SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Continuous Composites got its start with a stab wound.
When a strand of fiberglass punctured Ken Tyler’s skin, the North Idaho inventor started thinking about the strength of the lightweight material.
Tyler was working for a local boat manufacturer at the time, and he found himself brainstorming ways to fashion fiberglass composites without using molds.
The result was Continuous Composites, a 3-year-old startup company that its owners say could revolutionize manufacturing, dramatically lowering the costs for fiberglass, Kevlar and carbon fiber composites.
“It’s an amazing technology, and it’s going to change how things are built,” Tyler Alvarado, the company’s chief executive officer, told The Spokesman-Review .
A carbon fiber bicycle, he said, costs thousands of dollars not because of the cost of the raw materials but because of the process to manufacture carbon fiber composites.
“It’s very manual, extremely labor-intensive,” Alvarado said. “Low output, high costs.”
Traditional composite manufacturing requires layering materials with resins in a mold, which is then put into an autoclave that applies heat and pressure to cure the resins. Sometimes, the finished product requires hand sanding.
Continuous Composites’ breakthrough is using 3D printing and a robotic arm to build composite parts.
Three D printing has parallels to printing on paper. Instead of layering ink on paper, however, strands of fiberglass or other materials are laid on top of each other with a robotic arm. The process (shown on the company’s website) doesn’t require a mold, and the use of rapidly curing resin eliminates the need for hours of baking in an autoclave.
Representatives from aerospace, automotive and sporting goods industries and Department of Defense contractors have come to Coeur d’Alene to check out the technology, Alvarado said. The attention has come even though Continuous Composites kept a low profile until last year.
“They find us through our patents,” he said.
Tyler, the inventor – who is a shareholder in Continuous Composites – filed the company’s foundational patents in 2012. Continuous Composites has 11 patents and another 90 pending patent applications under review in the U.S., and international patents as well. The company employs its own in-house patent attorney and also works with two large law firms with expertise in intellectual property.
“We knew that bigger guys with deeper pockets would bulldoze over us if we didn’t protect our technology through patents,” Alvarado said.
Though patents are one way people interested in composites manufacturing discover the company, Max Moruzzi found Continuous Composites through its website a couple of years ago. He’s a senior scientist for Autodesk in Chicago who had previously worked on composites for the aerospace industry. “We need to collaborate,” he told Alvarado.
Continuous Composites and Autodesk worked together on an eight-month demonstration of the technology at mHUB, Chicago’s nonprofit lab for manufacturing and product development. Visitors could watch the robotic arm building the composites.
“It’s a manufacturing strategy that will change how we create stuff,” Moruzzi said. “You can create shapes in thin air.”
Building composite parts without a mold opens up lots of design possibilities, the two men said. Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner is 80 percent composite by volume to reduce the weight of the long-haul jetliner.
“We could print an airplane wing right into the fuselage,” Alvarado said, cutting out the cost of titanium fasteners.
The ability to embed copper wire, lights, sensors and fiber optics into the composite parts also is a plus, Moruzzi said. Airplane wings could have sensors that would send an alert to a central system when the wings needed to be deiced. “It’s like a nervous system,” he said.
Lockheed Martin has a contract to build a wing structure for the Air Force Research Laboratory Materials and Manufacturing Directorate in Dayton, Ohio. Continuous Composites is a subcontractor on part of the project, which is focused on newer, emerging technologies.
Craig Neslen, a manufacturing engineer at the Air Force lab, had come across Continuous Composites’ work and invited company officials to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton to make a presentation.
“I think everyone in the room was pretty excited,” Neslen said. “The technology as it stands today is less mature than what we would normally go after in our division. But there is so much promise associated with the potential capability, we were still willing to take a hard look at it.”
The Air Force is particularly interested in the potential to integrate fiber optics and copper wire into composite structures, Neslen said.
“I think we’re just scratching the surface of what could be done,” he said.
Continuous Composites’ work also has caught the attention of Joel Alfano, a senior technology development engineer for Siemens Energy. He works for the company’s office in Charlotte, North Carolina, and he’s been interested in high-strength composites for use in turbines and generators.
“It’s pretty unusual compared to what’s currently available,” he said of Continuous Composites’ work.
Composites are lightweight, strong and corrosion-free, said Tom Dobbins, president and chief executive officer for the American Composites Manufacturers Association in Virginia. However, “the challenge with composites is the speed with which you can produce the part,” he said. “Some parts are still made by hand.”
Composite manufacturing currently is the focus of lots of innovation, he said. While Dobbins said he’s only familiar with Continuous Composites from its website, it appears “they’re working to speed it up and automate it.”
Having a local company working on cutting-edge manufacturing technology has multiple benefits, he said.
“It inspires innovation throughout the community and throughout the supply chain,” Dobbins said.
Continuous Composites is located in downtown Coeur d’Alene, with an office space and machine shop at 215 E. Lakeside Ave. The company is renovating the 5,500-square-foot former Rocker Room bar across the alley for additional office and research and development space. When the renovations are completed, the old bar’s exterior will have a vintage warehouse look to match the 1915 Northern Pacific train station at the corner of Lakeside and Third.
The renovated train station is owned by John Swallow, a North Idaho businessman who is president of Continuous Composites and one of the owners.
Alvarado said people sometimes wonder why the company didn’t locate in an industrial park on the Rathdrum Prairie near other manufacturers. Being a block from Lake Coeur d’Alene and near downtown amenities was the draw, he said.
“It made more business sense to create an environment where employees love to come to work,” Alvarado said.
About 18 people work for Continuous Composites, and the number is projected to hit 25 by the end of the year. The company is hiring software engineers and mechanical engineers, and people with business specialties.
When Continuous Composites was started by Swallow, Tyler and Alvarado in 2015, it was self-funded for about 18 months. The company raised money from family and friends and some wealthy local investors in mid-2016, Alvarado said. Continuous Composites will do a Series A round to raise money in about six months.
The company has attracted interest from institutional and venture capital investors, Alvarado said.
“The technology sells itself,” he said. “I always say it’s going to democratize composites into industries that aren’t currently using them.”