Global Powder Metallurgy industry sustains growth momentum

June 4, 2014

Following a period of severe recession in 2008 and 2009, the global PM industry is once again on a path of sustained growth, as was illustrated in the presentations given by the presidents of the Metal Powder Industry Federation (MPIF) for North America, Philippe Gundermann, European Powder Metallurgy Association (EPMA), and Mamoru Moritani, Japan Powder Metallurgy Association (JPMA) in the ‘Global Trends’ plenary session at the PM2014 World Congress on Powder Metallurgy and Particulate Materials held in Orlando, May 18-22. Bernard Williams, Consulting Editor, reports on the three presentations.


The Powder Metallurgy industry in North America

The North American PM industry is continuing to recover from the deepest collapse of the US economy since the Great Depression, reported Richard Pfingstler, MPIF President. The more recent “Great Recession” saw iron powder shipments, the statistic most indicative of the PM industry’s health, collapse by 19% in 2008 followed by an even more disastrous reduction of 25% to 212,327 st (192,619 mt) in 2009, the lowest level in 18 years.

Pfingster described the recovery since 2010 as a classic comeback story, in which an industry rallies an inner strength rooted in its long tradition of entrepreneurial grit. “Most of the sectors of PM and particulate materials have all bounced back and are continuing to grow at a steady pace” reported Pfingstler. 2013 iron powder shipments increased 4.62% to 401,738 st (364,450 mt), surpassing the 400,000 short ton mark for the first time since 2007 (Fig. 1).

The PM parts portion of this amount increased by just over 5% to 361,150 st (327,629 mt), with the remainder going into welding, chemicals and food additives. However placing 2013 shipments into perspective there is still some way to go to regain the record iron powder shipment level of 473,804 st (430,000 mt) achieved in 2004.


Fig. 1 North American iron powder shipments (in short tons) to 2013 (© MPIF 2013)


2013 shipments of copper and copper-base powders increased by an estimated 4% to 16,850 st (15,286 mt) in 2013 (Fig. 2), whilst stainless steel powders gained by an estimated 3.5% to 7,600 st (6895 mt). Nickel powder shipments were estimated to have increased by 5% to 5,775 st (5240 mt) in 2013.


Fig.2 North American copper and copper-base powder shipments for PM to 2013 (© MPIF 2013)


The resurgence in demand for iron and steel powders reflects rising North American light-vehicle production that topped 16 million units in 2013 according to WardsAuto, the highest in 13 years. This has led to PM parts makers investing to expand capacity and increase their capability to meet more-exacting customer specifications for more-complex designs and higher-performance parts, stated Pfingstler.

However, the MPIF president cautioned that the trend toward smaller, fuel efficient engines and away from those with six and eight cylinders is a serious threat to PM. Four cylinder engine cars use less weight of PM parts and about two-thirds as many PF connecting rods and bearing caps. Nevertheless, opportunities abound for PM parts in all-wheel-drive systems, start-stop systems, new diesel engines, and more-complex and lighter-weight PM gears.

It is estimated that the US PM gear market could reach as high as 250,000 st (225,000 mt). New cost effective PM high-speed steels are being considered for automotive valve guides and seats that improve on the quality of existing materials. The PM content in a typical US light vehicle rose slightly in 2013 to an estimated 44.5 pounds (20.2 kg), up from 43.7 pounds in 2012. The forecast for 2014 is for a very modest increase to 44.6 pounds.

Pfingstler said that most PM parts markets are projected to see modest growth in 2014, which will result in a modest rise in metal powder shipments, again in the region of 5%. Hampering an even higher growth rate are the challenges faced by smaller family-owned businesses, which still struggle with scarce access to capital and with the economic and administrative burdens of complying with increasing federal and state regulations. The inability of smaller PM shops to attract younger engineering talent to work in manufacturing plants is another challenge, stated Pfingstler.

Looking beyond the traditional press-and-sinter PM sector, Pfinglster noted that the refractory metals markets softened somewhat last year and there was more untapped capacity in 2013 than 2012. The Hot Isostatic Pressing (HIP) business is enjoying healthly growth particularly for densifying MIM parts, a significant trend during the last three years. About 50 to 60% of MIM firearms and medical parts are HIPed and the HIPing of MIM aerospace parts is also a growing market.

A future growth area for HIP is Additive Manufacturing (AM). It is anticipated that specifications for AM parts will require HIPing to ensure full density for certain applications, especially in the aerospace sector.

Pfingstler reported that the North American Metal Injection Moulding (MIM) market continues to enjoy robust growth. MIM grade powder shipments increased substantially to an estimated 1125 to 1440 mt in 2013. The current US MIM parts business represents about 70 companies of which an estimated 25%, or 18 companies, are captive operations.

