When it comes to plasma atomization, arguably the most advanced process in Ti64 powder production for additive manufacturing, Montreal-based PyroGenesis is emerging as a key global player. The company invented the technology – which was initially licensed to what is now AP&C – and is now set on riding the growing wave of demand for high quality atomized powders, driven by – and driving – the AM industry’s growth. Powder production marks a re-entry into the business for PyroGenesis. Powder production is one of PyroGenesis’ business lines and is one of the areas that holds tremendous potential for growth. We had the opportunity to speak with PyroGenesis Additive’s VP, Massimo Dattilo, who offered an in-depth analysis of both the company’s current high-purity titanium-based business and its vision. The future could include many more reactive metals and even refractory metals, with sights set on a more standardized, efficient and productive global AM industry.
Davide Sher: How did PyroGenesis initially get involved with AM?
Massimo Dattilo: About 20 years ago we developed a plasma-based system to produce high purity spherical Ti64 powder, before additive manufacturing evolved into the commercial opportunity that it is today. At that time, we used the powder for a military application. Shortly thereafter, a company called Stryker started to buy a very narrow size cut for a powder metallurgy application and as a result we were only selling a small fraction of our powder. Also, at that time, the demand for high purity Ti64 powder was minimal. It was therefore decided to license out the plasma atomization system to a company called Raymor (AP&C). They benefited from an exclusive deal which expired in 2012, meaning we were excluded from selling equipment and powder until 2012. We have since re-entered the market and are now selling our high purity Ti64 powder.
DS: Why did you decide to get into the consumables market?
MD: Seeing this growing opportunity in AM, and knowing that PyroGenesis has unique expertise with plasma, we realized we had a great opportunity to bring additional value to the industry. Specifically, with our understanding of the printer manufacturers’ equipment and their respective powder size cuts, we were able to bring additional developments to our plasma atomization systems. These developments allow us to produce high purity powders with targeted size cuts. This allows us to produce what our clients need while minimizing waste which translates into a more economical product for our customers.
DS: How relevant is AM within PyroGenesis’ overall business?
MD: AM is very relevant to PyroGenesis’ overall business. PyroGenesis uses plasma for many applications. One application, for example, is our plasma-based waste-to-energy system, where we destroy waste. We have sold two systems to the US Navy. This speaks volumes to our plasma expertise. We also use plasma for mining and metallurgical applications. For example, we are working with one client who is using a plasma process we developed to convert quartz into high purity silicon in a 1-step process. This is a game-changing application. Another application is enabling customers who have aluminum smelters to recover aluminum from dross, thus minimizing aluminum losses. Finally, we use plasma to produce high purity powders for the AM industry. Our expertise in plasma processes allows us to produce powders that cater to the aviation, aerospace, biomedical and automotive industries. Our goal is to not only produce high purity Ti64, but to also look at other materials that could benefit from the plasma atomization process. We feel the AM industry is only in its infancy and, with our plasma atomization powder production know-how, this business line will become one of our biggest growth verticals. The demand for high purity materials is only going to grow and PyroGenesis will be there to meet the market’s needs.
DS: How will you build up the distribution network?
MD: Our team has extensive experience in additive manufacturing and a robust network of clients. We are already speaking with many of the top tier aerospace companies and are also getting involved with biomedical companies. In many cases, we are either in the process of being qualified or have been qualified as a supplier to top tier players in the AM industry. Our goal is to come together with strategic partners. Not dissimilar to what we did with our DrosriteTM business unit.
DS: Which are the specific advantages of your technology in powder production and in terms of the powder quality and characteristics?
MD: Our feedstock is a wire, and using plasma we both melt and atomize the wire into fine particulates in one step. This one step process is unique to plasma atomization. Once in a molten state, the powder particles fall and gradually condense into spherical particles. The inert and clean environment of our reactor, where the powder condenses and is collected, allows for the production of high purity materials with minimal oxygen pickup. This is especially important for reactive materials like Ti64, and even more so when you consider the fine particle sizes required by the selective laser melting processes. Furthermore, our plasma atomization process allows us to produce a narrow size cut of bulk material, thus allowing the majority of our produced powder to cater to AM. Today, we have a dedicated facility for the production of Ti64. No other materials will be produced in this facility in order to eliminate the risk of cross-contamination. In the future, it is likely we will build additional facilities to address the need for additional materials. One additional benefit of plasma atomization is that we use a lot less argon gas than gas atomizers. We can also recycle the argon to a high degree, meaning we minimize the quantity of fresh argon required during the production process.
