35 minutes | Dec 13th 2020

Arris Composites: Ethan Escowitz

Ethan Escowitz, CEO & Founder of Arris Composites, shares common benefits and obstacles experienced in the additive manufacturing industry. Danny:

Well hello, and welcome to today’s IndustrialSage Executive Series. Today I am interviewing Ethan Escowitz who is the CEO and founder of Arris Composites located all the way out in California. Ethan, thank you so much for joining me today on the Executive Series.

Ethan:

Yeah, it’s great to be here. Thanks for having me, Danny.

Danny:

Well, I’m looking forward to this and jumping into this episode. So for those who aren’t familiar with Arris Composites, we’ll start there. What do you guys do?

Ethan:

So we make products—

Danny:

Okay, yes.

Ethan:

…broadly. So obviously composites are an important part of those products, and the continuous-fiber composites that we’re able to produce have the highest strength-to-weight ratios, which is why they’ve been used so broadly in aerospace. But we’ve really enabled mass production of these methods that really started in these very high-performance applications for use everywhere in all kinds of different applications. And in addition to that, we can make complex products that not only have continuous-fiber composites but also other materials like metals or plastics or whatever is required for the particular functional requirements of a product.

Danny:

Okay, and just to set the scene here, how long have you guys been in business?

Ethan:

So we started in 2017, so we’re going into our fourth year.

Danny:

Okay, excellent. So we’re going to jump into a little bit more about Arris, what you guys do, some of the problems and challenges that you guys solve. But before we do that, I want to do a deep-dive into Ethan, and I want to get to know you a little bit more and for our audience to get to know you a little bit more. Tell me, how did you get in the industry?

Ethan:

So I had been in the traditional manufacturing technologies that produce most of the products that surround us every day, the molding and casting and machining and stamping and things. And in around 2009, I started working with my first company that was involved in 3D printing, and that’s when I became enamored with the technology. And really, since then I’ve worked with plastic 3D printing companies, metal, composite, both private as well as working with commercializing 3D printing or additive molding technologies that developed at Lawrence Livermore National Lab and finding commercial applications for those. So really the broad additive manufacturing space is where I’ve spent the last 10 years. And that’s really, those two aspects of my background in manufacturing, the conventional technologies and then this new, advanced manufacturing really specifically additive manufacturing and 3D printing is where I’ve spent the last decade.

Danny:

So how did you get into that before that? Was that something that you– were you predisposed to the industry in school or before that? Tell me that story.

Ethan:

So I had a geology degree, so the mechanical and materials world that I am in was not really specifically what my training was. I actually shifted from mechanical when I was in school to geology. And I ended up working at Ricoh, a printer manufacturer, and really through that was first exposed to biz dev and technical products. And then I got a lot more interested in the product design and manufacturing world and that’s where I started getting exposed to a lot of the different manufacturing technologies and the ways that you might make any product. And it was really through seeing the important interaction between product design and manufacturing technologies that I got really interested in how you can have a differentiated commercial product as a result of leveraging new manufacturing technologies.

And really, 3D printing was the space that, in the late 2000s, a lot of people were looking to, to unlock new potential. Medical, aerospace, consumer products, there were grand aspirations for where the 3D printing world might take many of these different industries. So it was the most exciting space to be in; it’s what I focused on. And some of those things have panned out; some of them haven’t panned out. The story of the last 10 years in 3D printing is a very interesting one. But that’s really how I found myself in this space between research and development and those killer applications for these new manufacturing technologies that comes out of these research and development efforts.

Danny:

Excellent. So throughout your career journey, is there somebody or something that stands out in terms of, that’s been a big inspiration or has helped to shape a decision or influence your career? Does anything jump out to you?

