The POWDERMET2017 International Conference on Powder Metallurgy and Particulate Materials was held in Las Vegas, USA, June 13-16, 2017. Organised by the Metal Powder Industries Federation (MPIF), the event attracted over 950 participants and included three days of presentations accompanied by an exhibition and a range of social and networking events.
The Opening General Session included a presentation by MPIF President Patrick McGeehan, who gave delegates a detailed overview of the state of the North American Powder Metallurgy industry.
The North American Powder Metallurgy industry in 2016
In his opening address, McGeehan reported that the Powder Metallurgy industry continued its moderate growth track in 2016, with most indicators signalling a repeat performance for North America in 2017. The year opened on a positive trend, as expected with the changes in Washington, but business levels are returning to a modest growth level as forecast by most informed observers. Conventional press and sinter companies and metal powder producers report good business levels, as well as companies involved with Metal Injection Moulding (MIM), metal Additive Manufacturing (AM), and Hot Isostatic Pressing (HIP). The demand for refractory metals has finally started to move upwards.
Metal powder shipments
The metal powder market reflected a mixed-bag in 2016, stated McGeehan. End-use sectors experienced a range of modest growth, stability, modest decline, and double-digit weakness. Last year’s total iron powder shipments, for example, declined by almost 2,723 mt (3,000 short tons (st)), which is less than 1%, to 381,842 mt (420,624 st). In contrast the PM sector, representing 92% of the iron powder market, increased by less than 1% to 351,285 mt (386,963 st). However, the non-PM sectors such as welding electrodes, cutting, scarfing, lancing, and miscellaneous applications all declined.
McGeehan added that other powder estimates revealed a similar pattern. Stainless steel powder shipments rose by 4.9% to 7,625 mt (8,400 st). Nickel powder shipments also rose, but by a negligible amount to 5,628 mt (6,200 st). Copper powder shipments slipped marginally to 16,158 mt (17,800 st). Non-PM copper powder applications such as bio-medical and brazing performed better than traditional PM.
While aluminium PM offers significant growth, especially in the automotive market, the total aluminium powder market fell by 12.5% to 31,773 mt (35,000 st) in 2016. The loss of a major end-user switching from aluminium powder to another technology to produce polysilicon receives the blame for this sharp drop off. The current annual US aluminium PM parts market ranges from 1,815 mt to 2,723 mt (2,000 to 3,000 st).
The refractory metals market declined again, due to a protracted slowdown in the oil and gas markets. Tungsten powder shipments declined an estimated 56% to 1,152 mt (1,270 st); however, tungsten carbide powder shipments increased an estimated 23% to 5,234 mt (5,770 st). Molybdenum shipments remained stable at an estimated 1,760 mt (1,940 st).
Total estimated 2016 North American metal powder shipments decreased modestly to 450,873 mt (497,104 st).
Based on industry conditions during the past several years, it appears that traditional PM markets have stabilised or reverted to a slower growth pattern, added McGeehan. Putting these 2016 numbers in perspective can be somewhat sobering. For example, iron powder shipments in 2006 were 378,396 mt (416,828 st) when the automotive market accounted for the production of 15.3 million light vehicles.
McGeehan stated the current situation calls for the industry to focus more than ever on seeking new markets and applications, and renewed R&D funding.
Powder Metallurgy parts market trends
Overall, 2016 can be characterised as an encouraging business year for the industry’s leading sector. PM parts makers experienced steady gains, especially among suppliers of higher value-added automotive parts. Industry sales gained by an estimated range of 4% to 10%, depending upon markets served.
The 2017 MPIF PM Industry Pulse Survey conducted among members of the Powder Metallurgy Parts Association (PMPA) during the autumn of 2016 revealed that iron-based parts represented 82% of product shipped, followed by stainless steel parts at 9%, copper-based parts at 6%, soft magnetic parts at 2% and aluminium at 1%.
Most PMPA respondents (79%) did not see an increase in their customers’ purchase of imported PM parts vs. domestically produced parts. In addition, 69% of respondents have experienced a re-shoring or re-sourcing of product returning to the US from foreign sources. As an example, a long-standing privately owned parts maker reported a major customer reshoring parts made in China. Delivery problems that required a massive inventory of Chinese-made parts forced the change. In addition, the US-made PM parts were still competitive with China.
McGeehan added that companies based in PM’s heartland, Western Pennsylvania, enjoyed positive business levels across the board. The many family-owned job shops offer rapid-response service to customer needs, quick decision-making, and short-run production.