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Guns, Rods ... And Titanium

Jan 16 2014, 11:46am CST | by

Guns, Rods ... And Titanium

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To call Dave Lamoureux a fishing enthusiast would be an understatement. He set a new record, catching a 157-pound Bluefin tuna from his kayak off the coast of Cape Cod in 2009.

A former Wall Street commodities trader, Lamoureux started to design his own fishing rods out of titanium because his standard rods (aluminum/steel) rusted so fast while he was out on the water. In any summer season, he’d find himself needing to buy two or three new ones.

The experience of making his own rods inspired Lamoureux to explore designing other products with titanium. This led to the creation of not one, but two companies that are now taking off in a unique mode of titanium design and manufacturing.

“Basically our problem is, we have so many companies that hear about us and call about manufacturing for them, we have to turn them down,” Lamoureux told me when we spoke recently via Skype.

The sports fishing market was the natural one to start with, and his company Fortitude Fishing manufactures rods, hooks, reels, nets and more that are less than half the price of their aluminum and steel counterparts.

“We started out with the fishing because I knew the industry well, but most importantly, because– one: there was no one in the industry, and two: it fit every application titanium needed. It needed strength to weight, but it’s also biocompatible with fish when you’re talking about the hooks.”

When you take the fish off a titanium hook and let it go, it actually heals, said Lamoureux. “Usually a fish doesn’t survive more than a few days because they become prey or they die from disease because of the open wound in their mouth. If a rusty steel hook sits there, it keeps the wound open. It’s a myth that the fish swims away and survives. Especially down in a warmer climate where a shark can always sniff them out in a reef.”

But the best thing, Lamoureux said, is titanium’s performance in salt water. “It’s impervious to corrosion.” And Fortitude offers a lifetime warranty to back this up.

What’s the secret behind titanium?

“Ever since CNC Milling came about (computer numerical control) and aluminum prices went down to around a dollar per pound– it’s a low melting point metal, and relatively soft metal– manufacturing lighter metal products has become simple.”

“It’s almost like it became white collar,” he added. “You have all these white collar engineers that can sit down at a laptop, design a product, and press ‘send’ –and it either goes to a 3D printer or a CNC milling machine.

“One thing we’ve done is –although we do use all computer driven machinery– we’ve added a little bit more of a human factor. It’s almost going into more traditional aspects of milling because with titanium we eliminate all expensive forms of production.”

While titanium is known as the strongest, lightest metal, any time you have to work with heat: welding it, melting it down, for casting, it becomes prohibitively expensive, Lamoureux told me. “And that stems from the fact that you have to do the manufacturing in an inert environment. Otherwise the metal become brittle.”

In general terms, this means cutting or welding must be done in an environment where the titanium is protected from oxygen and nitrogen by intert gas shielding (using argon, or a mixture of argon and helium).

Lamoureux and his partners developed a proprietary technology to get around this process, by cutting out the application of heat. No one has ever done this before, he said, and at the present Lamoureux and his partners do not share the technical details. A patent is pending on a new machine to make some of the key machine components of this process./>/>

Which brings us to the market his second company Amalgamated Titanium International Corporation is manufacturing for: the arms industry.

Everyone’s tried to make titanium guns,” he said. “And they have–but they’re exceptionally expensive.” A chief reason being gun makers would copy the existing designs, as opposed to designing the product according to the properties of titanium.

“Think about the old Colt .45,” said Lamoureux. “Plenty of people have made these in titanium, they’re crazy expensive –and they all have the exact same dimensions; every part has the same thickness as the original designed for steel. If you only need half the metal in titanium, why use twice as much as you need?”

These sound like simple problems, he added, but for 30 years people in the arms industry have tried and not been able to do it.

Amalgamated is already mass producing supplemental pieces, for example, for the AR 15 for the U.S. Armed Forces. Given the amount of equipment soldiers in the field have to carry apart from their weapons, anything that shrinks the weight of a rifle without sacrificing any of the durability, is going to be a major advance.

In addition, as with the fishing equipment, the titanium components are impervious to corrosion, another advantage to soldiers in wildly varying environments. “Durability is a huge issue especially when you talk about cleaning arms and equipment,” said Lamoureux.

The contrast between the two markets, guns and rods is fascinating in itself.

“Especially in the fishing markets–like sports fishing. It isn’t that technologically advanced. A very slow-to-change industry. Whereas the arms industry is not slow-to-change. They embrace technology. But everyone looks for the easiest way to do things, they try and take titanium and push it into their casting machines. And into their milling and CNC machines. So they try and force a material to be used like aluminum or steel–that really shouldn’t be.

“What we did was develop a technology around the basic premises of the metal.”

There are two cost centers for titanium. “There’s mining it, and that’s where all the governments put their money. It’s the easiest way to get the price of titanium down on a mass scale. But that also entails, if they come up with something new, building brand new capital equipment structures, factories, massive ones. So, all the money goes on that side.

“Where no one really spent the money or has done the research was on the other side. Once you mine it and separate it from its root element, and you have the raw metal, there’s a huge cost equation, and that’s manufacturing. Not just because of the inert environment you need –titanium is also really hard on tooling. So, your costs go through the roof from a tooling perspective, machine downtime, changing out bits on a much more frequent basis. Those are very large expense issues.”

Lamoureux buys the raw material at the same price everyone else. “But if we apply our technology, we can produce our goods at roughly the same cost as aluminum or steel goods.”

Training is key.

“We mix a lot of engineering. We do some special sourcing. But, everything now is so specialized where, if you have an engineer who has to design something, they might be a design engineer, or a mechanical engineer, or a chemical engineer. Usually they’re never all three. Plus, they have to be a process engineer. So, we have four engineering disciplines that we have to train our personnel in, to be able to design, not only the product, but the production technique to fit our machines.”

What about mass producing titanium products for the healthcare market, I asked him./>/>

At the present it wouldn’t make sense.

“Even a small implant for a knee joint is around $1800,” said Lamoureux. “So, it’s not really a mass-production item. They size it for every person, and right now I think a lot of these titanium items are being 3D printed. Extremely expensive per item, but it’s easy to deliver. You size someone, input it on the computer, and download it to a 3D printer.”

And the market is already crowded.

“When we look for industries, we don’t want to find any competitors participating there now. A massive company can produce and sell at a loss for an extended time just to compete with us. If you go into an area, like medical, where there’s already a lot of people and some big companies, they would just sell at a loss, just so we can’t get a foothold.”

The new market on the horizon? The petrochemical industry– producing, for one example, titanium valves for oil pipelines.

So it seems that Lamoureux and his partners have come a long way from that first titanium fishing rod he designed himself. But they are confident there are many more markets to explore.

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Source: Forbes

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