Formnext 2018 was, as anticipated, the key event for the Additive Manufacturing industry this year. The floor space was dominated by the major machine manufacturers, with plenty of smaller support companies displaying their solutions for powder handling, screening, testing, etc. Naturally, without metal powder it would be impossible to produce parts using the Powder Bed Fusion technologies which form the core of existing metal AM applications, so it is interesting to follow the developments in this area, to understand the trends in the market and to consider what the supply situation will be in the future – will there be a metal powder shortage, or perhaps over-supply? Will prices come down? Not counting OEMs, some thirty different metal powder producers/sellers exhibited at this year’s show, offering a range of perspectives in this area.
There were a couple of relatively major events in the AM metal powder industry this year, one of which was Carpenter Technology’s purchase of AM powder specialist LPW Technology. The Carpenter–LPW development was announced only a few weeks before Formnext, allowing little time for integration ahead of the show; the large LPW booth displayed a Carpenter logo, but there was no separate Carpenter Technology booth. Integration is now reported to be underway with an emphasis on servicing current customers at both companies. The Summer 2018 issue of Metal Additive Manufacturing magazine (Vol. 4 No. 2) gives a detailed overview of LPW’s activities and its new facility dedicated to AM powder.
Carpenter Powder Products is one of the largest producers of gas atomised powder with a full range of alloys, including titanium following its acquisition of Puris LLC in 2017. It will be interesting to see how the combination with LPW works out; CPP-LPW will without doubt be a powerful powder supplier, with substantial production capacity.
Höganäs AB’s acquisition of H.C. Starck’s Surface Coating Powder Division (STC) was completed in March 2018. This is an interesting combination of a very high volume automotive and industrial metal powder producer with a more specialised powder company which primarily produces powders for thermal spray applications. STC has Vacuum Induction Melting (VIM)-based production technology and expertise in finer powder fractions, and it has been indicated that there was little overlap in the product portfolios. Höganäs intends to grow the AM business and will, it has stated, invest as needed for additional capacity. With Höganäs in the AM powder market, it is expected that there will be a further expansion of the supply base in the direction of higher volumes and lower costs.
Höganäs AB’s main competitor in the automotive powder business is the closely-named Hoeganaes Corporation (formerly the US subsidiary of the Swedish firm) and today part of GKN Powder Metallurgy. GKN announced in February 2018 that it intends to divest GKN Powder Metallurgy within twelve to eighteen months. GKN Powder Metallurgy has also announced a cooperation with HP Inc on its new metal Additive Manufacturing system, the HP Metal Jet, to produce high-volume industrial and automotive parts and, at Formnext, a strategic partnership with EOS was also announced.
GKN occupied a large booth at Formnext which primarily promoted its AM part manufacturing; however, it is expected that GKN Powder Metallurgy will continue to target AM powder sales following the divestment, given recent investments in AM powder-related R&D and the resulting range of AncorAM powders specifically designed for Additive Manufacturing, including AncorTi CP and AncorTi 6Al4V, as well as nickel and ferrous-based materials.
Metallurgical companies move into the powder business
The business for wrought high alloys steels is dominated by a handful of companies with deep metallurgical expertise. A few of these have also been in the powder business: Carpenter Technology, Sandvik AB, Aubert & Duval, Erasteel and Boehler-Uddeholm. The latter two companies primarily produce PM high speed steel for internal use.
An interesting trend is that such metallurgical companies are now interested in the powder business for AM and are building new facilities as a result. They are also taking the step to learn more about the technology, offering build parameters for their powders and even forward integrating with in-house AM part production.
This has to be seen as good news for the AM industry, since more metallurgical knowledge will help establish new advanced applications and accelerate acceptance. However, it is less positive news for anyone looking to start a new powder company: pre-established metallurgical companies can support customers technically, develop new alloys and expand production capacity by building large plants. The cost of an atomiser – or five – is insignificant compared to a typical rolling mill with large-scale melting.
In February this year, Sandvik announced a $25 million investment in Sweden to build a new powder facility with VIM atomisers for nickel alloys and titanium alloys. This will be complementary to the Osprey plant in South Wales, UK, which has high-volume production of Metal Injection Moulding and AM powders and may add aluminium alloys in 2019. Sandvik also has a corporate R&D centre with a significant number of AM machines. At Formnext, Sandvik’s Osprey metal powder business co-exhibited with Sandvik’s Additive Manufacturing business, which offers both development support and manufacturing services for external clients as well as in-house application development.
Boehler Edelstahl has two VIM atomisers with 250 kg and 500 kg melting furnaces. This is impressively supported by EOS, SLM Solutions, Renishaw and Trumpf AM machines. A patented 50-57 HRC tool steel, developed for AM, is already available (Böhler W360). Perhaps we’ll see cheaper and better alternatives to the standard maraging 300, 18% Ni now used extensively in AM. Several nickel alloys are also available from Boehler.
VDM Metals is a leading metallurgical company producing nickel-based superalloys. Not historically a powder producer, VDM now has a VIGA system and will focus on Ni alloys including its own speciality alloys, such as VDM Powder 780, a 718-type alloy with 100°C higher operating temperature. Build parameters are developed by VDM with partners. Nickel alloys are of course used for high-value parts and are excellent candidates for AM, and the opportunity is there for metallurgical companies to leverage alloy know-how with Laser-Beam Powder Bed Fusion expertise to come up with unique solutions for their customer base.
From thermal spray to Additive Manufacturing
As mentioned earlier, Höganäs AB is now in the thermal spray business via STC and is leveraging this towards AM. The two main thermal spray companies are Metco and Praxair Surface Technologies; Metco, the first company to commercialise thermal spraying, is now owned by Oerlikon – a company that has emerged as a major force in the world of metal Additive Manufacturing.
