Traditional and specialty PM technologies are all thriving, according to the Metal Powder Industries Federation.
In all materials, process, and market sectors, the North American powder metallurgy (PM) industry has built on the growth momentum begun last year, according to Matthew Bulger, president of the Metal Powder Industries Federation (MPIF), who recently spoke at PowderMet2012, the 2012 International Conference on Powder Metallurgy & Particulate Materials. Traditional press-and-sinter PM, metal injection molding (MIM), hot isostatic pressing (HIP), and other specialty PM technologies are thriving, Bulger said.
PM is an interconnected technology that innovates and grows by leveraging its different sectors. Looking back at the past two years, one can assume that the industry’s recovery is sustainable. Iron powder shipments soared in 2010 after a terrible previous year. Total iron powder shipments grew modestly in 2011 to 363,831 short tons, a 3% increase. This increase was also achieved despite the shutdown of a major powder supplier’s main plant for two months.
Shipments of copper and copper-based and tin powders gained almost 19% in 2011 to 17,002 short tons. Stainless steel powder shipments increased about 5% to an estimated 7,000 short tons.
Shipments of North American MIM-grade powders, including imports, jumped nearly 40% in 2011. The MIM process continued to garner greater acceptance in the materials marketplace. Some interesting R&D programs include developing MIM ultrasonic dental scaler tips and endodontic tips, and titanium and cobalt chromium alloys for medical implant applications.
The HIP business has also experienced robust growth in 2011 due to a general surge in manufacturing, as well as gains in the oil and gas, tool steel, and aerospace markets. The HIPing of MIM parts continues to be a growing market.
Sustained Growth Ahead
Bulger noted that 2012 began on a very positive note, with rising confidence levels. First quarter shipments of metal powders were up, as well as volumes of PM and MIM parts. U.S. light vehicle sales are expected to top 14 million units this year, up substantially from the 2.8 million units sold in 2011.
Iron powder shipments through April this year rose by 11.25% to 134,925 short tons. Copper and copper-base and tin powder shipments have remained stable. One of the key issues facing the entire industry is the serious need for experienced production workers and PM engineering professionals. Industry-wide employee reductions during 2008-09 have not been easy to reverse as the industry has rebounded.
Another issue is capacity constraints; will the industry be ready to meet rising demands, particularly driven by the automotive industry, in the next several years? As was the case with personnel, rationalization moves during the same 2008-09 period included several plant closings and the scrapping of older equipment. Because it can take 0-12 months to build a high-end press and put it into production, Bulger cautioned, the equipment investment bandwagon must begin rolling sooner rather than later.
Within the automotive sector, PM is approaching a saturation point in auto engine content with existing technology. The average auto engine now contains up to 50 PM parts weighing more than 18 lbs, including connecting rods, bearing caps, valve-seat inserts and VVT parts. With the average North American-built engine containing up to 170 individual parts, PM parts currently represent about 30% of the content. Potential growth appears more likely in transfer-case and transmission applications.
Educating automotive engineers about PMs benefits has always been an important aim of the MPIF Industry Development Board (IDB). This year, the IDB launched a new Automotive Showcase program to bring PM’s design-benefit-value message to the single-largest market. More than 400 people visited the Showcases and received PM design literature.
New additives that improve the machinability of PM materials represent another advancement. As mechanical property demands rise, so does the need to improve the machining performance of sinter-hardened and heat-treated materials. Researchers are also developing new lubricants for high-density applications.
The growing demand for lightweight materials is encouraging new attention aimed at PM aluminum, titanium and magnesium structural applications. Boeing has recently qualified PM titanium alloy products for commercial aircraft use as an alternative to machining parts from bar, plate, castings, forgings, or extruded products.
Copper powder products offer new opportunities for growth as well. More applications that take advantage of the red metal’s conductivity properties, as well biomedical applications offer significant opportunities.
PM equipment suppliers are striving to advance the technology, with new products such as larger tonnage CNC hydraulic compacting pressesincreasingly stringent tolerance capabilities, upgraded controls on older compacting presses, and high-performance sintering furnaces.
The updated PM Industry Roadmap, a project of MPIF’s Technical Board, Industry Development Board, and numerous additional industry experts, was recently released. Based on the first Roadmap completed in 2001, the update shows that the industry has made steady progress in high-density processing, new materials, 3-D forming systems, modeling, and advanced manufacturing methods.
Looking ahead, the new Roadmap identifies three main topics that will impact the industry’s growth: high-density PM components, processing of lightweight materials, and electrical and electromagnetic applications. While the current PM industry is driven by automotive applications, growth in the next decade must be found in other markets. The overall need for alternative energy sources should open new markets and applications for PM.
In closing, Bulger noted that the PM industry is set apart by its close-knit band of large and small companies that are devoted to promoting the entire industry and encouraging its growth. By being globally interconnected, the industry is expected to continue to succeed and thrive in the years ahead.
For further details, phone (609) 452-7700 or visit www.mpif.org