In comments delivered during the opening session of PowderMet2012, the International Conference on Powder Metallurgy & Particulate Materials, Nashville, June 10-13, Matthew Bulger, President of the Metal Powder Industries Federation, stated that in all materials, process and market sectors, the North American Powder Metallurgy (PM) industry has built on the growth momentum that began last year.
“Traditional press-and-sinter PM, Metal Injection Moulding (MIM), Hot Isostatic Pressing (HIP), and other specialty PM technologies are thriving,” stated Bulger. “PM is an interconnected technology that innovates and grows by leveraging its different sectors.”
Looking back at the past two years, it was suggested that the industry’s recovery is sustainable. Iron powder shipments soared in 2010 after a terrible previous year. Total North American iron-powder shipments grew modestly in 2011 to 363,831 short tons, a 3% increase that was 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 and the MIM process, it was suggested, continued to garner greater acceptance in the materials marketplace. Some interesting R&D programs were highlighted, include MIM ultrasonic dental scaler tips and endodontic tips, as well as 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 manufacturig and gains in the oil-and-gas, tool-steel and aerospace markets. The HIPing of MIM parts, noted Bulger, continues to be a growing market.
Sustained growth ahead
Bulger stated that 2012 began on a very positive note, with rising confidence levels. First-quarter shipments of metal powders are up, as are volumes of PM parts and MIM parts. U.S. light-vehicle sales are expected to top 14 million units, up substantially from the 12.8 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 highlighted was capacity constraints, “Will the industry be ready to meet rising demands, particularly driven by the automotive industry, in the next several years?” asked Bulger.
As was the case with staffing, rationalisation moves during the same 2008–09 period included several plant closings and the scrapping of older equipment. “Because it can take upwards of 10 to 12 months to build a high-end metal powder press and put it into production, the equipment investment bandwagon must begin rolling sooner rather than later.”
The automotive sector
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 pounds, including connecting rods, bearing caps, valve-seat inserts, and VVT parts.
With the average North America–built engine containing up to 170 individual parts, PM parts currently represent about 30% of the content. Potential growth appears more likely, it was stated, in transfer-case and transmission applications.
Educating automotive engineers about PM’s benefits has always been an important aim of the MPIF Industry Development Board (IDB). This year, stated Bulger, the IDB launched a new Automotive Showcase program to bring PM’s design-benefit-value message to PM’s single largest market.
PM technology developments
The machinability of PM materials
New additives that improve the machinability of PM materials were highlighted as a significant advancement. “As mechanical-property demands rise, so does the need to improve the machining performance of sinter hardened and heat-treated materials.” Researchers, it was stated, are also developing new lubricants for high-density applications.
The growing demand for lightweight materials is encouraging new attention aimed at PM aluminium, titanium, and magnesium structural applications. Boeing, it was stated, 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 also offer new opportunities for growth. More applications that take advantage of copper’s conductivity properties, as well biomedical applications offer significant opportunities.
High performance PM equipment
PM equipment suppliers, commented Bulger, are striving to advance the technology with new products such as larger tonnage CNC hydraulic compacting presses, more-stringent tolerance capabilities in the micron range, upgrading controls on older compacting presses, and high-performance sintering furnaces.
PM Industry Roadmap
Bulger reported that an updated PM Industry Roadmap, a project of MPIF’s Technical Board, Industry Development Board, and numerous additional industry experts, has been 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, modelling, 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 truly unique for its close-knit band of large and small companies who are devoted to promoting the entire industry and encouraging its growth. By being truly interconnected globally, the industry will continue to succeed and thrive in the years ahead.