IDAHO STARTUP’S COM­POS­ITE TECH AT­TRACT­ING LOTS OF AT­TEN­TION

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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-yearold 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 cut­tingedge 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 self­funded 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.”

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