Founder and President Slade Gardner is charging ahead with a high-flying startup that’s 3D printing metal parts for defense, aerospace, and other industries.
Big Metal Additive sprung from Gardner’s 20-year career with “big aerospace” — including stints with Lockheed Martin’s famed “Skunk Works” and the company’s Denver-based Space Systems group.
“All that time, I was doing applied development for additive manufacturing for aircraft and for spacecraft,” says Gardner. “I had a part in building a lot of aerospace components when I was at Skunk Works. We started with simple brackets. We elevated to primary flight-critical structures for fighter jets.”
Developing “new materials and new manufacturing processes” at Skunk Works led him to full-fledged production for spacecraft components. “The last big project I had at Lockheed Martin Space Systems was to deliver 3D-printed titanium propellant tanks from the laboratory to our production group. Together, we transitioned additive-manufactured titanium propellant tanks to commercial space programs.”
Such tanks are big, measuring about 4 feet by 5 feet, and notoriously tricky to manufacture. “They are the most fractured critical structure on a satellite,” he says. “I selected propellant tanks because I had that much confidence in the titanium additive capabilities we had developed.”
In the face of “tremendous pushback,” Gardner forged ahead. The drivers were cost and schedule, he says, citing 50 percent cost savings and 80 percent reduction in time. “That’s a game changer.”
Delivery schedules were 18 months due to bottlenecks at the few titanium-forging operations that can manufacture titanium propellant tanks. Additive manufacturing dropped that lead time to two or three months.
Forged tanks also require a lot of machining, with a 30-pound final product often carved from an initial part weighing “hundreds and hundreds of pounds.”
The big lesson? “You realize: If you can make these things, you can make anything,” says Gardner.
That was his broad strategy when he left Lockheed to launch Big Metal Additive in 2016. “I knew we were going to address the deficiencies of additive industrial manufacturing,” says Gardner. The challenges were “size, surface finish, dimensional tolerance, and the software flow path required to take a CAD model to a final part.”
After two years of R&D, Big Metal Additive took possession of its first proprietary machine, says Gardner, “built to our specifications” by Diversified Machine Systems in Colorado Springs. He says the build table’s size — about 6 feet by 12 feet — was based on the size of a chassis for a Porsche 911.
The underlying technology “is not an extension of what I did at Lockheed Martin,” Gardner notes. The aerospace titan leveraged electron beam-based deposition, but its price tag is too high for most applications. Big Metal Additive aims to make metal additive manufacturing “accessible to a broad range of markets,” he adds. “I had to rethink everything.”
That means a low-cost energy source (that of gas metal arc welding, or GMAW), and the capacity to handle common aluminum alloys as feedstocks, and an open manufacturing environment that allows “tremendously flexibility in inspecting our parts during the manufacturing operation,” says Gardner.
The machine also incorporates a 5-axis CNC cutting spindle. “That’s something no one on the planet does other than us,” says Gardner. “We machine while we do additive. It separates us from everyone else in the additive manufacturing industry.”
Big Metal Additive now is producing parts for clients in the automotive, heavy transportation, construction, aerospace, and space industries, as well as the U.S. Department of Defense. Most contracts are covered by nondisclosure agreements.
Gardner says he expected prototyping work and industrial jobs from day one, but aerospace work has exceeded expectations. “Almost as soon as we were open for business, people from the aerospace community — people who I knew — they were ready to do business with us. It really surprised me. But the aerospace industry has been leaning forward in adopting these kinds of additive manufacturing methods.”
Part of that is due to the inherent benefits of additive manufacturing, he notes. “There are some structures that casting just can’t do and welded assembly just can’t do, and a lot of these advanced design software packages and advanced design technologies, they create geometries that look more like a dinosaur skeleton than a stick-and-plate engineer’s design. Those kinds of geometries, you almost need additive manufacturing to build them.”
