By Eric Peterson | Nov 28, 2022
Wire for welding and 3D printing; contract manufacturing
A hybrid materials supplier/contract manufacturer, Fortius Metals is a spinoff of Elementum 3D, which supplies novel feedstocks for metal additive manufacturing. Fortius has licensed Elementum 3D's powdered materials to bring to market in a wire format for use in 3D printing and welding.
"Jacob [Nuechterlein, Elementum 3D CEO] had the idea of being a hub and spoke, so the core technology could create many other opportunities, of which Fortius is one," says Lints. "The same metallurgy, the same benefits that they apply in a powder material for laser powder bed fusion, we make it into a wire format for welding and the next big wave of metal 3D printing."
"Our welding wire can be used for 3D printing and we can drop into any traditional factory for traditional welding," he adds. "We bridge the gap from 3D printing to traditional manufacturing and, of course, those markets are huge."
"Essentially, we're sculpting in free space," says Lints, a self-described "startup guy for 20 years" who previously worked for Elementum 3D.
At Fortius, Lints describes a "one-two punch" of first targeting aerospace, followed by automotive. "We're focusing on space and defense with 3D printing, and we're already starting conversations with automotive companies so they can be key customers in years five through 10."
On the aerospace side, NASA is one of Fortius' first customers. "SpaceX and commercial space companies have changed the game," says Lints. "Roughly half of all rocket engines are 3D-printed today. Perhaps, you could argue that 3D printing enables startups to get in the game. They're moving fast, and that creates a market for us."
Fortius is currently building a robotic laser-welding cell with Trumpf as it lays the foundation for the automotive market. Lints says welds with Fortius' wire are about twice as strong, and could lead to a lighter electric vehicle.
"My idea is we can help electric vehicles reduce the weight of, or lightweight, their vehicles," he says. "That has a real impact on range. The hypothesis is that our welds -- old-school, traditional welding with our new wire -- are twice as strong, so we can optimize their frame or chassis design and reduce mass, enable them to make cars they couldn't make before, and therefore get an extra 100 miles or something."
He adds, "I'm not an automotive engineer, so we have to work with folks to prove that out."
With Elementum 3D as a minority owner, Fortius launched with $1.4 million in seed funding and is soon to announce a priced seed round with a leading venture firm based in Europe. "We are getting pre-approval for a foreign investor in a U.S. company, because we anticipate defense contracts," says Lints.
The company is based at an 8,000-square-foot, high-bay facility in Lafayette (formerly occupied by Odd13 Brewing) and installed its equipment in October 2022. "Half of our factory is a wire factory and half of our factory is robotic fabrication cells," says Lints. "So we make wire and we make parts. The reason we do both is that we're helping our customers learn how to adopt large-format metal 3D printing."
He adds, "We can take a variety of feedstocks in a particle or powder form and forge that into wire. If you're a metallurgy nerd or a wire nerd, that's a big deal. Traditionally, people melt to make wire, and we don't."
Fortius is employing wire arc additive manufacturing, or WAAM, as a contract manufacturer. "In addition to the traditional benefits of 3D printing like more complex designs, reduced part counts, and faster iterations, large-format printing offers radically reduced lead times," says Lints.
For example, a propeller for a cargo ship typically has an 18- to 24-month lead time, but large-format 3D printing can cut that to "a matter of weeks," says Lints. "The economic advantage is time. That's a big deal. We can make parts without a two-year lead time. So this industry's early-stage, people are figuring it out, people are learning how to do it. Some people have really scaled this up. There's a company in California called Relativity Space doing amazing things. They're printing an entire three-story rocket with this process, so this is the future."
His forecast is based on affordability as well as speed. "It's cheap enough that people can adopt it and we can have what we call distributed manufacturing," says Lints. "Ultimately, our vision is reshoring our supply chain."
And that's going to require innovation, he adds. "Robots have been around for decades. Welding has been around for 100 years. 3D printing is new. So you take an industrial robot that already knows how to communicate and integrate with a welder, so now it's a robotic welder. All we're doing is programming it to weld in free form, so we're sculpting in free from. And that's not crazy. It takes some talent to do it, but it's not crazy. I'm really surprised people weren't doing this 20 years ago."
Challenges: Supply chain has been an issue. "It took us an extra four months to get our equipment in because of supply chain delays," says Lints.
Being a materials startup comes with another challenge: "If you have a new materials platform that has never been around, you need data, and a customer really wants 20 years of heritage with their competitor before they want to do it. Nobody wants to be first."
Opportunities: Beyond the aforementioned "one-two punch" of aerospace in the short term and automotive in the long term, Lints says Fortius also has unexpected opportunities in contract manufacturing. "Large-format metal 3D printing is the next big wave," he predicts, citing his experience at IMTS 2022. "I had maybe 10 or a dozen people come up to me and say, 'Hey, can you make this old-fashioned part that we cast in 3D printing?', not because they wanted our special materials and not because they cared about 3D printing, but their old-school casting suppliers had a one-year lead time. So we can make something simple and help people out, and that was not expected."
Fortius' wire-making capabilities have produced another fortuitous but unanticipated opportunity. "Evidently, building a wire factory is very unusual, and then we have a quick-turn R&D facility that's able to be very flexible or scale up with the same equipment to high-volume production," says Lints. "Evidently, we're the only company that does that in the Western Hemisphere. So I've had a bunch of customers ask us for small wire production runs that have nothing to do with our key metallurgy technology."
Needs: "We need to build our team so we can increase our engagement with customers," says Lints. "It's simple blocking and tackling. We need more time with more customers so that they can learn what we're doing. It's that simple."
More employees will be a need as Fortius scales production, but Lints says hiring has been relatively painless so far. "I lead my job postings on LinkedIn with 'robots, lasers, and spaceships,'" he quips.