Ethan:

Yeah, for sure, there’s a million credits, I’d say. I’m definitely an example of a lifelong learner, and I’m a big advocate of mentors. My Audible is filled up with books I’ve listened to and will listen to repeatedly. One specifically that has always stuck with me and is very important with my career journey is a lot of Malcolm Gladwell’s work, but specifically The Tipping Point was one that really intrigued me when you hear about the stories of these major industries that get to a point where there’s a significant shift that happens of some sort. One of the examples they give is the electronics, the computer industry, and how there was that major shift where you have Larry Ellison and Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and these individuals that happen to be very intelligent individuals that are at the right place in history at the right time and are important in shifting, in guiding these enterprises that come out of that. So I really took that narrative; I guess I read that probably around when it came out or around 2000 somewhere. This was always a narrative that I brought into the search for manufacturing technologies that enabled and unlocked commercial advantages in the product design world. So I would definitely point back to that as a very formative story, if you will, for informing what I was looking for in terms of a technology, an approach that could really make a difference, that could really make a major impact.

Danny:

Yeah, no, excellent. That’s a great story. Yeah, I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s work as well. And I would argue now, we’re at another tipping point. Obviously, this year has been a very interesting year, to say the least. And I think, obviously, there’s a big focus on the negative, on what’s happening, what’s going on. But I’d also say, I would look at the opportunities that have been presented. And I think that we are really at a massive tipping point right now, especially when you look at disruptive technology and the manufacturing–you can look at it across the board. Disruption is happening across all industries. But I think specifically, when you look at manufacturing, you look at supply chain, look at all these different areas where we are at a huge tipping point. What are some of those challenges that you are seeing in your space right now?

Ethan:

So yeah, there’s a lot to unpack there. First, the most important thing with supply chains and the manufacturing methods that are responsible for the majority of products that surround us in the world, you just can’t change that much that fast. So while I am absolutely a big advocate of a lot of the things that you’re saying, things are shifting. For the purchasing decision for a product that’s made 100 units a month, it’s very easy to shift it from one place to another. For the incredibly complex products that surround us in the world, whether it’s our automobiles where the bill of materials and the part count has gone up by tens of thousands over the last couple decades, and those become more complex, or if it’s our mobile devices where those are becoming even more complex, there is such a complex supply chain that flows into any one of those, it’s actually really challenging to make major product architecture shifts in those industries.

So that said, that is why for decades the fundamental way in which… take a car that’s made with stamped metal and tack-welded together on an assembly line: the basic architecture doesn’t change a whole lot. But there are those punctuated periods where you suddenly have a major shift. And that’s where things get really interesting today where you have, if we’re sticking with the automotive industry, very disruptive things happening. Electric, autonomous, new business models, incredibly important shifts in the businesses like fleets. And you can look at analogs for some very interesting indicators of what we might expect from an industry like that. Commercial aerospace was, in 1970, there was almost all metal in the planes. And between 1970 and today, it’s gone all the way up to almost 80% composites in the Boeing Dreamliner because, for every pound you remove out of the plane, it costs less for that plane’s operator to fly that plane. So total cost of ownership drives the buying decision of planes. Vehicles, completely different. Vehicles did not go through that evolution at all because, for the longest time, it’s just been, what’s the sticker price? How good do I look in it? Let’s kick the tires, and I’m going to buy it.

But with this major shift in ownership with fleets owning more, with total cost of ownership being more important, with autonomous needing these expensive assets to run as long as possible, then we’re actually shifting this major industry that consumed so many vehicles each year towards a business model that has a clear precedent to really considering total cost of ownership and not just, how good does it look when the buyer walks into a showroom? So it’s shifts like that, that driver from the commercial end, where the end-consumers’ buying patterns are changing. They actually provide us with some of the incredible leverage that these industries are seeing to change and do things differently and we can obviously see that with the valuation of Tesla and the way in which they’re doing a whole variety of things different from their predecessors. So I think your point is very powerful and very timely because, in some areas, we are completely limited by the legacy that’s come before us. And in others, there’s just these incredible shifts that have happened in a very short period of time and promise continued disruption ahead.

