Composites have always been a whiz bang technology that can lightweight things and give them excellent strength to weight. Widely deployed in niche applications, composites, including carbon fiber-reinforced materials, are both extremely cool and exclusive. They are not easy to make, nor have they been particularly suited for mass manufacturing.
Ethan Escowitz would like to change that. As CEO of Arris Composites, he and his team have developed technique that’s a 3D printing-molding mash-up, automating production or parts with good finishes while allowing users to place and change material at specific locations. Through also controlling fiber alignment at high stress areas parts can be optimized. The automated process will then hopefully provide good economics, good surface finish and the proper strength, tolerances and repeatability. If the process can also use a lot of resins and fiber materials, they may be able to meet the market where the market needs and can afford it.
Arris’s Additive Molding technology works through extruding continuous fibers that are then covered in resin while being shaped. These fibers are aligned and laid down along the “3D stress-vectors” of the part itself. The part is then molded, including he possibility of inserting metal foils, and then selectively heated through induction.
The company hopes that it can make optimized parts that can be thinner, lighter, tougher through specific fiber reinforcement. Moreover, it’s even possible embed electronics during the production process. Arris also wants to combined multiple fiber materials within the same part, including inserts and the like. And the firm hopes to do all of this with a localized supply chain.
Escowitz explained the composites market to me thusly, “Imagine you could make a house out of plywood and two-by-fours and, in the market, all of the manufacturing companies only used plywood or two-by-fours. That’s how the current composites market is, but we can use both plywood and two-by-fours—not just one or the other.”
Escowitz arrived at Arris through stints at Fathom and Arevo, where he met co-founder Riley Reese. The latter was working at Dutch Research institute TNO after a time at Arevo, as well. The two fundamentally looked at how composites worked and found that hand layup was expensive and labor-intensive, while automated processes required a huge upfront investment and were limited in the geometries that they could tackle.
Arris’s process, however, can efficiently make well-finished parts relatively inexpensively. Through selectively laying down continuous fibers, the company can also reinforce certain areas of a part and change properties locally. The team hopes that its technology will bring new types of parts and new technology to not only aerospace and other high-end applications but to the hum drum areas, as well.
The company’s development was accelerated when they met ex-Autodesk CEO Carl Bass, who helped incubate the firm. Bass is a fan, as is ex-GE CEO Jeff Immelt, who visited them to perform due diligence for investor NEA and left impressed. I had to burst out laughing at the idea of sending Jeff Immelt to do due diligence on a startup because the idea of someone with that track record looking over your process sounded so far out to me. Largely unknown, what recognition Arris does have comes from nuts and bolts manufacturing nerds like Immelt.
The firm is focused on making composites a cost-effective technology for many manufacturing applications. Just the kind of thing to get manufacturing minds racing but bore everyone else. Escowitz says that their goal is to bring in composites “at a performance threshold, and with design latitudes, but within the cost constraints of the industries it may impact so that the firms that could benefit from these new shapes and new technologies can actually adopt them.”
He contrasted this approach with 3D printing, where, “much of additive is decoupled from reality, with part performance and price never matching up and very little application suitability.” He continued, “What we hope to impact is in using aligned fibers, new functionalities, multi-materials, part consolidation” in scalable manufacturing. Arris is completely vertically integrated, which gets the firm the right “cost performance mix and true cost sensitivity” to make composites ubiquitous.
One example that he can point to is a paper done together with aerospace firm Northrop Grumman, where they took a 76-gram titanium aerospace bracket that was 3D printed but not topology optimized, compared to a 30% lighter, 56-gram, topology-optimized 3D printed titanium bracket. The team then made a 71% lighter Arris Composites bracket weighing just 16 grams. If the company could qualify and make these kinds of components with long-lasting performance similar to that of titanium parts, Arris would have real opportunities in aerospace and elsewhere.
Escowitz also pointed out, “Stiffness increases exponentially, while weight and material use increase as fractions of a percent. When you optimize structures for stiffness, closed structure wall thicknesses become very thin, and this is why honeycomb core, tubular, ibeams and similar structures are ideal. Arris is ideal for making open trussed structures, where we don’t reduce toughness but we do get to increase stiffness and thickness, while not wasting material in manufacturing. With other processes, we’d have to cut away all of these open areas.”
So, through Arris’s eyes, everything is a truss or everything could be. And brackets are just LEGO blocks for bigger trusses. Along with the ability to then make larger structures from these trusses, aerospace and drone applications are obvious (as is Northrop’s interest). Coupled with local manufacturing, the military applications are legion. For the Skydio drone, Arris turned 17 parts into one. What’s more, the part could be optimized where it mattered and RF shielding and enabling materials were laid down where they mattered, as well—all of that using a local U.S.-based manufacturing technology.
Escowitz points to parts that have thin walls and joints—such as mobile phone cases, sports equipment, wearables, electronics in cases, conductive wires made inside parts—as well as part size reduction, more integration, and slimmer parts as other potential applications. Besides “re-shoring drone production,” he has a bigger vision for how, as engineering “puts more functionality in each part, uses more materials and uses more parts, we’ve ended up with more complexity, but we can now decrease part count while increasing performance. And we can do this cost-effectively in a simpler supply chain by making a geometrically ideal part with no scrap.”
There are, of course, issues with composites in terms of brittleness and recyclability, which Escowitz hopes to meet through reinforcement, as well as features that will be announced in the coming months. All in all, their focus on cost-effectiveness in particular really excited me. I’m still doubtful that composites are a real solution for millions of parts, but have become more of a believer that Arris could bring a lot of innovation to the 3D printing market in many applications.