Earlier this year, TCT caught up Strengthen CEO Josh Martin [JM] to get his take on the latest developments from the Boston-based 3D printing company.
Fortify had come to market with its Digital Composite Manufacturing offering, which consists of the Flux series of DLP 3D printers, along with a growing portfolio of materials. To FAST + TCT in May, the company introduced HTS, its ceramic fiber-filled photopolymer that has a heat deflection temperature of >300°C at 0.45 MPa while maintaining a tensile strength of 90 MPa in Z. A few weeks earlier, the company had secured an investment from In-Q-Tel, a nonprofit strategic investor that aims to accelerate technological developments in support of US intelligence and defense agencies, while last year it s is also aligned with Tethon 3D to focus on ceramic materials.
Below, Martin shares his thoughts on each of these developments, as well as the application opportunities that are opening up for users of Fortify’s Flux printers.
Can you explain the motivation behind the deployment of the HTS ceramic fiber filled photopolymer material?
JM: Yes, I would say the main motivation is that we have seen a strong demand for high strength, high stiffness and high temperature photopolymers. It’s a party. So that’s one of the great things about it, it doesn’t have some of the tough post-processes, or a two-part mix where you have to work with a lively reaction, so to speak. And so it’s a one-pot system, reinforced, high-temperature, high-strength material that was super fast and super reliable, kind of takes advantage of a lot of the technology that we got on concentrated, all the different areas of tooling where you have like a very high demand environment.
[An] For example, it is a compressor screw, it is actually in a high viscosity, high temperature corrosive environment. And basically, as it spins, it’s pumping fluid. This is just an example of a part we did. If you were to get this traditionally made product, believe it or not, it would cost you [around] two thousand dollars. Because you would have to use a very expensive raw material, like a fiberglass reinforced high temperature polymer, then there are machine operations, not too easy to do. It’s something that’s fully loaded with machine and labor, you look like three hundred bucks.
Besides the compressor screw, what other application possibilities do you see with this material?
JM: Yeah, so a lot of what we see and [being] Today, high temperature fluid exchanger applications, high resolution mechanical structures, whether as a support if that is something that might require high temperature rigid tooling. So I would say it is an easy to work with high performance material for a wide range of general tools, applications and prototyping. I think where it shines compared to some of the other materials in space is when you have a high temperature fluid and are worried about corrosion or any softening of the resin.
Last year, you partnered with Tethon 3D to develop ceramic materials, can you tell us about your ambitions as collaborators?
JM: So the ceramics market is starting to grow rapidly. It’s still relatively small. And I felt that there were no big industrial OEMs in the market. There are a few players, many of whom are based outside of Europe, many of whom have roots in this service, R&D, manufacturing smaller components versus larger throughput. So our collaboration with Tethon allows us to take their hardware development, which they focus on, and bring it to the best value platform in terms of what you’re going to get. For capabilities, build volume and price, we believe this is the leading solution and you can now access the entire Tethon hardware suite. And one of the things that’s interesting about the ceramic space is that a lot of users maybe have a powder that’s not 3D printable yet, and they want to make it happen and so, with Tethon, we can work with them to help develop solutions for these customers.
In terms of applications, what are you aiming for with the ceramic materials that users can access through this collaboration?
JM: Yeah, we’ve seen the optics, I would say, left to right in terms of traditional engineering to New Age and more complex, you have your tools, jigs, fixtures, where it could be extrusion dye to make fiberglass, for example. And then you have other reaction vessels, high temperature applications based on filtration. One of the things I love about the ceramic space is that it overlaps with our push into the electronics market. And so, it is ideal for vacuum-based high-temperature space applications, be it heat exchangers or just radiating elements or antennas and radars. And so that’s one of the things we apply this class of materials to.
This brings me to the investment that Fortify recently purchased from In-Q-Tel.
JM: Yeah, so the partnership with In-Q-Tel really gives credibility to Fortify’s technology, serving, in this case, the intelligence agency. It’s really about focusing on our suite of RF and electronic materials. And for us what that does is that the components are tested in the field, and really, I would say, high performance environments, so that we can take that and exploit it commercially and other adjacent aerospace and defense issues. So it’s a very good way for what I’m going to say, or what I think I can say, with this investment in In-Q-Tel, it’s never in a vacuum, it’s always with the help of sponsoring agencies. And so there are bona fide programs and parts that are made and delivered as part of that.
Why is Fortify’s technology offering suitable for electronics applications and RF devices?
JM: In terms of applications, it’s very broad actually. I think it’s a huge application space where you can start servicing everything from individual components, connectors, waveguides, lenses, to some of the most sophisticated systems, antennas and radars. And the reason we’re so excited about it is that our technology stack means we can produce materials of unique value in this area. So we talked a lot about Radix. This is a launch we’ve been working on with our partners at Rogers [Corporation], very viscous material, very loaded, difficult to work with, with which we were able to develop an evolutionary process. And so that’s part of the reason.
The other thing I would add is, in my mind, I think DLP is the most ready platform for this, because of the resolution requirements. I mean, some of these parts are very hard to make from any other platform today. And DLP is uniquely positioned to do just that. Geometry is a key element of performance. It’s not just for looks, or because you can, it really dictates the performance of the final application.
If we are focusing on a specific application, how does Fortify’s digital composite fabrication technology improve the performance of, say, an RF lens?
JM: Yeah, so it actually takes that fuse signal and concentrates it. So in the form of a receiver detector or radar, this means you get a wide field of view at low power. And so some aerospace and defense agencies want that because they can have a lower profile, what’s called a larger aperture radar sensor, and then on the other hand, on the transmit side , you can take energy and focus it. So you can have in the telecom space, more uplink capacity for higher bandwidth and what’s called beam focusing. This geometry allows this by modifying the dielectric constant, much like what an optical magnifying glass does. We do this at higher frequencies and you can design this for other unique opportunities as well.
How would a piece like this be traditionally made?
JM: Yes, they exist, but they are so expensive to manufacture that they are a little prohibitive [to be] a scalable application. Usually it’s a puzzle of different RF ceramic foams and it’s put together by hand, where you try to change the property over the device by taking little building blocks, and like manually inserting them in there, by gluing them together. They have mainly been seen as really promising technical applications or technical devices that don’t really have any practical means of manufacturing. So when we talk to people in this space, they’re blown away by the possibility of having the first digital manufacturing process for this, where we can support HFSS simulation and go straight to our design department.
Finally, since its arrival in the market, Fortify has played an important role in the 3D printing of jigs and fixtures. So, what advances do you want to make in this area?
JM: Yeah, so I think we’ve done a great job so far materially, there’s still work to be done and [at RAPID + TCT 2022], we actually introduce for the first time in jigs and fixtures, the first ESD photopolymer material. It’s something that can go through a wave soldering process, like up to 280°C, and still retain its shape and rigidity. And then we have the first ESD elastomeric photopolymer, which is actually used for boots and caps. So you can use it for conformal coatings, sensitive electronics, and in some applications you have to take that board and do it as an overcoat. And right now it’s done with technicians and duct tape. So you can have it fabricated, all your components, and just put them in place, which has been an interesting space for us.
So there’s more work we do on the materials side, but also on the software and design side, we work with partners for automated tool, jig, and fixture design workflows. And it will make it easier to use this technology in the workshop or in any environment [the user is in].
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