By Eric Peterson | Apr 10, 2020
3D-printing services and software
Industry: Contract Manufacturing
Products: 3D-printing services and software
After a first career in image and video compression with Intel and Bell Labs Research, serial entrepreneur Bheda has turned his attention to additive manufacturing with AREVO. "The common theme was always software," he says.
In 2008, he scratched "an entrepreneur itch" and pivoted to an opening in the manufacturing market with Quantum Polymers. "I got involved in the world of materials," says Bheda.
A potential client was looking to embed composites in a seal for a compressor used in the oil and gas industry. Bheda says he declined the project because he recognized a pair of hurdles to elevating additive manufacturing from prototyping to production. First, the technology needed to integrate composites and minimize the costs associated with it.
"That meant the laying of the fiber in a complex geometry," he says. "That's what it boiled down to."
Noting that carbon fiber has five times the strength of titanium with just a third of the weight, Bheda adds, "Carbon fibers are fantastic materials with amazing mechanical properties, but -- there's a but -- only in one direction."
Bheda says he saw 3D printing as a possible solution, but its utility in prototyping was not necessarily applicable to production at that time. Software "was the big missing piece," he notes. "We needed software to optimize the placement of the fibers."
AREVO's software could revolutionize product development and composites manufacturing, says Bheda. He says the technology can slash the product development timeline by an order of magnitude. "With this software, you can actually have the optimum design in hours, compared to today it takes 12 to 18 months. That is a tremendous improvement in the design cycle using this software."
A proprietary algorithm allows for "optimum orientation of fiber," he says. "You use fiber only where it's needed, and don't use it where it's not needed."
The company's second breakthrough is about reducing costs. "There is a tremendous amount of hand labor involved making carbon-fiber parts," says Bheda. Instead of a layer-by-layer application, AREVO's 3D-printing process allows for precise deposition of carbon fibers, utilizing laser saws and image processing to seamlessly integrate them in thermoplastic parts.
"We're able to get liquid-to-liquid interface," says Bheda. "When we look at the cross-section of what we printed under a microscope, we see continuous, uniform polymer structure. We don't see any layers." The result is something of a holy grail for additive-made parts for aerospace and other applications.
AREVO utilizes a proprietary printing head on an off-the-shelf robotic arm that can make parts measuring up to 1.2 meters by 1.2 meters by 1 meter. "The manufacturing process is very high-quality," he notes.
To demonstrate the technology's viability to investors, the company started with a carbon-fiber bicycle, working with Greg LeMond, "the father of composite bikes," says Bheda.
LeMond in turn introduced AREVO's team to Bill Stephens of StudioWest Concepts in Longmont, Colorado. "He told me, 'I always talking about pushing the limits, but the technology was never there.'"
Stephens in turn came up with an envelope-pushing design for AREVO's software to optimize. "Then we printed the bike," says Bheda. "That was the very first bike that we printed."
According to Bheda, Stephens was impressed by the performance, but amazed that the turnaround time was a single month. "'This should have taken 18 months,' he said. 'This is exciting.'"
The concept has wide-ranging ramifications. "Two million composite bikes are made every year by hand in China," says Bheda, positing that AREVO's process could underpin a reshoring of the entire industry at "the same or better cost structure" by 2023. "If we can do that, we've truly made a difference in the composites industry."
AREVO has also developed an e-Moto electric bike/scooter hybrid as a concept vehicle with StudioWest. The first publicly announced AREVO client is Emery Bikes, and more manufacturers will be announced by summer 2020, including a tennis racket company. Bheda says commercial drones, factory automation, and construction materials are all target markets.
"From a business point of view, we have very ambitious goals for ourselves," he adds. The plan involves both contract manufacturing and licensing AREVO's technology to customers who want to use it in-house. The endpoint is "being able to make any part with the same machine," says Bheda. "That's the goal."
Challenges: Skepticism from manufacturers. "The biggest challenge is the mindset," says Bheda. "This is a new process, new technology. One has to rethink and redesign the part for this technology. . . . We always want to work with companies that are open to rethinking the product and redesigning the product to make the modifications for what the technology has to offer."
Opportunities: "It's across the board, but we are just focusing on a few applications to start with," says Bheda.
After consumer products like bicycles and tennis rackets, he calls AREVO's processes a good fit for tight-tolerance, certification-heavy industries like aerospace. "I believe we can solve this problem by putting intelligence into manufacturing," says Bheda. "When we make a part, we collect data every 15 to 20 milliseconds. What we are working towards is to create a digital model of an additive-manufactured part based on this information. Once we have a correspondence between a physical part and a digital part -- some people call it a twin -- we can use that information to predict the performance and the behavior of the part."
He says once the concept is proven with high-volume parts, it could be used to virtually certify mission-critical parts.
Needs: "Raising funds and attracting good talent," says Bheda. "We always need more resources."
AREVO closed on its first round of funding at the end of 2016, and Bheda says he anticipates pursuing another round in the future. "We are lucky to have solid investors in the company," he adds. "They're doubling down."