Digital manufacturing and advanced composite materials are both niche areas, but a Chennai-based deep tech start up is trying to combine both to forge a unique pathway in 3D printing or what is known as additive manufacturing. Composite materials are being aggressively used in sectors like drones, aerospace, defence, shipping, robotics, automobile manufacturing and biomedical devices. However, using such materials has been largely a manual and difficult process. Dinesh Kanagaraj, one of the founders of this start up, Fab Heads, has always been interested in such composite materials. A stint in space research at ISRO gave him the confidence to launch this deep tech start up along another ISRO colleague, Abhijeet Rathore. They were subsequently joined by the third co-founder, Akshay Ballal. Together they dreamed of bringing digital revolution to the composite materials sector.
Globally, the carbon fiber parts market stands at $60 billion with a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14% and the company reckons that the Indian market alone is worth about $5 billion. Not only have they created India’s first Carbon Fibre 3D printer, Fabheads says that they are the Asia’s first carbon fibre 3D printer maker. Already they have got clients from Singapore and other Asian countries, and they plan to export service and products to other continents also in the next couple of years. Incubated out of IIT Madras, the company has since then won many accolades and also raised a good amount of funding, including $2 million in the latest round last year. Most of their revenues at present comes from servicing but they are investing a lot in R&D and product development.
5 times stronger than steel but as light as plastic, carbon fibre was invented back in 1860. But only in recent years, there has been an explosion in terms of using carbon fibre for high performance industries like drones, aerospace, shipping, racing, biomedical and defence. But the overall awareness about it in the Indian industry is limited. Alongside manufacturing and servicing, Fabheads has been working with the industry associations to explain the benefits of both composite materials and 3D printing, especially to small and medium size industries.
Drones have emerged as a buzzing industry – more than 40 Indian start-ups are currently working with drones. Almost all of them are serviced by Fabheads. Dinesh says that servicing the drone industry accounts for 85% of their revenue at present. Tata Aerospace, Aeronautical Development Agency, Synergy and other large drone players are their principal clients.
They are also producing components for at least for 35 companies. Most of these companies are in the aerospace, drone and electronics sectors. Fabheads is also designing and developing carbon fibre helicopter blades for the Indian Air Force. Currently, 50% IAF choppers use metal blades, and they need to be replaced after 2000 hours. Fabheads claims that instead of these high value imported metal blades, the blades they are developing would last a minimum 8000 hours and would also significantly reduce the maintenance cost.
After drones and aerospace, shipping is going to be the next big focus for Fabheads. Shipping industry is slowly warming up to carbon fibre but the Fabheads team wants to design and even build complete ships through their own technology. Dinesh claims that by switching over to additive manufacturing, shipping industry can save a lot of time and money. He adds that the cost benefit would be huge – what is currently being achieved in a month at a certain cost, could be done through this new technology in a matter of days and at least at half the cost.
In fact, Fabheads sees their machines as their key innovation. Traditionally, fabricating carbon fibre parts had been a time-consuming process, but Fabheads has come out with a new 3D printer series called FibrBots for continuous carbon fibre material fabrication with their patented process. They sell smaller configuration machines to clients, which are looking for in-house 3D printing capacities, but they retain the bigger machines. Such machines are either given on lease to clients or often used for servicing.
Within the next 5 years, Fabheads wants to build India’s first ever large format 3D printers and wants to become the largest 3D printer manufacturer in India and the largest exporter of 3D printers from India. Fabheads believes that there is a tremendous potential for them to grow as the plastics 3D printing space is crowded but in terms of carbon fibre, the competition is limited to just 4-5 companies. Currently based out of Chennai the company plans to soon expand to Pune, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and break even within the next couple of years.