By Eric Peterson | Sep 30, 2019
Additive manufacturing materials
Industry: Supply Chain
Products: Additive manufacturing materials
After graduating from Colorado School of Mines in 2013 with a PhD in materials science, Nuechterlein started Elementum 3D to "expand the materials library" for laser powder-bed fusion 3D printing.
After six months, he brought in three key employees: Business Development Director Patrick Callard and Operations Director Jared Rickaby, and Research Director Jeremy Iten, who Nuechterlein describes as, "I'm not afraid to say it, a better engineer than I."
In the five years since, Elementum 3D rapidly scaled its production of innovative raw materials for additive manufacturing. The company can currently produce 500 kilograms of material a week. A coming expansion will increase capacity to 500 kilograms a day.
The catalog now includes 3D-printable aluminum, copper, and custom materials, as the company researches composites, tungsten, and tantalum.
It's all about helping manufacturers push boundaries. "Almost certainly, it's not a direct swap for a part that's already exists," notes Nuechterlein. "If it's a part that's already there, it's probably designed to for manufacturing from a different technique -- casting, milling, and machining -- and most engineers are designing for those old techniques."
Applications are "all over the place," he adds. "We actually found there was a lot of room in the additive manufacturing market for all sorts of materials."
The customer list is populated by names that are on the cutting edge. "Our first customer was NASA," says Nuechterlein. "Sixty to 70 percent of our business is aerospace and defense. A good portion of that is space."
Niche markets include telecom and oil and gas. "They need highly corrosive-resistant products and they need them quickly," he says of the latter.
He says it's ultimately one of three business cases for additive manufacturing: combining multiple parts into a single piece; building parts with intricate internal cooling channels; and the opportunity to upend inventory and distribution systems with an on-demand manufacturing model.
"You can replace a massive warehouse with thousands of spare parts with a couple of 3D printers," he says of the last of the three. "If there's a recall on an item, you switch the CAD file and print that one instead."
Elementum 3D operates out of an 18,000-square-foot facility in Erie and uses three laser powder-bed 3D printers in-house for R&D and testing. The production floor uses a gas atomization process then blends, sift, processes, and bottles the powdered metals.
Growth has been dynamic. "We've been doubling every year in terms of revenue and in terms of personnel," says Nuechterlein.
Current volumes of "a few tons a year" could jump to 50 to 100 tons by 2021, he adds. To support the growth, the company raised $5.5 million in June 2019 in a private fundraising round.
Challenges: "The big challenges are regulatory challenges," says Nuechterlein, citing FAA and medical board standards that haven't yet figured out how to evaluate additive-made parts. "There aren't solid standards on how to qualify parts for use out of manufacturing with 3D printing."
"I've seen some really good business cases that would require hundreds of printers, all manufacturing these parts. It makes sense, and they would save money, and it would improve the product, but everyone is concerned about 'How do I get this through these regulatory systems?' and 'How do I make sure the equipment I'm purchasing will be able to do this with relatively low-skill operators?'"
A secondary challenge is on the design side: "There aren't that many people who know how to design for 3D printing."
Opportunities: Adoption of additive manufacturing by big industries. "It takes a long time to qualify for commercial [aerospace], but that is a target," says Nuechterlein. Same goes for automotive, he says, as additive-made parts would allow for "big efficiencies" in engines. Elementum 3D is already supplying high-end automotive manufacturers.
"A lot of people are trying to predict things, but it's impossible to predict the future," he adds. "There will be a test case that will prove things out for a particular industry that will allow things to really go."
That should, in Nuechterlein's view, catalyze a multi-industry pivot to additive: "Then people are going to get into it heavily, and not just investigatory."
For Elementum 3D, new materials also represent new opportunities, with higher-strength aluminum and copper alloys coming soon. "There's a big push to go after refractory metals like tungsten," says Nuechterlein, noting that it's the hardest pure metal. "It's going to be a very large market because those metals are hard to machine. It's $400 an hour for a good machinist, and there's only a few of them in the country who can machine that material."
New manufacturing facilities, potentially in Europe and Asia, would help Elementum 3D serve markets overseas.
Needs: With the growth, Elementum 3D will soon need a larger production facility. Nuechterlein says 50,000 square feet is the target, and the R&D office will remain in Erie even if the new facility is located elsewhere in Colorado.
As Elementum 3D continues to grow, engineering talent is an ongoing need; CU and Mines are key pipelines. "They're very good at the particular skills we're looking for," says Nuechterlein.