The Ability to Print Wings

Text: Thomas Masuch / Photo: Continuous Composites — 2019/05/29

Even though Continuous Composites has developed somewhat under the international radar, CEO Tyler Alvarado sees future opportunities that are in no way inferior to those of the large American AM companies. Based in Idaho (northwestern United States), the company and its 20 employees have developed an additive technology that uses robotics to print in free space. It makes it possible to 3D-print large-format components made of composite materials – wings for aircraft, for example.

The fact that Continuous Composites, located in the tranquil community of Coeur d’Alene at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, developed its technology more or less unchallenged was due to what Alvarado calls its »very solid patents position«. Since the beginning in 2012, the company’s strategy has focused on intellectual property, which was why an in-house IP attorney was its first hire. »We own the earliest granted patents in the world on 3D printing with continuous fibers. We have 13 granted patents, eight international patents, and another 250 concepts covered provisionally.«

This probably also explains why Continuous Composites is purposefully developing its technology with a manageable team instead of seeking rapid growth. Today, the company is bringing its technology to market maturity with regard to the hardware, software, and materials involved. It is hoping to achieve its first sales by 2020.

»We don’t want to be another tech start-up with a massive burn rate and a $350 million valuation; we wanted to de-risk the business to make sure we were developing our technology and creating a strong business foundation,« says Alvarado. Recently, the company raised $5 million to continue to invest in the evolution of its technology from a hardware, software, and materials standpoint. It will also need to expand its team to meet demand. »That $5 million takes us a couple of years down the road to the next inflection point,« Alvarado explains. More important for the company than raising money is creating collaborations with strategic partners that can add value to its overall technology readiness level.

Range of applications seems endless

No wonder, then, that representatives of major aviation companies such as Airbus and Boeing have also considered Continuous Composites’ technology. The company is also already working on a project with Lockheed Martin for the U.S. Department of Defense. Alvarado sees early adopters in Formula 1, motorsports in general, and wind energy, as well.

The range of applications seems endless: By employing an end effector on a robotic arm, the technology offers a tremendous amount of scalability. Alvarado sees a big advantage in the much cheaper production of composite materials, which were once rather cost-intensive. »Today, companies face high barriers to entry with costly molds and autoclaves and extensive manual labor,« he says. »Our disruptive CF3D technology has the ability to remove traditional manufacturing barriers. Printing wings today, supporting structures tomorrow – it’s extremely agile and scalable.«