The company’s sales jumped by nearly 200 percent in 2019 and continued to rise in 2020 as the company moved from a 2,000-square-foot shop in Wheat Ridge to a 14,000-square-foot facility in northeast Denver with a pair of the company’s customized machines.
He highlights a recent project: a 50-foot ship-to-shore connector the company made for the Navy in 2020. “It’s a cargo ship for the Navy. Our ship-to-shore connector was meant to demonstrate transporting two shipping containers.”
Big Metal Additive delivered the connector to Camp Pendleton in California in July 2020 for testing. “In the unlikely event that all of our ship-to-shore connectors are destroyed, how could the U.S. Navy replenish that logistics piece of equipment?” explains Gardner. “At the height of the pandemic, we built this thing, and the saving grace was the fact that anything we could not buy we could build ourselves.”
Big Metal Additive has also delivered an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) prototype to the Navy, leading to an order for nine vessels, as well as part of an airframe for the Air Force’s Agility Prime project.
The company landed a $250,000 Advanced Industries Accelerator (AIA) grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade in late 2020. “With that AIA grant, we are going to improve our inspection and finish machining capabilities. We are going to hire two engineers, experts in inspection and finish machining,” says Gardner.
“We’re just a couple steps ahead,” he adds. “We feel we’re doing our part in growing Colorado’s reputation for advanced manufacturing. We bring customers in from around the globe.”
Challenges: Bootstrapping a startup in a capital-intensive industry, says Gardner. “I started this company with my life savings,” he says. “It is not venture-backed. It is sweat equity-backed.”
“We’re trying to grow, because we have so many customer opportunities ahead, and we’re trying to perform on the existing work that we have, and we’re doing that with a business model of bootstrapping,” says Gardner. “That is the ultimate challenge. How do you invest in your future when you require your current efforts to pay for that investment? It is a challenge. It’s tricky, it’s not impossible. It’s a welcome challenge.”
Opportunities: “Additive manufacturing has been featured as a supply-chain solution,” says Gardner. “When customers cannot get a forging or they cannot get a casting or they cannot get a welded assembly because the general workforce at large is unavailable, we provide a very interesting solution. We can often turn these things around much more quickly, at a better price, and with more design flexibility than the legacy manufacturing operation might.”
Adds Gardner: “We are customer-focused, so when an automotive company tells us they’re more interested in the economics than the quality, and then an aerospace customer tells us they’re more interested in quality than the economics, we have two very different paths to follow. We are not going to push ourselves in any one direction. We’re going to follow where our customers want.”
Reshoring represents an ongoing opportunity for Big Metal Additive, and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the complementary concept of a digital inventory. “That’s a powerful concept,” says Gardner. “What happens when that inventory is depleted and the manufacturing supply chain you use to create that inventory is gone? All of a sudden, you are in a pickle. By moving to a digital inventory, not only have you saved the direct cost of a part, but you’ve eliminated all these hidden costs and hidden business challenges.”
He also highlights another opportunity “to prototype full-scale, field-testable articles, whether it’s an unmanned aircraft or a marine vehicle or an off-road vehicle” for both the DoD and big companies.
Needs: Talent is a big one. “All of our engineering workforce, we have hired from Colorado schools,” says Gardner. We are very heavy right now with Colorado School of Mines graduates. It turns out they have an amazing additive manufacturing program, including an advanced degree for additive manufacturing — one of the very few in the country.”
There’s another need that could catalyze a sudden scale-up. “We need customers who have evolved to the point where they know how to design for additive, how to take advantage of the benefits it provides, how to select the right end applications, and then to embrace the fact that it’s a new process and maybe new materials for them, and determining ways of accepting that,” says Gardner. “We’re not an enormous company with eight people, but if we have the right customer who really does evolve to that point and embrace these business advantages, we would scale and we would grow — and we could grow very quickly. At that point, maybe it would be a strategic investment from a partner company that wanted this end result, and we would grow the organization by 10X.”