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A 3D Printing Startup Grows Up

Bill Koenig
By Bill Koenig Senior Editor, SME Media

Fabrisonic, Now 6 Years Old, Moves to Develop New Processes, Materials

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Adam Hehr, a Fabrisonic research engineer, monitors the control console of the company’s “Big Blue” machine. (Photo by Bill Koenig)

COLUMBUS, OH — Fabrisonic LLC wants to move from startup to established company.

The company, established in October 2011, had its own twist on 3D printing. Fabrisonic utilizes a process it calls Ultrasonic Additive Manufacturing (UAM). That refers to using ultrasound waves to weld layers of metal foil.

Fabrisonic is still a small company. It has six full-time employees and two contract workers versus four employees three years ago. But it is moving forward on a number of government and commercial projects.

“Our biggest competition is the status quo,” said Mark Norfolk, president and CEO of Fabrisonic. “People just don’t want to change.”

Change may be coming, nevertheless.

Among Fabrisonic projects are new heat exchangers. To develop the parts, the company devised new support materials to ensure more precision with holes, grooves, and shapes. Fabrisonic had to find materials “that worked with our process,” Norfolk said.

One such material is water soluble. Once a part is made, it’s flushed out with hot water, removing the support material. Fabrisonic-made heat exchangers are scheduled to be tested by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (Pasadena, CA) to “prove out the process,” Norfolk said. The heat exchangers need to withstand temperatures of -120 degrees C to 120 degrees C (-184 degrees F to 248 degrees F).

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Mark Norfolk of Fabrisonic

Fabrisonic also is developing parts with embedded fiber optic cables. At Fabrisonic’s home office in Columbus, OH, there is a mockup of a bracket for a NASA drone. The idea is for the electronics to measure part strain while the drone flies. Norfolk said such electronic-embedded parts have potential applications in industries such as oil and gas, and the nuclear industry.

Another project is developing panels for the nuclear power industry. Such panels would be embedded with materials dubbed “poisons” that slow the neutron rate down and slow down the overall reaction. “Hopefully, next year, we will be printing panels,” Norfolk said.

Improvements

Fabrisonic also has worked with Oak Ridge National Laboratories (Oak Ridge, TN) on ways to improve its ultrasound process. For example, they have developed new protective coatings to prevent the ultrasonic welder from welding itself to a part being built. This was becoming an issue as Fabrisonic was working more with harder materials such as Inconel and titanium.

“The welding head was getting stuck to materials the head was printing,” Norfolk said. The new protective coating “is engineered so it is metallurgically incompatible” with the printed materials, he said.

Norfolk estimates that about half of Fabrisonic’s business is government, half commercial. He generally can’t disclose details of the commercial business except in the most general of terms. For example, one commercial business project involves using ultrasound to join dissimilar materials such as aluminum and copper. Fabrisonic said it can’t disclose the client or other details.

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A test run of Fabrisonic-printed parts

What’s more, Fabrisonic also is involved in racing, but can’t say what series is involved or what kind of parts. In general, some manufacturing companies get involved with racing because its tight, unforgiving deadlines act as a laboratory for new processes, materials, and manufacturing methods. Honda Motor Co., for example, traditionally has rotated engineers through its racing activities as a way of improving production vehicles later.

Fabrisonic also is expanding physically.

The company was a spinout from EWI, a non-profit research and development firm in Columbus. The ultrasound printing technology was originally developed by Solidica Inc. (Ann Arbor, MI), which obtained the original patents. Solidica reached a development agreement with EWI and that led to the creation of Fabrisonic.

Fabrisonic was housed in EWI’s building in a research park on the Ohio State University campus. Norfolk originally planned to find new space away from EWI.

However, other space opened up in the building as EWI moved some operations to other locations. That enabled Fabrisonic to expand without relocating.

The company’s main production machine was dubbed “Big Blue,” which was constructed by EWI in 2010 with funding from various sources, including the state of Ohio, Boeing Co., and General Electric Co. Fabrisonic ended up buying “Big Blue” from EWI.

New Machine

This year, Fabrisonic purchased a smaller three-axis CNC machine and added a sonic welding head that gave it a fourth axis. The new machine doesn’t have a nickname yet, but already is helping Fabrisonic to boost output of parts for customers.

“We have more flexibility,” Norfolk said. “We have some more breathing time between jobs.” While the new machine is smaller, he said much of what Fabrisonic makes can be manufactured in it. Fabrisonic also has another machine on Ohio State’s campus that it co-owns with the university.

Hilary Johnson, is Fabrisonic’s sales engineer and she has both a marketing and engineering background. One of her challenges is establishing the Fabrisonic name. That includes informing would-be customers about the pros and cons of the company’s system.

“3D metal printing is not cheap,” Johnson said. “If it’s something that doesn’t work with our process, I tell” customers, she said.

“We’re a little bit different,” Johnson continued. “Nobody does what we do. Our patents aren’t up yet.”

Fabrisonic also needs to entice customers to do things differently. “It’s getting people to rethink design,” Johnson said.

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