Powder Metallurgy/Metal Powders – Niche to watch out for!

Vom traditionellen Forschungslabor in eine industrialisierte Produktionsfabrik

Thanks to the recent product development and vast investment throughout the world, the metal powder industry has been growing so much and yet it seems it has not really taken off, nor the sceptic have been satisfied. Many countries acknowledge that this is one of the technologies a country has to have a competitiveness in today or in the near future and so coming up with a long term industrial plan focusing on it. Thus, developments can be seen almost on a daily basis in every region of the world. However or perhaps because of this rapid development and vast choices players in the market seem to be ‘frozen’ and do not really bring this development to the market yet.

Most hype in the last years is clearly attributed to additive manufacturing - AM or also 3d printing, although there are other compaction technologies like press&sinter (P&S), metal injection moulding (MIM), hot/cold isostatic pressing (HIP/CIP) as well as coating technologies that offer interesting growth opportunities for the next years.

Especially the cooperation and interaction between the supply (e.g. powder production, machine maker, etc.) and the demand side (e.g. enduser, OEM’s, machine operator, etc.) needs to be improved. Such results can be found of development associations of other industry sectors like the Italian Stainless Steel Development Association - Centro Inox or within the Australian Stainless Steel Development Association - ASSDA, to name only 2 amongst others.

Market Volumes

In terms of market volumes the powder market is far from being small in terms of tonnage, however most of the tonnage today is consumed by P&S using mainly standard or commodity powder. Roughly 5% of the total powder market can be seen as specialty powder market, demanding more advanced powders that are used for special P&S, Coating, HIP, MIM and AM. Over the last years especially the rapid growth of AM can be seen compared to the other compaction technologies, although they are also showing steady growth and are growing due to their acceptance and development in the market place.

CAGR rates from 2016 to 2022 are for coating 5.5%, HIP 6%, MIM 11.6%, AM >30%. Although there exists a certain overcapacity for the supply of special powders, it very much depends on the market development and acceptance by different industries to turn this surplus into a deficit within a few years. Depending on the market development scenarios this deficit can appear as early as 2022, of course also depending on different scenarios on the supply side.

Additive Manufacturing - AM

AM made the way from prototyping to production. The technology, although changes on the printer side are also happening frequently as the users try to find out the best solution for their business case, is ready and also available. Almost on a daily basis key players of different industries show what is possible with AM today, without going into detail here. However the market needs more production examples (metal AM parts are in use, whether in engines, turbines, medical devices or cars) than research examples to really take off. AM comes from prototyping later entered tooling and also part replacement this is followed by part consolidation and is finally playing its full strength in DfAM parts, parts that are designed for AM. The opportunity offered by AM to re-engineer parts or functions should prompt also the development in volumes but requests the willingness of final customers to re-engineer their parts or function and not only by copying what is done today by conventional technologies.

Some of the highlights can be mentioned, GE Additive is the front runner, not only using AM parts but also introducing new printer models (with building envelopes of 1m3 and multiple operating lasers, etc.) that are helping to speed up the market development. Several partnerships to drive this development were announced recently. Also record sales of AM machines confirm the interest from the market, as close to 1,800 metal printers were sold in 2017, bringing the total installed basis to almost 5,800 metal printers, although still many of these machines are installed at R&D centers, universities, etc.

Another area where AM is on its way is the spare part business. Instead of storing tonnes of spare parts and shipping them around the world, they can be printed once they are needed, in the right specification or even in the already improved version.

Low industry standardisation, limited availability of data for simulation software and models, as well as safety related issues present critical areas, the industry needs to work on.

Metal Injection Moulding – MIM

MIM has proofed to be a competitive manufacturing process for smaller precision components that in fact would be more cost intensive to be produced by conventional or other production processes as they would require extensive finish machining or assembly operations. MIM is used because of its capability producing large as well as smaller volumes of complex shapes and special products. The limitation of MIM is the overall part size, with most parts generally not exceeding 250 g today but some players are already capable of making parts weighing a few kilograms. Also the developments in two component MIM parts as well as micro MIM parts are promising for future applications.