Danny:

Yeah, absolutely. Well, like you mentioned, obviously, making these changes–you talked about earlier on, the supply chain where you’ve got a massive list of components, and you’re sourcing them from all over the place–but not just changing suppliers is a very easy thing. But you mentioned changing the infrastructure, the actual design applications of it makes it very difficult. I think it’s interesting, talking about automotive, for example, you mentioned aerospace there, too, for a little bit, that really that nexus of technology coming in, you’re talking about autonomous, and you’re having a lot of these cars, from maybe a buying criteria, and I’ll take my–personally, for example– I used to be not very excited about all the technology. It was cool stuff, but now that’s a big driver for me. It’s like yeah, yeah, cars, the performance is great and all that good stuff, but I’m really interested in all the different, how’s this thing connected, and I want it to interface with my iPhone and all these different things to a point where that’s actually going to be a motivating purchase decision. And it was, at least for me, specific, the whole CarPlay thing. I loved it.

Ethan:

Yeah.

Danny:

That was like, I’ve got to have on my list. So looking at things like that, relative to how you’re actually going to go and design and manufacture that and say, well, okay, now we’ve got to bring in all this additional infrastructure and design into it. And you’re seeing that not just in automotive, but across the board where maybe we didn’t see this before. We’ve got a client that we work with in the lighting space. Okay, well, we have connected lights now. And look at the different kinds of data and the applications we can have there. So it’s kind of having to rethink not just the product design but also the application and the use cases which affect– you mentioned the business case and how to go to market and how to even educate market segments, whether it’s internal stake-holders from a sales standpoint to the consumers. And it gets very interesting and complex. I think it’s exciting.

Ethan:

Yeah, you get into user experience there, and I think that user experience– I’m actually in our factory adjacent to the train tracks, so—

Danny:

Supply chain, that’s good.

Ethan:

Yeah, I’ll tell you, that’s the supply chain in the background. But user experience is incredibly important. And typically, when you think about the car that you’re talking about, as you put all of that functionality into the car, you imagine you’re getting more and more and more components. In general, as the user experience has gone up, the part count has gone up and gotten even more complex. We actually work in some interesting areas there where you take an example of a next-generation mobile phone that I can show you where we’re able to take–and take the device, but make the class-A consumer surface finish. It’s got to look very nice. But the important thing that really relates to what you were getting at is, if I look at the actual enclosure that we’re able to produce for these applications is putting this material that’s stronger than titanium into these incredibly small features enables us to make it thinner and lighter and more desirable for the user to help with those user experience things, but we’re also able to integrate–and you might not be able to see it very well–but you can see the wire leads that run into the electronics that are actually in the enclosure itself where these, before, were just machined pieces of metal or molded pieces of plastic.

So you’re actually getting smart structures that are removing components from the inside of the enclosure, putting it inside the device itself so it’s actually getting smarter. They perform better there; they’re more rugged. And your part count is going down. So this is a very simple version of that, but when you start imagining some of the larger structures that you might put into a vehicle where this is the highest strength-to-weight ratio, continuous fiber composites, running through that where within that structure, you can start adding some of those sensors and electronics–and you can actually see a cross-section of the truss with the wires that run through it–how you can actually not increase the part count. You can decrease the part count and get the better functionality and the better user experience.

And a great example of where we’re able to do this really fast is the drone industry. The drone industry doesn’t have these giant assembly lines and the long product development cycles and 30,000 parts that need to be designed in. So we have one customer that we took 17 parts in their drone and consolidated it into one, single part that doesn’t require all those separate, discrete manufacturing steps, doesn’t require all those assembly steps. And the outcome is higher performance, better looking than what they were able to produce before. But it’s because that industry has very low thresholds to make changes and has a lot of latitude, obviously less regulations, less qualification that has to happen. So that’s where you’ll see many of these disruptive approaches start to manifest themselves earlier and faster where some of the industries that have a longer product refresh cycle and a little bit longer design cycle will take a little bit longer for us to start seeing them on the street or in the stores.

Danny:

But yeah, it’s funny you bring up the drone industry. We actually have an episode, I think it is yet to be released–I don’t think it’s been released yet–by the time this is released, it will have been– so I’ll put that caveat in there. But Ware, a company that basically, some of their big deployments have been in warehousing and using drones to be able to essentially take inventory. You mentioned you’re seeing a million different applications in there, certainly in that space. And aerospace in general, the lighter, the better. I’m a pilot geek; I’m a pilot, and I’m an aviation geek, so I love all that stuff. But yeah, the lighter the material, the more durable, the better. You mentioned in there with aircraft, or even the same thing with drones, you start getting metal out, then not only are you saving from a weight standpoint, but you’re also from a maintenance standpoint of having to worry about rust and different things will start going away. It’s interesting, too, when you look at, from a fulfillment standpoint, Amazon obviously is getting a lot of press about how they’re deploying all these different things between, from a battery manufacturing standpoint to get more efficiency, if we can reduce the components and decrease the drag, decrease the weight, all of this is driving towards actually making this a real reality that one day, we’ll have a drone that will be delivering whatever to us.

