Just a few short months ago, LPW opened its new giant AM £20 million powder atomization and production facility in a seven-acre site in Widnes near Liverpool, UK. This took the company from a 200-ton yearly capacity to over 600 ton capabilities. This does not mean that LPW’s focus is now going to shift from quality to quantity. Instead the company remains as specialized on high end materials and applications as ever, with a line up of nearly 100 standard alloys and as many as 300 developed as custom materials for specific client demands.
Dr. Phil Carrol, the company’s CEO and the man behind the company’s vision to “stay focused and go deep” into AM’s major verticals, is arguably now one of the biggest experts on what the AM industry can, should and will achieve. We had the opportunity to (figuratively) sit down with Dr. Carroll (between a train and a plane to catch) to speak about the company’s recent achievements and to try and imagine where the industry will be five years from now, when (hopefully) the company will need to scale up it productivity once again.
Davide Sher: How is LPW doing? Is it accurate to say you are currently the market leader among third-party AM powder providers?
Phil Carroll: I’d like to say that we are, we’re certainly the first AM powder supplier among non-machine tool builders. We are enjoying a very good market share and we put a lot of effort into product development. We figure we now possess a significant technological know-how.
DS: Do you sell more powder for PBF or for DED processes?
PC: We are currently selling more materials into the PBF segment while we do also provide some powders for DED processes. DED processes are known to use more materials due to much higher deposition rates, however, we have specialized in high-end applications that generally use powder bed fusion processes. We work in quality driven markets.
DS: What do you think of upcoming/announced binder-jetting/MIM-based AM systems? Will LPW consider providing powders for MIM-based technologies?
PC: There is a lot of noise in the industry today. A lot of people are shouting about what they intend to do but have not yet proven that they can achieve it. Powder manufacturing is traditionally a low margin segment. Some see AM and all the growth associated with this market and think that they will be able to reap the benefits of this but there is still a long way to go. That being said, we are looking at MIM-based processes and we may consider developing materials for these emerging technologies. If they effectively emerge, that is.
DS: How many different standard materials does LPW provide at this time?
PC: Today we can produce as many as 400 different types of alloys for use in additive manufacturing. I would say about 80 to 100 are available as standard and we have just developed an AM standard “PowderRange” of materials available off-the-shelf. The other ones have been custom developed by working with clients and their specific demands.
DS: How expensive is it and how long does it take to validate a new material for AM?
PC: Optimizing an existing material for a specific AM system may take up to a year. Developing a new material from scratch may take as long as 10 to 15 years. In most cases the materials used in AM are tailored versions of existing alloys.
DS: What do you think of refractory metals and why are they particularly interesting for AM? Is demand for these materials increasing?
PC: Refractory metals are extremely high-temperature resistant metals such as tungsten, niobium, tantalum and molybdenum. They are interesting because they are used in very low volumes for very high value applications. One example, which is already public domain, are the guides for X-ray machines. Using AM they can be designed for much higher accuracy. There are also several other potential applications such as rocket thruster nozzles, valves and manifolds. They are not exceedingly harder to process by AM than other metals but you do have to make some modifications to the machines.
DS: Which are your top selling materials today?
PC: It depends if we consider them in terms of value, volume or weight. In terms of value the top selling are Nickel-based alloys. That’s because the majority of our clients work in very high-value applications. Titanium is also a significant revenue generator for us. In terms of volume, on the other hand, the top selling materials are aluminum-based alloys. However, being much lighter, they may not be the top selling materials by weight.
DS: Can you give us a rough idea of how many Kg of powders LPW sells in one year?
PC: Support the adoption of metal AM into production requires powders developed specifically for AM applications. We’ve been quite aggressive in our strategy and we are putting in place capabilities to really push growth. Last year we sold 200 tons of materials. The new plant we just inaugurated has three atomizers which can produce up to 600 tons of AM powder a year. One atomizer is plasma-based for high temperature materials and two atomizers are gas-based for all other metals. Our expansion is to ensure we can supply metal AM specific powders to meet demand and the know-how to push forward industrializing new applications.
DS: How do you expect to do that?
PC: We are working more and more toward a business model where we “manage” the materials rather than simply sell them. Materials would become available through a subscription plan and we can digitally manage supplies within our clients’ production facilities.
DS: Can you provide a rough estimate of the global demand of AM powders today and what—if anything—is limiting adoption?
PC: There is a scarcity of highly reliable data on global material demand, however, we do internal research and analysis. The main issue is that the awareness gap is very wide. Some customers are very much aware of what they could achieve with additive manufacturing while other potential customers are almost completely in the dark.
DS: Why is the cost of AM so high today?
PC: There are several factors involved. One is the research that goes into developing and optimizing the materials for AM processes. Another is the actual cost of the raw materials, along with material depreciation and the associated processing costs. In addition, the scrap rate for printed parts today is in the order of 60%. That has to improve.
DS: Is it accurate to say that a large part of atomized powders cannot be used for actual AM? Is that powder recyclable?
PC: When you manufacture metal powder for AM you have a few different techniques that give you a distribution of powder size, with atomization yielding powder from 1 to 150 microns in size. Laser PBF technologies require powder particles that are 50 microns, while EBM can work with 50 to 150 micron in diameter. When making the powder you have to size it for different applications. If you make powder only for laser PBF, everything beyond 50 microns is of no value. So, the most economical approach is to sell the powder to several different applications.
DS: Are atomized powders reusable?
PC: Re-atomizing metal powders is not usually a viable option. Certain materials, such as Nickel and steel, could in fact be reprocessed but, even then, their value is just a fraction of the original material. To address these issues as a supplier, we need to select specific applications and machines to specialize in, otherwise, we just become a commodity. Our motto is “stay narrow, go deep,” meaning we focus on specific markets and applications to provide the best expertise. We factor into our cost model the material that we don’t sell.
DS: Who are your biggest clients?
PC: We mainly service companies that work in manufacturing of industrial gas turbines, Formula 1 suppliers, aerospace and defense.
DS: Beside raising market awareness, which do you view as the biggest challenges in further expanding the adoption of AM?
PC: I think AM needs to move away from a prototyping mentality and fully embrace production. This means that technologies really need to focus a lot more on part reliability, consistent part properties. Most importantly, the industry needs to focus on full optimization of the entire AM process, not just the additive process but everything else that goes into producing a final part. Adopters need to realize that what you put into the printer is not the same that comes out as it undergoes powerful chemical and thermal reactions. To really move into production, they need to address quality control and stability.
DS: By targeting quality and high-end applications, LPW is likely not going to be exceedingly challenged by competition from Asian manufacturers of lower priced powders. So, who do you think will be your biggest competitors in the future?
PC: Probably the large metal materials manufacturers who begin to see an opportunity in AM and decide to invest very significant resources into producing AM powders directly from their raw materials.
DS: Where do you see the AM industry five years from now?
PC: Take a common airplane, like a Boeing 737. Today all its parts are made by traditional manufacturing processes. Within five years, a significant number of airframe parts, interior parts and turbines will be made using AM. As a passenger you will probably never notice this shift, however, it will result in much better fuel efficiency and lower costs. In that time frame, AM will realistically become an established tool across a range of different products’ manufacturing cycles.
Where do you see LPW at that time?
PC: We want to be the market leader. Not necessarily the largest in terms of sales and materials productions but the best in terms of reliability, efficiency and product quality.