In his state of the PM industry keynote presentation at POWDERMET2015, San Diego, USA, May 18, 2015, Richard Pfingstler, President of the Metal Powder Industries Federation, stated that the PM industry continued its growth track last year. He suggested that most indicators signal a repeat performance in 2015. Metal powder producers, equipment suppliers, and PM parts makers look ahead to favorable business conditions.
2014 North American iron powder shipments rose a modest 3.6% to 416,373 short tons. The PM sector of this total shipments figure increased by almost 4.4% to 376,944 short tons, as can be seen in Fig. 1.
While iron powder shipments topped 400,000 short tons again, Pfingstler stated that the industry must keep in perspective the year 2004 when shipments hit a record 473,804 shorts tons. Estimated stainless steel, copper, aluminum, nickel, molybdenum, tungsten, and tungsten carbide powder shipments grew in 2014 as follows: stainless steel 7,850 short tons; copper 17,500 short tons; aluminum 40,000 short tons; nickel 6,000 short tons; molybdenum 1,940 short tons; tungsten 3,600 short tons; tungsten carbide 5,900 short tons. Total estimated metal powder shipments in 2014 increased by 3.4% to 499,213 short tons, as shown in Table 1.
The PM equipment market
Pfingstler stated that overall, PM process equipment builders and tooling makers enjoyed a good year in 2014. PM parts fabricators are ordering new equipment for both capacity increases and added capability, including more robotics and automation for both compacting presses and sintering furnaces.
There continues to be a strong trend for larger compacting presses over 500 tons, along with presses with more motions. Press shipments seem to be stabilising at about 20 units annually, he stated. In 2013 press shipments rose to 26 presses, with a backlog of 9 presses. In 2014 shipments declined to 19 presses, with a backlog of 11 presses at the end of the year.
Tooling orders remain positive. One major tooling company sees a growing market for helical gears and a demand for finer and tighter dimensions, especially on punch faces at +/-10 microns after milling and polishing.
PM parts makers large and small are upgrading equipment. For example, one major firm is phasing out older equipment in favor of new CNC equipment and is considering acoustic blending equipment to achieve more homogeneous powder mixes. Another smaller, family-owned business will spend $3.5 million on new equipment. These are positive signs reflecting the industry’s health and boding well for future growth.
Current conditions and business outlook
“Emerging from another good year, PM parts companies entered 2015 confident about positive growth indicators on the horizon, even spilling over into 2017. A recent survey by the Powder Metallurgy Parts Association reports that two-thirds of the respondents expect business to increase this year,” stated Pfingstler.
“Most PM fabricators are doing well, but there are still difficulties finding qualified employees, especially die setters. The industry must do more to attract skilled labor and engineering graduates into manufacturing. MPIF recently participated in career fairs at several universities to increase engineering students’ awareness of PM. MPIF staff engaged nearly 100 students while providing opportunities for possible employment.”
“North American iron, copper, and stainless steel powder shipments should be up again in the three-to-four-percent range. Metal powder companies are actively pursuing developmental projects to meet market needs and improve the performance of raw materials through a reduction of lubricants in binder-treated premixes and the use of a new lubricant for stainless steel PM materials. A new generation of high-performance PM aluminum materials is in the wings as well.”
A number of key PM parts makers forecast double-digit growth this year in both automotive and industrial markets. For example, new PM clutch designs are taking hold in snowmobiles, snow throwers and all-terrain vehicles. PM’s high reliability in high-performance clutches is unquestioned, a welcome sign and an example of the acceptance for PM components that are used under harsh operating conditions.
Tungsten and Refractory Metals
The overall tungsten business faced tough times in the second half of 2014 due to weakening oil prices and mining activity, stated Pfingstler. “Total tungsten powder shipments declined by 14.2% in 2014 to an estimated 3,600 short tons. Tungsten carbide shipments dropped 23.3% to an estimated 5,999 short tons. This year will remain rough as well. Oil-and-gas drilling, important markets for tungsten, could drop by as much as 40 to 60%.”
The outlook for mining, another well-established market for tungsten products, will remain soft. The only bright spots are automotive and aerospace markets, which unfortunately are not large consumers of tungsten.
MPIF industry technology support
It was stated that the MPIF Technical Board is reviewing the importance of reducing dimensional variability in PM parts and looking at steps to improve dimensional tolerances out of the compacting press. Board members are gathering information about how process factors such as raw materials, compacting, sintering, and secondary operations influence dimensional control. The ultimate goal is to improve the dimensional tolerances of PM parts by 50%. The board is also studying the development of lean alloys.
Pfingstler explained that the Center for Powder Metallurgy Technology (CPMT), with its 52 industry members, leads the investigation of strain-controlled fatigue for numerous PM materials: resonant acoustical processing to enhance powder mixing; sinter-hardening process improvements for flatness and throughput; die-wall lubrication for warm compaction tooling; shot peening of gears for improved performance; and ways to improve tooling to withstand compacting pressures >60 tsi.
CPMT is also providing $32,000 in university scholarships through various family and corporate grants and sponsored four students to attend POWDERMET2015 through another family grant.
“Individual PM companies continue funding developmental programs aimed at improved materials and processes to support PM’s growth and future viability. Equipment makers, for instance, are designing more robust multi-platen systems in both servo-controlled hydraulic and electrical compacting presses. Higher-strength PM aluminum alloys are being developed that provide yield strengths of 45,500 psi, as are high-density stainless steels >7.4 g/cm3 by single pressing,” stated Pfingstler.
Novel R&D programs are being aimed at multiple-scale particulate composites and combining metallic and ceramic properties, for instance, joining the abrasion resistance and rigidity of ceramics with the toughness and electrical conductivity of metals.
Concluding, Pfingstler stated, “Resilience and creativity are the hallmarks of today’s PM industry. Just as it has survived and thrived in the face of previous economic trials, these qualities will help insure that the industry will continue to grow in the face of challenges yet to come.”