Ethan:

Yeah, a great example exactly to that point, this is a bracket that you might see in any plane. This is the classic-type brackets that the metal 3D printing industry has been working on developing using topology optimization which is software that, instead of taking what that bracket used to be which was simply two welded pieces of sheet metal with holes drilled through, it takes that essentially T-bracket, they would call them and then say, “Well if we have to transmit stress from up here down into these areas, let’s just run it more directly.” And that’s when the software does such an amazing job at making these elegant designs where the load literally follows the path. And traditionally, these weren’t done because making this out of metal would have been really expensive. So 3D printing opened up the possibility of shapes like this. But metal 3D printing is actually using much heavier materials than we work with. Continuous-fiber composites, you can look at it with a measure called specific strength and specific stiffness where you take into account, in the strength and stiffness, the weight of the material, and that’s where these continuous-fiber composites have the highest specific stiffness and specific strength and why they’re used so broadly in aerospace. So we’re able to use these ideal continuous materials in these shapes that have only been possible with 3D printing before. And the fibers actually wrap around the hole and then run all the way down the legs. And they can wrap around the bottom hole here, so you can imagine your fasteners that are connecting this assembly. The load is being directly transferred down.

We actually just published a paper with a top aerospace company where we were able to remove over 70% of the weight from these brackets that were made with titanium 3D printing using our methods. So that alone, for a component that might number in the hundreds or thousands in large aircraft, is a big deal when you’re talking about the future of aviation where they need to reduce their operating costs. And in addition to that, this represents one component that is connecting things together. When we think about a truss, that one bracket that I showed you is essentially like a unicell in a much larger structure that we can look at making. What if we’re not just bolting things together, but what if we’re making larger integrated structures like the large one that I was showing back here and using part consolidation to get further benefits in terms of manufacturing and weight savings? And to your point, these are corrosion-proof materials, so you don’t have the painting that you need to do and many of the post-treatments with a lot of metals.

Danny:

That’s super exciting. What other industries are you guys doing a lot of work in?

Ethan:

So aerospace, obviously, has the most experience working with these materials. And the payoff in reducing the amount of jet fuel that’s used is extremely high. So because they are so expert in these materials and are really set up to digest a technology like ours, that has been an area that we have had a lot of work since very early on with the company. Drones are directly adjacent to it. Everything we’re doing with aerospace directly applies to drones and can happen a lot faster because you’re not flying people around, so you don’t have all of those qualification challenges. Really, the neat thing though is that all of these methods we’re talking about that are important for aerospace, they can apply to all of the terrestrial vehicles as well. And in fact, the reason that many of these aerospace methods haven’t made their way into cars and trucks and all the rest is because the aerospace methods are so expensive relative to the cost thresholds of automotive. Just a neat example, these are two brackets that look almost the same that I was showing earlier, and they are exactly the same shape, made on the same machine. But one is aerospace-grade PEEK carbon fiber, very high-performance material. The other is automotive-grade nylon carbon fiber, much lower cost, a little bit lower performance, but meets the thresholds of mass-market automotive.

So the nice thing is, we can apply these aerospace methods to these broader industries like automotive, industrial applications. Light-weight structures can be used all over industries. Then sometimes we’re looking at, how do we pack more strength into a smaller space? So we might work on applications like seals or different mechanical components. But when you’re packing more strength into a smaller space, that’s where we’ll do all kinds of things for consumer products as well. So you can actually see a bit of a sample part that we have, like a watch and some of the other parts that we’re able to put in an incredibly small package. The quickest elevator pitch for our technology is that we can, out of an automated molding system, get parts that have the strength of titanium, but they’re one third the weight. So really we’re able to hit the cost/performance thresholds you need for mass market, and then we have the weight savings and the strength. And those three concepts are why we’re really broadly applicable. So you were asking about industries; aerospace, industrial, consumer products, and a wide variety of vehicle applications are some of the primary focuses.

