FINE METAL POWDERS NOW A HOT TOPIC
Text: Thomas Masuch; Photos: LPW, Höganäs, Linde
Just as high-quality dishes call for only the best ingredients, metal powders are key elements of innovative and reliable components in Additive Manufacturing. A number of international corporations have recently developed a taste for the production of and market for fine powder, which is making the surrounding industry even more dynamic.
Two years ago, the long-standing German corporation Linde officially opened the new Global Development Center Additive Manufacturing (GDC) just a few kilometers north of Munich. For Linde, which generates around €17 billion in revenue each year, Additive Manufacturing was »a hot topic« in the words of Pierre Forêt, who established the GDC and oversees it today.
Linde had actually already come into contact with the world of 3D metal printing over a period of several years: Argon, nitrogen, and the other industrial gases the corporation sells flow through countless powder atomization systems around the world, and also see use in the inner workings of Additive Manufacturing equipment.
»Now, powder quality and price are becoming extremely important.«
BIG NAMES ENTERING THE MARKET
Since Linde supplies numerous material manufacturers across the globe, Forêt was in an excellent position to observe the industry‘s development. »In the past, the market for materials was shaped by a large number of smaller manufacturers,« he recalls. »Now the big corporations are getting involved.« Some of these heavy hitters are bringing with them considerable expertise in the traditional production of metal powders used in sintering. In Forêt’s eyes, this and the impressive financial clout such corporations wield are significantly accelerating the entire industry’s progress toward higher quality and greater volume.
Sweden‘s Höganäs, which supplies 500,000 tons of metal powder for various applications every year, is another corporation that now views the growth in metals for Additive Manufacturing (AM) as »very exciting« according to Rachel Spieczny, Höganäs‘s lead AM consultant. Spieczny believes this is based on the exponential growth seen in production quantities over the past 6 to 12 months.
At the same time, the number of metals available has also risen significantly. As Pierre Forêt explains, the nickel alloys and different types of tool steel commonly known from traditional machining have increased the acceptance of Additive Manufacturing – particularly among SMEs – and opened the door to many new applications.
NO MAKEUP IN PRODUCTION AREAS
In the city of Widnes (near Liverpool), England, construction is under way on a new powder factory that will boast an annual production capacity of up to 1,000 tons. The British powder manufacturer LPW plans to cut the ribbon on the over 9,000-square-meter facility by the end of 2017. When it does, the factory will be looking to set all-new standards in quality as the world‘s largest site dedicated to AM powder production.
For chief operating officer Ben Ferrar, ongoing advancements in quality will play a central role in the years ahead. »Users are achieving higher and higher production levels, so future innovations will mainly emerge in the form of quality improvements in existing metal powders, « he reports. For an international corporation like LPW, which currently employs 100 people and sells 200 tons of AM powder each year, continuing to reduce impurities in its products is a primary concern. »That‘s why our employees in clean-room manufacturing won’t be allowed to wear makeup or jewelry, for example,« Ferrar explains, adding that such efforts are to make Widnes the home of the purest metal powders in the world.
Powder handling is one of the crucial issues in AM. Photo: LPW
Linde's »ADDvance O2 Precision« is a measurement and analysis system that monitors atmospheric conditions inside 3D printing machines. Photo: Linde
Argon handling within powder production. Photo: LPW
Powder production at Höganäs. Photo: Höganäs
Meanwhile, the quest for ever-increasing material quality is no longer limited to the production process. »Atomization is only the first step,« points out Pierre Forêt, who goes on to explain the importance of how powder is handled. Various methods are used in packaging alone, from simple plastic bags to containers filled with inert gas.
Powder handling is one of the crucial issues in AM for Ben Ferrar, as well. »With every process step, there‘s the potential for the powder to change,« he reveals. At formnext, LPW will be unveiling a comprehensive solution that covers everything from orders and transport to storage and material analysis while making it possible to track the origin of the powder used in each manufactured component.
A POTENTIAL 50% DECLINE IN PRICES
When new facilities begin pumping greater volumes into the market, changes in the price of materials will likely not be far behind. According to Pierre Forêt, a price decline of 50% or more on certain metal powders would come as little surprise in the coming years. Rachel Spieczny, meanwhile, has seen user perceptions change in this regard. »Until recently, metal AM was focused on prototyping; the price of metal powder didn’t play a central role in decision-making,« she says. »Now, powder quality and price are becoming extremely important.«
Since higher production quantities mean higher sales in industrial gases, Linde is also profiting from the market‘s growth. Manufacturing titanium powder, for example, requires large amounts of argon. A corresponding powder atomization machine consumes up to 2,500 cubic meters of this noble gas every hour. Gas alone thus accounts for a significant proportion of production costs.
To optimize its production operations, Linde is working with its customers on an argon recycling system. While this system would cut into the corporation‘s revenues, Pierre Forêt believes that »it‘s also in our interest to see the industry advance as a whole.«
- Höganäs / Linde AG / LPW auf der formnext 2017: 3.0-G10 / 3.0-E91 / 3.1-D48