Kanata company cashing in on 'perfect' 3D printing powder

Recent investments of $30M mean there's further expansion ahead for Equispheres Inc.

Recent investments of $30M mean further expansion ahead for Equispheres Inc.

An image from a scanning electron microscope shows the spheres of aluminum processed by Equispheres Inc. (Submitted)

A unique process to turn inexpensive chunks of aluminum into highly consistent microscopic spheres has turned a Kanata company into a darling of the 3D metal printing world.

Equispheres Inc. manufactures a special aluminum powder used in 3D metal printers. Now the company is garnering international attention — and funding — for its printer powder made of tiny, perfectly shaped aluminum balls.

In a sample jar, it moves more like a liquid than a powder.

"What's unique about our powder is that it flows," said Equispheres CEO Kevin Nicholds.

Last week, Equispheres announced millions in new investment including $10 million in equity investment from HG Ventures, an $8-million grant from SDTC, $5 million in subordinated financing from BDC and an additional $7 million in undisclosed funding. 

Kevin Nicholds, a former Ottawa printing company executive, is the CEO of Equispheres Inc. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Making the perfect spheres

While the precise details of the company's production process remain a closely guarded secret, it involves melting aluminum in a tower, then cooling the molten droplets as they rain down to create highly consistent powder.

"Fortunately, we've developed something where there's a lot of interest," said Nicholds, whose telephone now rings daily with calls from blue chip aersopace, defence and automotive manufacturers.

Nicholds can't name the companies because of non-disclosure agreements, but they include familiar German automakers and American space exploration brands.

Research carried out by McGill University found the powder produced by Equisphere flows two and a half times faster than powder produced by competitors. Its very form confounds traditional notions of how powder should behave.

"In the eyes of material scientists and metallurgists, they've never seen a powder that flows like a liquid — it's usually very chunky or clumpy," Nicholds said.

A sample jar contains the microscopic spheres of aluminum that make up the company's 3D printing 'ink.' (Stu Mills/CBC)

Uniformity key

In the world of 3D printed metal, the uniformity of the aluminum powder is as important as the uniformity of bricks are to a bricklayer.

A complex, lightweight aerospace part can be printed up out of layers of aluminum balls just 50 microns in diameter while a powerful laser binds each layer to the next.

As the company's testing has shown, parts made from the tiny aluminum spheres show fewer voids, bubbles and imperfections that can require costly re-dos.

Still, this kind of manufacturing isn't cheap: a 3D metal printer needed to create ultra lightweight rocket parts may cost $250,000, but might go through hundreds of thousand of dollars more each week in aluminum powder.

On the shop floor, hundreds of dollars in raw Canadian ingots await processing into millions of dollars worth of 3D printing powder. (Stu Mills/CBC)

High demand, profit margins

The demand for the product is high, and so are the profit margins. A chunk of Canadian aluminum that might be worth $2 becomes worth $100 when sold as a sealed container of perfectly spherical microscopic balls.

"We'll see the true magic bear out over the coming months and years as Equispheres continues to advance the technology," said Zoltan Tompa, who leads investment in clean technologies at BDC.

Equisphere Inc. chose Kanata as home base for its workforce of about 30 in order to tap into the tech talent there, even though several U.S. states have invited the company to set up down south.

Nicholds said the new investment will bring about a dozen more employees to the Kanata location this year.

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