Danny:

Excellent. Well, it makes a lot of sense to me. I imagine, especially in the vehicles and anything that’s going to be consuming a lot of energy, too, has a great sustainability story to go along with it as well, just in terms of lower emissions. Not only is it a cost savings benefit from reduction of fuel, but also from the emission piece as well, so it sounds like a triple-win.

Ethan:

Yeah, the sustainability– it is so important to look at the energy saved by the component that you’re making. We also look a lot at what are the material inputs, and then what is the end-of-life. So we can think about these three phases when we’re talking about the total energy embodied in a component. So we’re working, actually, with a new class of composites. So since the 1950s Corvette was one of the first composite success stories, so composites have been around for a while. But they’ve used this matrix material of super glue or epoxy that hasn’t been recyclable. We’re actually working with the next-generation of composites that use the recyclable resin systems. So we’re looking at, how do we get cleaner chemistries? How do we get lower-energy fibers? We can not only work with carbon fibers, but glass fibers. Then, to your point, in the middle when we look at the total lifetime energy savings of the part, you can factor that, and then end-of-life as well we’re working on some novel recycling technologies that can take the end-of-life products and give them another– taking this idea of cradle-to-cradle, how do you anticipate the end-of-life when you’re planning the beginning of the next generation?

Danny:

Well, excellent. It sounds like you guys are really onto something. It sounds like there’s some cool stuff coming down the pike for you. My last question I want to ask before we wrap up this segment is, going back to what we were talking about before as far as some influences in your life, and you mentioned book reading and how your Audible account is very full, what are you reading right now, or listening to?

Ethan:

So I’m going to check my Audible, when you’re asking. I’ve got a bunch of the HBR’s Guide To; I’m always listening to those. What I’m actually excited about is, Malcolm Gladwell has the new Talking to Strangers book that I literally just downloaded, and I haven’t read yet, so that’s what’s cued up now. In terms of influences, I think that there is also no substitute for mentors. There have been, through our history, there’s a lot of credit that some really strong mentors have played for me personally and our management team. Carl Bass, former CEO of Autodesk who was an early advisor, angel investor, just continual sounding board over the years. Being able to have individuals like him help guide the ship and think through some of the hard decisions and give me the conviction, I owe a big debt of gratitude to him for that. There’s also, when we were raising our Series A, having a chance to meet Jeff Immelt, former CEO of GE, who is a partner at our now VC firm, NEA, who we’ve had a long-term, great relationship with. Having him share his background and starting his career in the composites industry in the 1980s when the chopped fiber version of composites were being adopted by the automotive industry and hearing his on-the-ground stories about what those major shifts in industry look like. There’s no substitute for great mentors, but the next best thing is listening to their book if you can.

Danny:

That’s awesome. Yeah, no, that’s fantastic. Ethan, thank you so much for spending some time with me today on the Executive Series. For those who’d like to learn a little bit more, give us your website. What’s the best way?

Ethan:

Yeah, arriscomposites.com.

Danny:

Arriscomposites.com, we’ll make sure to put that in the show notes for those who are listening to the podcast and in the notes for those who are watching the videos. Ethan, thanks so much for your time, and best of luck.

Ethan:

Yeah, thank you, Danny. Great to meet you.

Danny:

Great meeting you. Alright, well that wraps today’s IndustrialSage Executive Series with Ethan Escowitz who is the CEO and founder of Arris Composites. Go to their website to check them out, to learn more about them. And before we wrap, if you are not subscribed onto our email list, I highly encourage you to do so. You’re missing out on some fantastic content that we’ve got other episodes of the Executive Series like this. We have the Bright Ideas Series by Acuity, which is very exciting, manufacturing news, and many other things that are going to be happening as we continue to move this train down the road. So thanks for watching and listening. I’m Danny Gonzales, and I’ll be back next week with another episode on IndustrialSage.

 

 

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