One natural attraction of AM for thermal spray companies is that the Laser Powder Bed size 15-45 µm is also a standard size for plasma spray and High Velocity Oxygen Fuel (HVOF) spray coatings. Consequently, thermal spray companies have appropriate atomising and screening expertise as well as good procedures for recycling off-size powder.
Oerlikon AM exhibited both metal powders and AM parts at Formnext, the latter as a result of its acquisition of AM part producer citim GmbH two years ago. The company has expanded its powder production with a new plant in the USA that operates VIM atomisers with 250 kg and 1000 kg capacity, as well as a titanium atomiser. All are aimed primarily at AM.
Praxair has a considerable business in AM powder. The company has several large VIM atomisers that supply high-end TS alloys such as CoNiCrAl – perfect for IN718 and other advanced alloys. Additionally, Praxair has a titanium gas atomiser with a patented nozzle for making alloys with high yield and in-house AM facilities to support the development of AM materials.
Ti-6Al-4V and other alloys manufactured with the Plasma Atomised Wire (PAW) process have gained wide acceptance in the AM industry. AP&C and Tekna were both at Formnext, the former as part of GE Additive. Both companies have or will increase production capacity significantly and it can be expected that these French-Canadian companies will see more local competition from PyroGenesis, which now has a production atomiser installed and is offering powder from stock. It was reported that PyroGenesis has an atomiser dedicated to Ti-6Al-4V to provide the best quality powder without cross contamination and the company has also developed good controls over particle size distribution and can tailor runs from MIM to laser to electron beam AM processes. This can increase the effective capacity of in-size yields over other PAW processes. Further systems are reportedly planned to expand the alloy offering.
Sino-Euro Materials Technologies (SMT) makes titanium alloys and Inconel with a high-speed Plasma Rotate Electrode Process (PREP) machine. The powder has a considerably finer size than traditional PREP and can be used for electron and laser beam PBF applications. The powder quality is extremely high and, arguably, better than PAW. The starting material for this powder is bar rather than wire, adding flexibility and lowering raw material cost.
Praxair remains the only high-volume producer of gas atomised titanium alloys. Several companies with Electrode Induction Melting Inert Gas Atomisation (EIGA) systems were at Formnext and offered titanium alloys, but no particular emphasis on EIGA titanium powders was observed, so it may be that much of this powder goes through OEMs.
The metal powder business has always had a number of speciality producers that make powder for different market segments. Many of these have now turned their attention to AM to satisfy the need for alloys and powder types not covered by the larger producers or even OEMs. Some examples include:
- Turkey’s SentisBIR, which makes cobalt alloys and is offering powders for the AM of dental parts
- Hereaus, which makes precious materials and several speciality alloys. Heraeus is offering AM powders to complement its product line, as well as Scalmalloy. Hereaus has several types of LB-PBF machines as well as Arcam EBM systems.
- Kymera International is the umbrella company for three major powder producers; ECKA Granules, SCM Metal Products and ACuPowders. Whilst its traditional market is Powder Metallurgy, Kymera is now offering the AM industry copper and Cu alloys, bronze, brass and aluminium alloys. It also supplies tin and zinc powder, but it is somewhat unlikely that these will ever account for significant AM tonnage.
- US Metal Powders (USMP) is producing inert gas atomised aluminium alloy powder from its Poudres Hermillon operation in France, including AlSi10Mg and 6061. Custom alloy chemistries can be made and the powder size is tailored to LB-PBF as well as -30 µm powder for Binder Jetting.
China and Japan
CNPC Powder in China has set up a large powder plant with nine atomisers and a capacity of 3000 Mt per year. Equipment includes VIGA and EIGA atomisation to cover all alloys from stainless steels and nickel alloys to aluminium and titanium. The range is impressive, and we could see volume shipments begin in 2019.
The December 2018 issue of PIM International magazine includes an extensive list of Chinese powder producers, which are in many cases expanding from MIM to AM powder.
Japan was represented by Sanyo Specialty Steel and Osaka Titanium Technologies, who shared a booth. Sanyo has VIGA for stainless steel and nickel alloys, whilst Osaka Titanium has several titanium powder production technologies. The company is a high-quality titanium sponge powder producer and has expanded with EIGA atomisation. As an integrated producer, Osaka Titanium may have some advantages over pure atomising companies.
The most positive trend is that more companies are taking AM seriously and investing money and R&D resources accordingly. We can expect significant developments on the alloy side as well as in powder quality.
The powder supply situation is very good – from an end user perspective. The capacity in place now, plus the increases over the next year, can easily cover any need for the foreseeable future. Perhaps the greater challenge is to pick a supplier from the increasing number of AM powder producers and distributors.
Entering the AM powder market as a new producer is becoming more difficult, with an increasingly crowded field of manufacturers that now include metallurgically competent suppliers; there are some market opportunities in underserved alloys systems, but even these are in the sights of current powder producers.
Some softness in powder prices was also discussed at Formnext. Prices are now driven downwards by a higher degree of competition, as well as increased direct selling by powder producers which is reducing price mark-ups by middlemen. However, truly low powder prices will only arrive when consumption increases and larger and more rational production units can be used; the AM powder volume currently remains very low compared to Powder Metallurgy markets. Interestingly, the prices of powders used in Binder Jetting are low, since the technology can piggyback on a > 12,000 ton/year MIM market. Many more Formnext exhibitions will come and go before we see this kind of volume in metal Additive Manufacturing.
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