Main material used today is stainless steel followed by super alloys. Therefore a high demand of fine powders is present. Beside traditional markets like firearms and medical (mostly USA), automotive and industrial (Europe) as well as electronics (Asia), MIM is now considered by the aerospace industry specifying parts for the next generation of aircraft engines, starting with replacing existing non-critical parts.

Hot Isostatic Pressing - HIP

Most of the installed HIP units are used today for the densification of castings and MIM parts, as well as the usage as post treatment for AM parts is analyzed, diffusion bonding being another application. The most important product line is using PM and HIP process for the production of high speed steel and tool steels. Here the powder is fed in a metallic container (capsule/canister) having the shape of a billet which is then transformed in bars, blocks or wire rod through the conventional forging, rolling and drawing process. Even more HIP has become interesting also as a process to make NNS (near net shape) parts as well as NS (net shape) parts. These products can be found in the oil&gas industry, energy industry as well as process industry and aerospace industry.

The advantages of HIP can clearly be seen to produce parts of much larger sizes (above 5 tons) than it is possible with other PM processes, with a virtually unlimited capability for complex shapes and geometric features. HIP is applicable to difficult-to-compact and expensive materials such as super-alloys, titanium, tool steels, stainless steel, etc. For HIPing most of the installed capacity can be found via service providers like Bodycote but more companies invested in recent years in their own HIP capacity.

Other interesting approaches are also Arconic’s Ampliforge process or Metalvalue’s MMS Scanpac process, the latter to make a bridge between small and medium sized parts. Also the implication of cold spray technology like company Titomic, applying the Titomic Kintetic Fusion (TKF) process for making titanium parts much faster and at much lower costs, is raising attention by several endusers in the market.

Powder Production

For the processes mentioned before mainly special powders with key properties like particle size, particle shape, flow ability, right particle size distribution PSD (that is depending on application), to only name a few, are needed.

Most of these special powders are produced via gas atomisation today, shown to be the process of choice for larger volumes of high quality powders. However, depending on the powder grade and particle size other production technologies are in use or have been developed. An interesting technology is named plasma spheroidisation from Tekna Canada, in which almost any kind of powder input form (crushed HDH, sponge, reduced, water atomised, etc.) can be turned into high quality powder and also used powder or of-spec powder can be recycled and reconditioned to be used again. Powder recycling in general is going o become a hot topic in the near future.

To follow the recent hype in the different technologies a number of players are investing in powder production capacity at the moment and also a number of newcomers will be seen, that were not active in the powder world before.

Conclusion

Powder metallurgy and its technologies is here to stay. Major players (from powder makers, machine makers, and endusers) will focus more on acquiring higher and higher production levels with new applications to gain market dominance. However in order to avoid turning all this hype into a big ‘powder bubble’ it will be of utmost importance for each player to have up-to-date market insights on order to make their business model a successful one.

Data handling will become a very important factor as will be the topic of intellectual property, especially in AM. Theoretically every person who has access to the data can manufacture the product in this industry. Thus data storage, data delivery and data security to block unauthorized access will become a key issues.

As we have experienced major fluctuations from e.g. steel/stainless steel market over the past 10 years, major investment over the entire PM industry will lead to a price decline in raw material and endproduct with up to 40-60% in the next 10 years. EBIT margin allocation among powder maker, equipment maker, and enduser as well as analysis of who has been enjoying the highest margin so far, as well as, can they continue enjoying the same in the future, should be considered.


SMR Premium GmbH was established in May 2015 in Düsseldorf/Germany, as an associated company of Austrian based SMR – Steel & Metals Market Research GmbH, with the focus of providing market volumes, market structures and competitor analysis as well as market forecasts in the world of high value metals & markets, with a focus on Remelted Steels, Forged Products and High Value Metals (Powder Metallurgy, Ti, etc.). As a boutique consultancy, any project will be customized to the client’s strategic needs.


Autor

Benedikt BLITZ, Managing Director SMR Premium GmbH

SMR Premium is managed by Benedikt Blitz as Managing Partner who has been a market analyst with SMR – Steel & Metals Market Research GmbH in Austria for almost 10 years. Benedikt holds a degree in Process Technology and Environmental Technology. For more details see www.smr-premium.com.

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