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How iCOMAT got on NATO's radar

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The startup's robotics technology that makes lighter vehicles and planes and the development of its own factory

Mr. Zimbeloudis does not rule out the possibility of creating a production unit in Greece as well

Why did NATO invest? “There is no other player in the market with matching technology. With our robotic machines, vehicle components, from cars, planes to spaceships, become lighter and more efficient. For example, a component located on the underside of the wing of a passenger aircraft can with our technology be produced up to 65% lighter compared to the use of other technologies, while its production is three times faster.”

< p>This laconic answer is given by the 33-year-old Evangelos Zimbeloudis, founder of the start-up company iCOMAT, a techno-offspring of the University of Bristol, attempting to analyze in “K” the aspects of this technology that has piqued the interest of Jaguar, Formula 1 vehicles and also major players from the aeronautical industry. A technology aimed at high end applications allowing iCOMAT, five years since its foundation, to evolve from a small startup to a high-tech industry with its own factory in Bristol, England. And this a few days after the announcement of the investment of 22.5 million dollars from the innovation fund of NATO and the American 8VC.

“All companies from the automotive and aeronautical industries are now aiming to produce lighter vehicles. The less weight they have, the less fuel they burn when moving.” The problem in the car industry is big. “Imagine electric SUVs weighing over 3 tons.” Key to iCOMAT's technology are carbon fibers, composite materials that make constructions – such as the wing of an airplane, the hood of a car, etc. – lighter compared to aluminum or steel.

“We get the carbon fiber raw material from the industry in tape form. At the same time, we have developed a robotic machine that can twist the direction of the carbon fiber fibers, resulting in the final product being produced with less raw material, faster and at a lower cost.” For example, with the startup's robotic machine the body of a fighter jet is produced 15% lighter and ends up being 30% cheaper. Also, its production is four times faster.

Existing technologies cannot twist the direction of the fibers, while “we achieve this through an automated production method, without causing defects in the material from which a part is made. The fibers are not crushed and the properties of the material are not destroyed.” As he explains, the fiber steering technique has been in the literature since the 80s. “But the problem was that no one could, on an industrial level, make a machine that would twist the direction of the fibers, without creating problems in the material of the component.” Although carbon fiber is a lightweight material, it is not yet widely used in the defense, aerospace, and automotive industries. However, companies such as Airbus and Boeing have replaced metals with composite materials, reducing the weight of ships by around 20%.

In the meantime, iCOMAT is building its own 4,300 square meter factory, equipped with its machinery, in which carbon fiber parts will be manufactured even for spaceships. The amount of the investment reaches 12 million dollars, through funds granted by the UK Space Agency and its investors. “Parts with a maximum length of 6 meters and a width of 3 meters can be manufactured within the factory. So we can make anything for the automotive industry as well,” he emphasizes. “We want to prove that within the factory we can automate the production of carbon fiber parts. Let's transform the raw material into a final product using robotic machines”.

If this is achieved, it does not rule out the possibility of creating a production unit in Greece as well, since, unlike Britain where tariffs are now imposed due to Brexit, the company will thus gain access to the rest of Europe. “Our industry has very high profit margins. We can make something that will sell internationally.” In Greece, it already maintains a design and software team, which it is expected to strengthen with the new funding. “From 30 people who are the team in Greece and England, we intend to reach 50 by the end of the year and over 80 next year.” Later it is likely to acquire offices in Germany and expand to America as well.

The company founder's first contact with carbon fiber came in… windsurfing and canoeing, where he was a champion. “There, the boards we use are made of carbon fiber.” Somehow he began to explore them, discovering their potential. “I saw that there was a future and applied to two universities: Bristol and Imperial to do a masters in carbon fibre. I chose Bristol because it is the biggest hub in the world for this industry.” He also did his doctorate there. When the company was founded, “I got a grant from the British government and later we were financed by the Greek Velocity.Partners”. However, difficulties were not lacking in this whole effort, since Mr. Zibeloudis “ran” the company alone. “Imagine I was doing my PhD and had to go off on my own to 'sell' my technology to Airbus”.

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Source: www.kathimerini.com.cy

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