January 15, 2018

Ex-Pratt engineers lift their Addaero manufacturing venture

HBJ Photo | Gregory Seay
HBJ Photo | Gregory Seay
Addaero co-owners David Hill (left) and Richard Merlino say additive opened opportunities to them.
Gregory Seay

A pair of former Pratt & Whitney engineers got off to a fast start once they opted to venture three years ago into the additive-manufacturing space with their own enterprise, Addaero Inc.

President Richard J. Merlino of Vernon and Operations Vice President David Hill of Farmington, plus two others, launched their New Britain company in Aug. 2014, occupying a 6,600-square-foot portion of the old Fafnir Bearings plant on John Street.

Four months later, with funding from Hartford Economic Development Corp. (HEDCO), CIC in Hamden and Webster Bank, they acquired their first additive machine, a Swedish-made Arcam Model A2X electron-beam unit that cost $1 million, Merlino said.

In rapid order, Addaero acquired another Arcam, plus a pair of EOS M290s, which rely on a laser to fashion intricately shaped parts from metallic powders. Addaero technicians are adept at using blueprints or actual 3-D models to generate the final products, Hill said.

"This is pretty new technology,'' Hill said.

Addaero's skills as a custom additive-manufacturing job-shop have brought aboard the National Aeronautics and Space Administration among other large corporate or high-profile clients that it cannot name due to client-confidentiality pacts.

"We build parts for most of the major aerospace [original equipment manufacturers],'' Merlino said. Addaero will generate about $1 million in revenue this year.

According to Merlino, Addaero begins with a computer-aided-design (CAD) model of a component provided by customers. Its technicians prepare the CAD model and set up the 3-D printer. The part is formed by welding powdered metal under a high-heat and vacuum environment within the Arcam and EOS machine, a process that is repeated layer on top of layer. Once completed, the excess powder is removed, revealing the almost-finished product. Now solid metal, the part is ready for final finishing, like grinding and polishing, before being packaged and shipped to the customer, he says.

Despite its rapid ascent, few outside additive manufacturing know about Addaero and its talent, Hill and Merlino said.

"What we realized,'' Merlino said, "is based on [customer] feedback, we do a pretty good job. But nobody knows what we do.''

However, Addaero successfully drew the attention of Connecticut's startup technology promoters at quasi-public Connecticut Innovations Inc. (CI), and particularly its CTNext arm, which recently awarded $25,000 to Addaero to market itself to a wider audience.

Currently, Addaero is working with a marketing consultant and with students in Central Connecticut State University's graphics-design department, to create a company logo, brochures and other marketing materials.

"Stuff we can't do,'' Merlino said.

The closest Merlino and Hill come to any sort of structured marketing for Addaero, they say, are their daily blog and LinkedIn posts to the broader engineering community about the latest metallic powders, other new materials and designs.

CTNext's "Growth Company Grant Program'' targets startups under 10 years old, typically too young to qualify for venture capital, but that can demonstrate a viable product or service, and have increased their revenue at least 20 percent in the last three years. To date, according to CI spokesperson Lauren Carmody, CTNext has dispensed $62,481.50 to four recipients.

Merlino, 41, a UMass mechanical engineering grad from Vernon, was in Pratt's sales operation, hawking its engine-repair packages to airlines and air-charter operators.

Hill, a mechanical engineer with a degree from Virginia Tech who grew up in Baltimore, worked in Pratt's partnership office managing its relationships with partners like German jet-engine builder MTU Aero Engines.

Together, they say they saw additive manufacturing as an opportunity to go into business for themselves.

"We knew this was going to be a big technology for the [aerospace] industry,'' Merlino said.

Indeed, a number of other small additive-manufacturing and 3-D printing job shops have sprung up in Connecticut, clustered close to the aerospace firms and submarine builders in this state.

Merlino and Hill say they envision someday establishing an "Addaero University," where customers, sales prospects and manufacturing-engineering pupils come to learn about additive technologies.

"It's all about education,'' Merlino said.

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