Efficiency drive: How software for 3D printing could create better machine components

Dr Marco Pietropaoli joined the second round of Imperial’s Techcelerate programme to explore the potential for new software to design complex mechanical components.

“Our software uses state-of-the-art maths models combined with artificial intelligence to design and improve components such as those used in aircraft and car engines,” Dr Pietropaoli explains.

“Twenty years ago, our technology would have been useless but it’s really important right now. The introduction of 3D printing in the aeronautical and automotive industries means we’re able to build really intricate components. Our software is able to find those complex and optimised designs.

We can create more efficient, more resilient and more robust components. They might be lighter, or they might help reduce fuel consumption. The advantage of designing components in this way is what we call ‘robust optimisation, which means they can cope with errors in design data or in manufacture.”Marco Pietropaoli

"...the automotive, aeronautical and energy industries are ready for this technology..."

Dr Marco Pietropaoli

The idea for the software came from Dr Pietropaoli’s PhD supervisor, Dr Francesco Montomoli, Reader in Computational Aerodynamics at Imperial. Working with Dr Audrey Gaymann, then a PhD student in the Department of Aeronautics, they developed the design software for around three years before Dr Pietropaoli began Techcelerate.

Dr Pietropaoli says: “Techcelerate was the best programme I experienced at Imperial because it doesn’t try to do too much. For three months you can focus just on customer discovery.

“In my case, I began with one hypothesis, which was that our product would be useful for the aeronautical industry and I tested that hypothesis by talking to companies in several different sectors.

“I spoke to people in the automotive, energy and appliance industries, as well as the aeronautical industry. I realised that all these different industries have pretty much the same needs and the same problems. All of them want our software to improve their components but they all go at different speeds.

“In our case, the automotive, aeronautical and energy industries are ready for this technology and so they are all good markets for our software.”

Techcelerate was the best programme I experienced at Imperial because it doesn’t try to do too much. For three months you can focus just on customer discovery."

Dr Marco Pietropaoli

Since completing the Techcelerate programme in 2018, Dr Pietropaoli has combined his academic work – graduating from his PhD and developing the technology in the lab – with progressing the startup business, TOffeeAM Ltd. He has benefitted from the Imperial Venture Mentoring Service, run by the Enterprise Lab, which provided two mentors for regular meetings and ongoing advice.

TOffeeAM is run by Dr Pietropaoli, Dr Montomoli and Dr Gaymann, and was incorporated in March 2019. Dr Montomoli recently won a prestigious Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Fellowship with £60 thousand in funding for TOffeeAM.

The team have already secured business from energy giant General Electric and its sister company Baker Hughes, as well as a Formula One racing team.

Dr Pietropaoli continues: “We spent time on creating the legal bones of the company. Then we applied for Entrepreneur First. They are a business incubator who generally hire people with business ideas and invest in those ideas and build teams.

“In our case it was a bit different. They were really interested in our venture, so we skipped the first phase – building teams – and we entered right to the second phase – the launch. They gave us £80 thousand, two months of business coaching and all we needed to prepare for our launch date.

“This is a really important time for us where we are trying to raise the seed-funding we need to scale up the company. For now, we are just three people and we are doing everything, which is a big constraint.”

The TOffeeAM team have recently demonstrated their software at the Entrepreneur First launch. Along with 26 other start-ups, they were given a three-minute slot to pitch to around 500 potential investors.

This was followed by two hours of networking: “We had a stand and investors were coming and asking questions, exchanging business cards and booking meetings for the following days.”

Dr Pietropaoli concludes: “I am really confident. After the launch day, investors are showing lots of interest. These are people who have recently invested in technology related to industrial 3D printing. For them, we are the next step because we have the software to improve the technology that they’re already invested in.”