The total value of MIM industry sales in 2013 is estimated to be in the region of $300 to $350 million and this is expected to grow by 10 to 15% in 2014. Beyond MIM’s traditional parts markets, which include firearms, medical/dental, general industrial, automotive, and electronics, the automotive market in North America looks especially promising for MIM parts that go into fuel injection and turbocharger applications. Aerospace engineers are considering specifying MIM parts in the next generation of aircraft engines.

Additive Manufacturing (AM) was featured for the first time in the PM World Congress series in Orlando with an inaugural conference dedicated to this rapidly evolving technology. Pfingstler stated that AM is evolving into a serious business model that goes beyond designing prototypes. He said that there are an estimated 100 to 200 AM metal printers installed in the US providing custom manufacturing and prototype services, including captive installations doing development work as well as R&D programs at government and university laboratories.

End markets for AM extend over a wide range from dental products such as tooth bridges and copings, medical implants, aerospace components, automotive parts, injection moulding moulds, jewellery, watch cases, and satellite parts being just some examples. Pfingstler stated that one major US aerospace company is building a massive plant to produce engine fuel nozzles from cobalt-chrome powder. Excluding titanium, the bulk of the 100,000 lbs/year (45 mt/year) of gas atomized spherical powders for the AM market is currently supplied by 6 companies.

The decision to co-locate the AMPM conference with the PM2014 World Congress “was envisioned as a way to open communication among all our industry segments,” the MPIF president said.

Investing in new technology

In order to maintain the upward trajectory of its growth pattern, Pfingstler stated that the PM industry must continue to invest in new technology in order to improve materials, its performance, and dimensional tolerances. He reported that the MPIF Technical Board 2014 technology assessment programme is studying how to reduce dimensional variability in ferrous PM parts and processes. The programme will identify process factor such as raw materials, compaction, sintering and secondary operations that are likely to cause the greatest variation in part dimensions. The ultimate goal is to improve dimensional tolerances by at least 50%.

A number of powder producers have introduced new materials offering powders with a high density lubricant-binder system allowing green densities above 7.5 g/cc with green strength double that of standard lubricants. PM press builders, which saw compacting press deliveries exceed 25 units in 2013, are building presses with higher technology capabilities to meet the demand for more complex designed PM parts with closer tolerances.

The Center for Powder Metallurgy Technology (CPMT) has been active in fatigue testing studies, and in 2013 the Center released a technical report on Strain-Based Fatigue for Four PM Materials. A final report on the single-tooth bending fatigue programme and the third strain-based fatigue report covering three PM materials will be released later in 2014. In addition, MPIF has recently formed an aluminium standards subcommittee to provide new materials data on aluminium PM, particularly aimed at automotive engineers seeking to use more lightweight materials to meet CAFE standards.

In closing, the MPIF president noted that the industry is alive and well, introducing new products, materials, and processes. “As a modern, 21st century technology with a rich history, PM continues to reinvent itself. We are innovative and entrepreneurial right down to our DNA,” stated Pfingstler. “Our challenge, no matter how large or small our companies, is to maintain that energy and entrepreneurial grit. We must always look to improve what we do, and never stop investing in new talent. In the end, we are still a special industry with a bright future.”

The status of Powder Metallurgy in Europe

Philippe Gundermann, President of the European Powder Metallurgy Association (EPMA) reported that the European PM industry enjoyed moderate but sustained growth in 2013 and early indications are that 2014 will be even better, with 1st quarter 2014 iron powder shipment figures showing a 20% increase over the same period in 2013. This is essentially on the back of a strong recovery in the European automotive market which has seen the biggest revival in demand for cars since the major slump in 2009.

Gundermann stated that ferrous PM production in Europe made up 82%, or 169,740 mt, of the total of 207,000 mt for all PM products (Fig. 3). However, whilst ferrous PM powder shipments have seen positive growth since 2010, they are still some way off the record of almost 200,000 mt of ferrous PM powders shipped in 2007.


Fig. 3 Breakdown of European PM production in 2013 (Source EPMA)


Gundermann further stated that there is now a steady expansion in volume terms in a fairly stable PM part market in Europe, with increased product sophistication allowing higher prices and improved profit margins. However, the PM industry faces some overcapacity and competition from low cost countries. Non-ferrous PM powder (Cu-base) shipments were shown to make up 7%, or 14,490 mt, of total PM production, an increase of 13.4% on the powder shipments for 2012. Hard materials also made up 7% of the total in 2013.

