Later today, Fortius Metals, a Colorado-based LFAM company specializing in the development and adoption of metals for robotic 3D printing/WAAM technology, will announce its recent $2 million investment from AM Ventures. Prior to this announcement, 3dpbm had the opportunity to catch up with Jeff Lints, a serial entrepreneur, and Fortius Metals’ founder and CEO, to find out what the company does, why it does it, and where it came from.
Fortius Metals is a spinout from Elementum 3D – a company where Jeff originally led business development. After incorporating in June 2021, Fortius Metals raised its first pre-seed round of $1.4 million by the end of August 2021. “On one hand, we are focused on space companies and we can help people explore new worlds which is pretty exciting. I really like what companies like Relativity Space are doing and we want to help people with the next generation of metal additive. We can help customers make parts bigger than your car,” said Jeff. “What we’re doing is ten times faster and less expensive than powder bed fusion for metals. This makes a ton of sense and everybody should be doing it. And it can be done in-house or with a contract manufacturer. It’s fast, and easy.”
Jeff Lints is expecting the large format metal additive manufacturing market to grow at a CAGR of over 40%, which explains Fortius Metals’ heavy investment in this direction.
“The key thing that makes us different is that we manufacture our own metal alloys in-house that are often twice as strong as what people are used to in the same alloy family. If the metal is twice as strong, you can make a rocket that’s half the mass. That’s a big deal for launch payloads,” said Jeff. “Elementum 3D has been successful with this for eight years. They’re working with all the big aerospace, space, and defense companies – successfully. This technology is proven in the market with powder bed fusion. What Fortius did was figure out how to make the same compositions, or recipes, in a solid wire form.”
“We’re not inventing anything. We’re commercializing something in a new product form, which is wire.”
Although the company is starting with a focus on aerospace applications, it is also engaged in conversations with electric vehicle companies, where the same concept of increasing the strength of the materials, to lightweight the final product, and increase the range, can be applied. Although Jeff expects the benefits brought to this industry in particular, by Fortius Metals, to be through traditional welding – as the company’s unique welding wire can be used for both traditional welding and WAAM. According to Jeff, “we bridge the gap between 3D printing and traditional fabrication.”
The key to Fortius Metal’s welding wire is what Jeff refers to as ‘pixie dust’ – a small amount of ceramic material that is added to the metal alloy. The ceramic particles from the ‘pixie dust’ then create an in situ reaction in the melt pool that yields nanoscale nucleation for improved grain structure. “So the outcome of that is you get a magical, beautiful grain structure. It’s perfect. Metallurgy nerds like me start weeping with joy,” said Jeff with a grin.
“Historically, aluminum is tricky to weld or print. A lot of these different flavors of aluminum tend to crack, due to dendritic growth. On top of that, the grains tend to separate where they’re not really stuck to each other. This leads to hot cracking or hot tearing. This has been a challenge for 100 years leading to ‘unweldable’ alloys,” said Jeff. “The most common aluminum used for aircraft is 6061 Aluminum. You can’t weld with the 6061 wire because it cracks. You can make sheet metal, you can make a rod, and you can make other things like that, but you can’t weld with it. Well – we can. Thanks to the ‘pixie dust’, the grain structures are 100x smaller, and they are not long and skinny grains. This is what we call bimodal and equiaxed. And what that does is it tremendously improves the material properties – generating results that can make our aluminum wire twice as strong.”
Elementum 3D, who has a minority stake in Fortius Metals, continues to focus on powder development, and authored all the background patents – for which Fortius Metals has worldwide, royalty-free, perpetual exclusive rights for that technology in its field of use, which is anything to do with wire. “The important part of this is that we’re continuing to collaborate. If either party invents something new, we automatically share rights to it,” said Jeff.
This all means that there is a lot of potential for Fortius Metals moving forward, considering that Elementum 3D has a multitude of different alloys, and is continuing to develop more. “They’ve got several metallurgy PhDs working on the next generation of advanced alloys, including Titanium, Nickel superalloys, and improved coppers and bronzes,” said Jeff. Elementum 3D and Fortius Metals are considered sister companies and the two continue to collaborate. Each company is independently funded and governed.
Fortius Metals has also recently built its first factory, with “old-school wire-making equipment, and some new-school robots and lasers, all to make spacecraft. Half of our factory consists of robotic fabrication cells. We’ve got one arc welding cell that can make big parts, and we are building one 6kW laser-welding cell that’s the first of its kind in North America, in partnership with Trumpf,” said Jeff.
Fortius Metals’ business model is focused on selling wire, but in order to do that, the company needs people to adopt large-format metal additive. “Roughly half of our customers are asking us to build parts for them so they can prove out the benefits. So we’re providing a service to help them learn how. I’m happy to sell parts. I’m happy to sell wire. Whatever customers need, we want to help solve the whole customer problem,” said Jeff.
In terms of expertise, Fortius Metals’ CTO, Dr. Nick Bagshaw, spent 17 years at The Welding Institute (TWI), in the UK. Dr. Bagshaw is a welding expert, and was also one of the first engineers at Relativity Space. In addition to his welding expertise, Dr. Bagshaw is a specialist in simulation for distortion control – skills that are absolutely necessary when it comes to fabricating big metal parts.
“Distortion control means that when you melt and solidify metal, there’s a lot of shrinkage and residual stress. And so when you are putting welding bead, on top of welding bead, on top of welding bead – all of that stress is cumulative. That can create buckling and warping and lots of other crazy stuff. Relativity Space built a 100-foot tall rocket that is straight because of distortion control, which is remarkable. Our industry needs to help customers learn how to do that,” said Jeff.
“I can’t disclose our customers because we’re just getting started and most of them are proprietary, but we’re getting noticed by the biggest companies,” said Jeff. However, what Jeff could reveal is that one of Fortius Metals’ partners is NASA – which really says a lot about the quality of the work the company is doing. Fortius is also exploring partnerships with defense agencies, where the company’s technology can be applied to supporting combat vehicles and replacing parts in the field.
When asked to elaborate on the recent investment round, and working with AM Ventures, Jeff had this to say:
“I’ve worked with a lot of venture capitalists, and I’m very impressed with AM Ventures, in Munich. They have a different model. They’re not only focused on the industry, but they’re active, they’re involved, and they’re fantastic to work with. I’m a big fan of Johann Oberhofer and Arno Held coming from EOS as operators. They’re not just finance people. They know how to run a business. And so that, to me, is deeply meaningful. As an early-stage US company, we would not be pursuing nor getting traction in Europe with customers in our first year, but with AM Ventures and their relationships, that’s completely on the table.”
“We strongly believe that large scale additive manufacturing has massive potential. But until we spoke to Fortius we had not seen an investment opportunity that could accelerate adoption. We are convinced that the team around Jeff Lints combines the necessary skills and has extensive know-how to revolutionize wire-based materials for additive manufacturing and robotic welding enabling stronger and lighter fabrication,” said Philip Schultheiss, Senior Associate at AM Ventures.
Only the future can tell what this latest partnership and round of investment has in store for Fortius Metals, but from what we can see, it’s looking really promising.