Additive manufacturing/compression molding combo yields composite parts

Jan. 5, 2021
Arris Composites wants to bring the benefits of continuous fiber-reinforced parts from high-technology fields like aerospace to mass-produced parts for consumer goods and the auto industry.

Arris Composites founder and CEO Ethan Escowitz wants to bring the benefits of continuous fiber-reinforced plastic parts from high-technology fields like aerospace and defense to mass-produced parts for consumer goods and the auto industry. 

Currently, such components are used in place of heavier metal parts aboard the International Space Station and on commercial aircraft, but the costs associated with producing continuous fiber-reinforced parts make them impractical for many consumer and mass-produced goods.  

“Those manufacturing methods … don’t translate to mass-market products very well,” Escowitz said. “And when you do translate them, you end up with pretty expensive mass-market products  the Lamborghini kind of embodies it.” 

Most continuous carbon fiber-reinforced parts are produced using one of two processes  both of which are slow and expensive. The first involves cutting reinforced tape and aligning the pieces to provide maximum part strength where it is needed. The second method involves 3-D printing. 

“The problem is, it’s very slow and you take an already expensive process and make it more expensive, and you are very limited in the shapes you can produce,” Escowitz said. “The important takeaway is that 3-D printing just can’t make the shapes and can’t scale the way that anyone making complex products needs.” 

Arris Composites has developed a proprietary technology called Additive Molding that has similarities to 3-D printing but is faster, less expensive and more versatile in producing precise shapesEscowitz said. The company can manufacture composite parts at the cost and speed of compression molded plastic parts, he said. The composite parts contain continuous carbon fibers or glass fibers, or a combination of the two. 

“We do not use 3-D printers because they are too slow,” he said. “We have developed our own automated manufacturing system that produces these near-net-shape aligned composite parts … Our ability to make complex, 3-Dnear-net-shape composite parts with fiber alignment running in all three axes is a big jump forward in the composites industry ... There isn’t anyone in the composites industry that can do those complex 3-D shapes that we’re capable of doing. 

Arris Composites patent-pending technology combines additive manufacturing and high-speed compression molding. 

“With multi-cavity tools, we are able to achieve sub-minute cycle times,” Escowitz said. “We are producing parts that are cost-competitive with current high-volume manufacturing processes.” 

During an interview, Escowitz did not reveal many details of the technology or the precise equipment used, saying the company only recently came “out of stealth mode.” However, he said the equipment includes robots and uses a proprietary process to produce continuous fiber-infused thermoplastics that can be more than 10 times stronger than injection molded parts made with chopped carbon or glass fibers. The reinforced parts are placed in a compression molding machine, where an outer plastic layer is applied. 

“We really do novel things with composites in the way that we align fibers along the stress vectors in a part, and we can put those complex composites into shapes that haven’t been possible before and do multi-material parts,” Escowitz said. “Our automated manufacturing systems use all of the same components that are familiar to anyone operating a state-of-the-art factory today.” 

The composites can be made from various thermoplastics, ranging from low-cost ABS or PP to polyphthalamide and engineering grades like PEEK and polyetherimideThe company can reproduce complex parts machined from metal and can combine what typically would have been several parts into one. 

The result is the company can produce parts as strong as or stronger than metal or 3-D printed parts and make them more cost-efficiently. 

As an example of what Arris Composites can accomplishEscowitz held up a lightweight truss during a video interview. 

“This is an 8-foot-long truss,” Escowitz said. “You can see you can hold it up with just your fingertips, and it’ll hold thousands of pounds on it because of the optimally placed continuous fibers that run through the part. That speaks a bit to the mechanical performance that composites add to these molded parts we produce.” 

The first-of-its-kind carbon fiber truss is twice as stiff as a steel I-beam while adding benefits like corrosion resistance. It also is 100 percent recyclable. 

Arris Composites is working with companies to design and manufacture parts that are lighter, more compact, stronger and more sustainable in the consumer products and sports, consumer electronics, aerospace, drone and automotive industries, Escowitz said. 

Arris has designed a concept running shoe plate, aligning continuous fibers where needed to enhance performance. In consumer electronics, Arris aligns continuous fibers in a cellular phone to ensure optimal performance, while achieving a Class-A color, material and finish, Escowitz said. 

“This provides drop resistance with a lighter and more compact product with more integrated functionality,” he said. 

In the aerospace industry, Additive Molding technology creates strong, lightweight brackets that yield fuel savings, longer range and lower emissions. Drone manufacturers can reduce the weight and complexity of their aircraft structures while improving flight range and performance. For automakersit allows electronics to be embedded into thin, lightweight structures in a scalable and sustainable way. 

“We are working with leading companies in consumer electronics, sporting goods, automotive and aerospace, but at this time, we cannot name our customers,” Escowitz said.  

He stressed that his technology does not threaten traditional plastics processors because the company is not looking to compete with them. 

“The important takeaway is this replaces a lot of things that are made out of metal today  this doesn’t change the plastics industry,” he said. “If injection molding is sufficient for the performance that is required of a part, that’s not typically our customer. Our customer is usually looking to take their cast [metal] parts or their machined parts and move them to a lighter, higher-performance, but not a higher-cost manufacturing method.” 

An additional benefit is that the process can yield Class A surface finish. Combining continuous fiber composite manufacturing with compression molding creates a part with the strength of titanium with an attractive finish, Escowitz said. 

“That’s a big deal for many of the top brands we work with,” he said. 

“Our final consolidation step where we make our end part, we actually use compression molding machines, but we have a pretty unique molding approach,” Escowitz said. “It is absolutely accurate to say that the compression molding machine provides us with that final consolidation step … The elements of that final molding step, we keep fairly confidential.”   

For now, Arris Composites is using its patented technology to produce parts for clients. However, the company plans to license the technology to partners in the future. 

In 2022 and beyond, we will have partners bringing on production capabilities,” Escowitz said. “We’re talking to partners in a number of different industries. We do a lot of consumer products right now, and we are manufacturing that directly. We have a variety of consumer products, some aerospace, some auto. While we are doing all the validation and production ourselves directly, obviously, to scale to meet those very large industries, we will have partners that we will work with in 2022 and beyond.” 

The technology could open the door to a new market for manufacturers of compression and injection molding machines as well as other plastics processing equipment, Escowitz said.  

“We have basically expanded the capabilities of the molding world to move into the metal forming space in a very significant way,” Escowitz said. “This is very much additive to the existing molding world. For anyone making machines, anyone that is really interested in where growth opportunities exist in this industry, I think the story is pretty interesting in that respect, because our primary target is replacing metal fabrication technologies.” 

Jeffrey Immelt, the former CEO and chairman of GE, is a plastics industry veteran who has endorsed Arris Composites’ technology. Immelt earlier in his career worked at GE Plastics in the 1980sImmelt now is a venture partner at NEA, which last year invested in Arris Composites. 

“I’m extremely excited about what Arris is building,” Immelt said. “What we did in automotive to replace non-structural metal with low cost/lightweight injection molded composites in the 1980s, Arris has now enabled for the rest of the vehicle.” 

Contact information: 

Arris Composites, Berkeley, Calif., 510-730-0067,  

About the Author

Bruce Geiselman | Senior Staff Reporter

Senior Staff Reporter Bruce Geiselman covers extrusion, blow molding, additive manufacturing, automation and end markets including automotive and packaging. He also writes features, including In Other Words and Problem Solved, for Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing, Plastics Recycling and The Journal of Blow Molding. He has extensive experience in daily and magazine journalism.