. "Just put the pins in all the big aerospace manufacturing places, and there's a lot of carbon-fiber scrap being generated there."
The company is also in hiring mode for CNC operators and deburring technicians while pursuing a Series A financing round in late 2022. "That will help us scale a lot more rapidly, to take the business model that we have that we know works and ramp it up quickly," says Olliges.