The use of use of composites and additive manufacturing in the automotive and aerospace industries is growing at a rapid rate. This growth is what inspired James Hinebaugh to co-found Expanse Microtechnologies.
“We saw that these industries had urgent questions that could be answered with the smart use of X-ray computed tomography (CT),” said Hinebaugh. “But there was too much distance between the developers of CT image processing software and these emerging industries.” That is where Expanse Microtechnologies comes
“We have specific, ‘right now’ use cases for each inspection tool that we are developing and we are now bringing our automotive and aerospace experience with these materials to the defence industry,” he added.
James Hinebaugh, President of Expanse Microtechnologies was selected as a Game Changer for the February/March 2019 issue of Vanguard.
What is your role in your organization today?
We all wear multiple hats at Expanse. My major roles are to manage sales, operations and partnerships. For example, one of the things that set us apart is our rapid pace of development. We are constantly innovating to improve and expand our service offering. Frequently, our team invents beautiful new inspection tools that we hadn’t even considered two months before. One of my most important jobs is to get those tools into the hands of our clients as fast as possible. With these tools being cutting edge and often unfamiliar to our clients, it is necessary to build and maintain a reputation of honesty and extremely high quality, such that clients are not only willing but eager to try out our latest and greatest.
What was your most challenging moment?
My most challenging moment came while we were hard at work on our very first major order. This job required almost 100 hours of CT time, and we had set ourselves an aggressive delivery schedule. Through our close partnerships with several Canadian University laboratories, we rent this CT time from available, under-utilized equipment. Our primary machine went down two days before we began scanning, causing us to ship an employee, the custom sample holders, and all of our client’s materials to the other side of Canada to use a sister machine there.
After just 10 hours of scanning, that machine had a critical failure too! This time, it happened on our watch, which added the stress of the potential liability of a $1.5M CT machine to the growing nightmare. Gladly, we left on good terms with that lab, whose leadership and team members were mainly concerned for the well-being of our young company. We ended up being saved by the hard work of our friends at Nexus Metrology, who operate a more industrial class of CT. They gave us a great rate for the large order, and they made every effort to meet our scanning requirements. In the end, our customer was thrilled with our product, quickly placed another order, and continues to be one of our key clients to this day.
What was your “aha” moment or epiphany that you think will resonate most with our reader? Tell us that story.
Working with microscale X-ray CT, every time a new material or part is scanned, there is an exciting “aha” moment to get to see inside of it. The CT data provides thousands of internal cross-sections so you can digitally fly-through the part for inspection and characterization. Before our custom image analysis takes these images and turns them into graphs and charts for a client, these images provide the same epiphany as a when a student looks through a microscope for the first time. Open porous metal foams or carbon fibre composite panels are especially interesting microstructures to visualize.
What is the one thing that has you most fired up today?
Expanse is especially excited to contribute to advanced manufacturing and materials that enable the next generation of aerospace and space applications. This includes parts and processes to consolidate parts, make parts stronger and make vehicles more lightweight for improved efficiency. For example, we have been fired up to help analyze new techniques for building the next generation of rocket engines.
What is the best advice you received?
It’s strange, but when I was in graduate school, I attended an entrepreneurial seminar that consisted of a panel of three heads of different start-ups. When asked if they would do it all over again now that they know how hard it was, they all said “no.” Dreams nearly shattered, I left that conference hall in a daze, but over the next two years, I spent a lot of time thinking about the challenges, sacrifices, and necessary motivations required to get through the “start-up” phase of a company.
What is a habit that contributes to your success?
I put a lot of faith in my team. I work with the smartest, most capable people I’ve ever met. Yet, I have a personality that makes it impossible for me to keep my mouth shut if there is something that doesn’t feel right technically or operationally. The important thing is, when my team doesn’t have a satisfactory answer on the spot for one of my many questions, I trust that they respect my concern and will do their best to address the issue when they can. It’s funny, but it seems like the surest way to maintain your team members’ motivations is just to trust their motivations in the first place.
What people or organizations do you believe best embody the innovation mindset?
We would love to acknowledge two of our partners who share in our pursuit of innovation. The Multi Scale Additive Manufacturing (MSAM) lab at the University of Waterloo has allowed us to make use of their CT equipment and are always pushing forward development within the AM field. The Barnes Group Advisors are also proud partners that have expert knowledge in integrating the additive manufacturing process into production and a passion for training the manufacturing industry.
How is your organization changing the game within your industry sector?
Expanse Microtechnologies is a company that helps manufacturers answer questions about their materials and manufacturing processes. We create cutting-edge inspection tools to address critical questions within additive manufacturing, fibre-reinforced composites and other advanced manufacturing fields. In industry, you have fast-paced research needs which sometimes aren’t compatible with the pace of academia; however, the truly exciting equipment and bright ideas are often only found in academic labs. Expanse Microtechnologies bridges the space between industry and academia. Our aim is to create tools with our academic partners and provide these as products and services to our industrial clients, specifically focusing on exploiting the capabilities of high-end microscale X-ray CT technology.
What are some of the biggest impediments to innovation in your industry sector?
In the two main industries we service (additive manufacturing and composites), process monitoring on the microscale is an impediment to taking parts beyond the prototyping stage. In additive manufacturing, this means understanding the layering process from the building block powders through to the final part. Powders are the key point of interest across this whole supply chain. Understanding what makes a good powder that spreads and prints well is a key concern for companies. It’s important to understand the ideal shape or size distribution, as well as to reduce the defects in powders like inclusions and intraparticle porosity. These issues oftentimes get trapped in a part and can directly lead to cracks and part failure.
In short and long fibre-reinforced composites, the orientation and length of the ~10 micron diameter fibre are driving the mechanical properties of the part. Modelling software is helpful to predict moulding and strength, but process monitoring with visualization is challenging to measure. High-resolution CT imaging plays a critical role in quality control and provides input data for modelling part manufacturing to overcome this impediment.
How has innovation become engrained in your organization’s culture and how is it being optimized?
While we’re working with advanced materials and helping develop new manufacturing processes, innovation is a key part of Expanse’s culture. We’re often pushing ourselves to develop and test new analysis algorithms to meet the needs of our clients. In house, we are constantly testing and calibrating our analysis to meet our own high standards. Expanse is also developing new analytical tools and automating our past work to improve efficiency for ourselves and speed up process monitoring for our clients. We’re excited for our own work to help validate the boundaries being pushed by our manufacturing partners.
What technologies, business models, and trends will drive the biggest changes in your industry over the next two years?
In the next two years, I think the continued adoption and growth of additive manufacturing will drive the biggest changes in part design and light-weighting for aerospace and defence applications. It is very exciting but can also be a very cumbersome technology to get print quality at the level where you need it. Expanse and I think that integrating CT analysis early into a manufacturer’s research and development process will continue to ease this barrier to adoption. The data provided by the thousands of CT cross-sections with digital image analysis and computer vision will continue to be a more robust option than traditional metallography techniques. With stringent FAA regulations on using additive manufactured parts in aerospace (or FDA in the medical industry), part qualification will continue to be a must, with similar critical performance specifications for the defence industry.
What is your parting piece of advice?
To anyone in a young company filled with bright minds and grand ambitions, keep your eyes open for ideas and opportunities. Surround yourself with people that aren’t afraid to speak their mind. Know that work ethic is highly contagious.