Northeastern startup, Fortify, exhibits agile response to COVID-19
With Supply Chains In Flux, This 3D Printing Startup Fortified Operations
At the beginning of 2020, things were really falling into place for Boston-based Fortify. The young 3D printing company was planning a springtime move to a new headquarters with triple the floor space and room to grow, planning to start shipping their first 3D printers in the summer. Such big moves are significant milestones for any company, and all the more so when they represent the first tangible strides into the market for a four-year-old startup. That was, of course, all the plan before Covid-19 grabbed the globe.
While the pandemic has obviously been a hard-hitting operational disruption on top of the devastating health consequences so many have faced, Fortify has achieved its goals anyway — and then some.
“At a high level, everything became more logistically intensive,” Co-Founder and CEO Josh Martin, PhD, said with a laugh as we discussed the strategic shifts undertaken. The Fortify team has not only navigated pandemic impact but will ultimately be coming out the other side with a stronger product and overall strategy.
Fortifying Composite 3D Printing
Fortify offers a unique 3D printing technology, initially developed by Martin and Associate Professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (as well as company co-founder and Fortify’s scientific advisor) Dr. Randy Erb while Martin was working on his PhD in materials science at Northeastern University.
Fortify’s Digital Composite Manufacturing (DCM) process 3D prints fortified composite materials. Their patented technology, Fluxprint, brings together magnetics and digital light processing (DLP) 3D printing. The magnets come into play to orient reinforcing fibers in the same direction, changeable as needed on a layer-by-layer, section-by-section basis, for unprecedented strength in such parts. Such strength is ideal for the high-performance applications Fortify is targeting, including their beachhead application of injection mold tooling.
The last few years have been spent fine tuning the DCM process, as well as bringing in investors and expanding the team, all in preparation for bringing their first 3D printer to market. That system, the FLUX ONE, had been used to make parts in-house at Fortify for customers, and was slated for customer installations beginning this summer.
The plan for 2020 was about as straightforward as anything is for a startup: move to a bigger HQ, prepare the final product, start shipping, scale. This year, though, has been anything but straightforward.
Plans And Pandemic Pivots
The HQ move was set for mid-March, as Fortify looked to move from their original facility in South Boston to an emerging tech hub housed in an old industrial milk facility in Charlestown. The move, made possible through a $10 million Series A raise last summer, still happened — in the less-than-two-week period between the Massachusetts governor’s proclamation March 10th of a state of emergency and the March 23rd emergency order that shut down all non-Covid-19 essential services in the state.
The Fortify team had already gone as fully remote as possible as of March 12th, moving effectively all 26 full-time employees from office and lab space to primarily home offices. Because 3D printing has factored significantly into play for pandemic response, their physical operations also remained essential. A maximum of four team members worked to 3D print, post-process, and produce molded parts on-site.
Fortify created a Covid-19 task force working directly with the medical and manufacturing communities in Boston. Together, they worked to address initial shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE) and help to quickly 3D print tools to validate designs for critical medical components including a threaded flow-rate sensor for ventilators. Off-site team members supported the work remotely, interfacing with designers and customers to move projects along as quickly and efficiently as possible. In one case, to create molded adapters for a face mask, Fortify moved the work along in just four days from initial design to adapters in-hand.
The agility they developed in working on-site with a skeleton crew supported heavily by remote teammates proved a game-changer for the startup.
A New Approach To First Product Shipments
Not only could Fortify continue supporting pandemic-driven needs, those on-site were able to continue moving the company’s own plans along.
“The reality is, for better or for worse, for startups the product development timeline is effectively a business traction timeline,” Martin said. “We couldn’t afford to let our timelines slip that much, even thought it would have made things a lot easier from an engineering perspective. We had communicated a date to our customers, so we’ll meet that date at all costs.”
The team had made an early strategic decision that, it turns out, was prescient in its focus on their supply chain. As Wuhan shut down in late January and into February, but before the US was facing shutdowns of its own, Fortify switched suppliers to domestic — and later switched back to a Chinese supplier when, in turn, the US shut down. These actions not only saved the company 4-8 weeks on certain prototyping projects, they kept overall progress on pace.
Between maintaining access to the necessary supplies — each FLUX ONE 3D printer requires more than 500 components — and having some access to the physical production site, the Fortify team adapted. The remote teamwork certainly changed some approaches to day-to-day operations, like a 250% uptick in internal communications via Slack, as new hurdles “forced us to be a little more creative,” Martin noted.
“We created a workflow that allowed our different engineering teams to collaborate on a hybrid format, with some remote and some in-person, without going over the maximum number of people allowed in the office at one time,” he explained. “For instance, we had our embedded engineering and software teams work remotely in the machines, continuing to develop and improve printer functionality from their homes. When troubleshooting needed to occur, a scheduled on-site engineer or technician would provide manual support while the remote team accessed the machines’ control systems.”
The tools the Fortify team built to facilitate remote work helped keep all team members and customers socially distanced — and helped to in fact build a stronger product in total. “We can troubleshoot from afar,” Martin added, “which is better for both us and our customers especially during Covid-19, but is also a much more scalable model. This type of remote support is here to stay, and has become a key offering.”
First-to-market offerings often have issues that are only discovered through real-world usage and dealt with through sending company personnel to customer sites to solve. This sort of compensation is not possible in 2020, between travel restrictions, social distancing, and the potential need for quarantining following any movement into or through high-case areas. System testing, calibration, and acceptance testing had to be much more strenuous before anything went out the door, in order to de-risk customer installations.
“For a first product release, we were forced to release a more mature product because of the given circumstances. I believe that will benefit us in the long run,” Martin added.
And so it was that Fortify shipped its first FLUX ONE systems last week, only slightly behind the originally targeted timing. In the end, delays ended up being more from customers’ challenges, such as upgrading their electricity and preparing floor space with limited personnel on-site and limits to bringing in contractors.
Fortifying The Market
With some deals still in negotiation, Fortify has more than seven systems spoken for this year that will be going out Q4 of this year and into Q1 2021. Martin noted that the company is on pace to ship their planned volumes for the year, and planning to scale up to about 30-40 systems “within the 2021 timeframe.” Beta testing is focused in North America, and the plan remains to release a generally available system in 2021, with expansion slated for the EU and APAC regions within the next two years.
From a commercialization perspective, Fortify is at an interesting stage, Martin said; “It’s not like we’re making hundreds of machines on an industrial line.” The scale they’re working at allows for some agility, such as they experienced with their vendor navigation as they moved from Eastern suppliers to domestic, then back again. “We have flexibility in that back and forth since we’re making units in the magnitudes of tens, not hundreds,” Martin added.
That flexibility also comes into play for the systems themselves, as they are fully configurable based on customer needs. Price points for the FLUX ONE can vary considerably, from about $160K- $250K, depending on the intended application space. Those configurable systems are all now even more robust than originally planned for their market debut, thanks to the necessity of enhancing off-site support and remote data monitoring.
Half a year into pandemic conditions and newly out on the market, Fortify is standing on surer footing now as a 3D printing industry participant. The company continued to hire even during these turbulent last months, and plans to hire more in engineering and other areas. The team continues to look ahead to further growth, and may soon be seeing more investment into their future as their technology continues to strengthen.
Fortify’s experiences this year in unfamiliar market conditions may stand as testament to the power of and demand for 3D printing, the agility of a startup, or simply the stubbornness of a young team determined to fulfill their promises. One thing is sure, though: the company continues to fortify its position in the market.