Rhodium powder pressed melted

Metal powders: a niche to watch!

Despite product developments and vast investments around the world, the metal powder industry has not yet really taken off, nor have the sceptics been satisfied. Acknowledging that this is a technology for which home-grown expertise is essential for competitiveness, many countries are developing a powder metallurgy industry. As a result developments can be seen almost on a daily basis in every region of the world.
 
Yet, perhaps because of this rapid development and the vast choices available, players in the market seem to be ‘frozen’ and are not really bringing these developments to the market yet.

Article by Benedikt BLITZ, Managing Director SMR Premium - High Value Metals Market Research, Germany
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The most hype in recent years is clearly attributed to additive manufacturing (AM or also 3D printing), although there are other compaction technologies such as press & sinter (P&S), metal injection moulding (MIM), hot/cold isostatic pressing (HIP/CIP) as well as coating technologies that offer interesting growth opportunities. In particular, 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. The success of such cooperation can be seen in associations in other industry sectors, for example the Italian Stainless Steel Development Association - Centro Inox or the Australian Stainless Steel Development Association - ASSDA.

Market volumes

In terms of market volumes the powder market is significant in terms of tonnage, however most is consumed by P&S using mainly standard or commodity powder. Roughly 5% of the total powder market can be seen as a specialty powder market, demanding more advanced powders that are used for special P&S, Coating, HIP, MIM and AM. 

In recent years AM has grown rapidly compared to other compaction technologies, although they are also showing steady growth, acceptance and development in the market place. Compound annual growth rate (CAGR) 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 could appear as early as 2020, of course also depending on different scenarios on the supply side.

Additive Manufacturing - AM

AM has moved from prototyping to production. The technology is ready and available. On a daily basis key players from different industries are demonstrating what is possible with AM today. However the market needs more production examples (e.g. metal AM parts in use in engines, turbines, medical devices or cars) to really take off. AM started with prototyping, then moved to tooling and part replacement, then part consolidation and is now finally playing its full strength in DfAM parts (parts that are designed for AM). The opportunities offered by AM to re-engineer parts or functions should also prompt an increase in volume, but requires the willingness of final customers to reengineer their parts and not simply copy what is done with conventional technologies.

Some recent highlights should 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 market development. Several partnerships to drive this development were announced recently. Also record sales of AM machines confirm the interest from the market, although 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 when needed, in the right specification or even as an improved version. Low industry standardisation, limited availability of data for simulation software and models, as well as safety related issues present critical areas that the industry needs to work on.

Metal Injection Moulding – MIM

MIM has proved to be a competitive manufacturing process for smaller precision components that in fact would be more cost intensive if produced by conventional or other production processes as they would require extensive finish machining or assembly operations. MIM is used because of its capability to produce 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 although some players are capable of making parts weighing a few kilograms. The development of two-component MIM parts and micro MIM parts are promising for future applications.

The 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 when specifying parts for the next generation of aircraft engines, starting with the replacement of non-critical parts.

Hot Isostatic Pressing - HIP

Most installed HIP units are used today for the densification of castings and MIM parts, as well as post treatment for AM parts. The most important use of PM and HIP processes are 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 into bars, blocks or wire rod through the conventional forging, rolling and drawing process. HIP has also become interesting to make NNS (near net shape) and NS (net shape) parts. These products can be found in the oil & gas, energy process and aerospace industries.

The advantages of HIP can clearly be seen when producing 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 difficultto- 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 in recent years more companies have invested in their own HIP capacity.

Other interesting approaches are Aloca’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 gaining attention from several end users in the market.

Powder production

The processes mentioned require mainly special powders with key properties such as particle size, particle shape, flow ability, right particle size distribution PSD (that is depending on application), to only name a few.

Most of these special powders are produced via gas atomisation, which is 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 plasma spheriodisation 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; furthermore used powder or off-spec powder can be recycled and reconditioned to be used again.

To follow the recent hype in the different technologies a number of players are currently investing in powder production capacity. A number of newcomers are also expected to appear.

Conclusion

Powder metallurgy and its technologies are here to stay. Major players (powder makers, machine makers, and end users) will focus more on acquiring increased 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 in 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 key issues.

Major investments over the entire PM industry will lead to a price decline in raw materials and end products by up to 40-60% in the next 10 years. EBIT margin allocation among powder makers, equipment makers, and end users as well as analysis of who has been enjoying the highest margin so far, and whether they will continue to do so in future, should be considered.

Powder production

The processes mentioned require mainly special powders with key properties such as particle size, particle shape, flow ability, right particle size distribution PSD (that is depending on application), to only name a few.

Most of these special powders are produced via gas atomisation, which is 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 plasma spheriodisation 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; furthermore used powder or off-spec powder can be recycled and reconditioned to be used again.

To follow the recent hype in the different technologies a number of players are currently investing in powder production capacity. A number of newcomers are also expected to appear.

About the author

Benedikt Blitz is Managing Partner of SMR Premium and holds a degree in Process Technology and Environmental Technology. SMR Premium is an associated company of Austrian based SMR – Steel & Metals Market Research GmbH, with a focus on providing market volumes, market structures and competitor analysis as well as market forecasts in the world of high value metals & markets. It has a focus on remelted steels, forged products and high value metals (powder metallurgy, Ti, etc.). 

For more details see www.smr-premium.com.
Powder particle size range for different fabrication methods (SMR Premium)
Powder particle size range for different fabrication methods (SMR Premium)
 

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