The Metal Injection Moulding (MIM) market in Europe is estimated by the EPMA to consume around 2,000 mt of metal powders annually, with a strong growth in sales in 2013 to just over €250 million (Fig. 4). Around 50% of MIM parts are made from stainless steel grades, 25% low alloy steel, 5% soft magnetic materials, 1% titanium and 19% others. Gundermann reported that there are some 40 to 50 MIM part producers in Europe supported by a strong supply chain for feedstock, injection moulding equipment and debinding/sintering furnaces.


Fig. 4 Metal Injection Moulded part sales in Europe to 2013


European MIM companies seem to be less prone to developing their own feedstock and debinding processes compared with their North American counterparts. Automotive applications for MIM also make up a higher market share than other regions.

The Hot Isostatic Pressing (HIP) sector is also thriving in Europe, stated Gundermann. The European HIP market has a 45% share of the global market with around 25% of HIPing in Europe involving powder-based products. Some 14,000 mt of high alloy steels (stainless, HSS, and tool steels) were produced in 2013 mainly using large capacity HIP units, some of which are now capable of processing 30 tonne loads with faster cycle times thanks to uniform rapid cooling. The cost of HIPing relative to energy and materials costs has decreased by 65% over the last two decades, stated Gundermann.

Europe, like North America, has seen a surge in interest in the use of Additive Manufacturing (AM) in recent years and Gundermann reported that revenue for AM products grew by 40% in 2012 to €18 million and that double digit growth is expected to continue in the years ahead.

As with MIM, the European AM sector has a very strong supply chain both in the equipment for producing AM products and in the metal powders required. Many applications are foreseen in the aerospace and other sectors. The EPMA formed the new European Additive Manufacturing Group in 2013 with over 30 members.

Concluding, Gundermann stated that the European PM industry is blessed with a very strong R&D base with at least 20 significant centres for academic researchs as well as numerous independent RTD suppliers. HIP and AM are the hot topics, he said. He invited delegates to come to the next PM world congress and exhibition which will be held in Hamburg, Germany, October 9-13, 2016.

Powder Metallurgy in Asia

Mamuro Moritani, President of the Japan Powder Metallurgy Association presented a review of the state of the PM and MIM industries in Asia with specific reference to ferrous and non-ferrous PM grade powder shipments in Japan. Moritani stated that PM production in Asia is now dominated by China which has been the largest Powder Metallurgy producer since it overtook Japan in 2009. PM production surged again in China in 2013 rising to close to 160,000 mt compared with around 140,000 mt the previous year.

China is forecast to maintain the highest PM production volumes in the region for the foreseeable future, stated Moritani. In Japan, the region’s second largest PM producer, production in 2013 was level with 2012, whilst Korea showed a slight increase, as did Taiwan (Fig. 8). Thailand saw production fall, in Malaysia production was even with 2012, and Indonesia entered the frame for the first time with PM production at around 2500 mt.


Fig. 5 PM production in the five major countries in Asia to 2013 (Source APMA)


Moritani stated that the Asian Powder Metallurgy Association (APMA) had successfully organised PM conferences in Jeju, Korea (2011) and Xiamen, China (2013) with the venue for 2015 being announced as Kyoto from October 18-20. The APMA will organise the next PM World Congress and Exhibition in Beijing in 2018.

Referring to trends in the Japanese PM industry, Moritani stated that PM grade iron powder shipments reached 108,883 mt in 2013, a small decline on 2012 and was still some way off the 127,000 mt record achieved in 2007. Copper powder shipment figures for PM also showed a slight decrease with 4,768 mt shipped in 2013 compared with 4,848 mt shipped in 2012. The continuing recent decline in copper powder shipments is attributed to a general weight reduction of PM self-lubricating bearings due to the downsizing of automobiles and the trend towards miniaturisation in electronic equipment.


Fig.6 MIM sales in Asia to 2012

(Source JPMA MIM Market Research/ Kato Professional Engineer Office)


Moritani reported that the JPMA is actively promoting powder metallurgy and MIM in Japan, especially to young company employees. 13 MIM member companies of the JPMA are also supporting the development of standards for the rotating bend fatigue properties of MIM materials including stainless steels, Ti and Ti6Al4V alloys. The work is being carried out at Kyusyu University, Japan.

June 4, 2014

In the latest issue of PM Review…

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Extensive Powder Metallurgy industry news coverage, and the following exclusive deep-dive articles and reports:

  • From powder modification to rejuvenation: Fluidised Bed Reactors in metal powder production and Additive Manufacturing
  • Retech: Enabling the atomisation of reactive and refractory alloys at substantially higher levels of productivity and lower cost
  • Sustainability in Powder Metallurgy: Highlights from the 41st Hagen Symposium
  • Innovations from Japan’s Powder Metallurgy industry: award winners highlight novel automotive and healthcare applications

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