DS: What are the key differences between plasma and gas atomized powder?
MD: The powders produced via plasma atomization are ideal for AM. Specifically, the powder is highly spherical, has little to no internal porosity, and has few satellites. This, along with the excellent particle size distribution, results in a powder that is highly dense and has a high degree of flowability. Third parties have performed X-ray analysis on our powder and have observed that our powder has a higher degree of sphericity, density, and purity compared to a gas atomized powder. As a result, parts printed with plasma atomized powders present less internal porosity and are more dense than those made with gas atomized powders.
DS: Today EBM systems are among the largest users of Ti64. How can you effectively compete with AP&C, which is effectively the first party supplier?
MD: When GE acquired Arcam/AP&C, it effectively disrupted the supply chain. One of the things that the AM industry requires to grow is a robust supply chain. Large industrial users require at least two qualified suppliers of powder, ideally produced via the same technology, to minimize supply chain risk. Our powders compete directly with AP&C’s, giving clients the opportunity to more effectively manage their inventory.
DS: How do you feel about using your powders for binder jetting processes?
MD: PyroGenesis excels at the production of high purity, very fine, reactive powders such as Ti64. This includes the 5µm to 25µm size range which is used by the majority of the binder jetting processes. With our process, we can supply high purity powders for binder jetting processes, selective laser melting processes, electron beam processes, and others. We cater to the all the AM processes.
DS: Which one among all these processes do you believe holds the most potential?
MD: I like making the analogy of AM printers to kitchen knives. Every knife has its intended purpose. You might have a steak knife, a butter knife and a bread knife for example. Each AM printer technology caters to specific tasks. Reverting back to the knife analogy, each AM printer technology has its own strengths and weaknesses. They are not necessarily competing with one another but are more likely complimentary. The aerospace and biomedical industries require Ti64 powder because of either its lightweight and/or biocompatibility. Today, we focus on technologies that use Ti64, but in the future, as demand grows, we will expand to what we refer to as “high volume materials” like steel alloys, which have a lower cost and are more common in the automotive industry. Plasma atomized steel alloy powders have incredible properties however, they are cost prohibitive. We are making further advancements to our plasma atomization system and it is conceivable that in the near future these materials become part of our standard offering.
DS: How large is PyroGenesis today?
MD: Today we have roughly 80 employees, and are growing rapidly. Our headquarters is in Montreal, Canada, however we have a global reach, with partnerships in Asia and Europe.
DS: Are you at all concerned about competition from China?
MD: There is competition coming from China but it is primarily companies offering gas atomized powder. There are some companies that use the Plasma Rotating Electrode Process, which is a plasma process but not plasma atomization like PyroGenesis. We’re very unique in that way.”
DS: How much does plasma atomized powder cost today?
MD: It really depends on the material, the volume, and whether it is a long term contract or a spot order. With that said, we invite clients to contact our sales team to get pricing.
DS: Do you feel that AM powder consumption will consolidate into fewer large companies or the opposite, that is many small clients all over the world?
MD: I think you’re going to have both. If we look at conventional manufacturing, there are thousands of small manufacturing service centers located globally. And then you have a few large service centers that cater to the needs of specific companies. I do see, for example, additive manufacturing being a complementary solution to conventional manufacturing. This is going to be an added tool for manufacturers. And with that being said, I think the market is going to become one where you’re going to see a lot of small manufacturing centers catering to local markets, and you’re going to see a few large, highly sophisticated assembly lines that use both conventional manufacturing and additive manufacturing to cater to specific client needs. From the perspective of our clients, I do think there’s going to be some consolidation, but at the same time, there’s going to be a need for smaller machine shops located globally to cater to local needs. It is also important to mention that the AM industry is experiencing tremendous growth and this will certainly shape how things look in the future.
DS: Where is PyroGenesis headed?
MD: About three years ago we made a decision to shift from selling plasma atomization systems to selling powders. During this time, we implemented significant patented improvements. We installed additional capacity and completed a dedicated Ti64 plasma atomization powder production facility. The facility is AS9100D certified, in addition to being ISO 9001 certified. Even though we’re a small company, we’re moving very quickly and we’ve managed to rapidly gain market share. We expect to become a significant and important player in the powder production sector and a key supplier to the additive manufacturing industry.
DS: What do you think the AM industry needs to do to grow more?
MD: I think it’s primarily a question of standardization. Because additive manufacturing offers so much freedom it is of fundamental importance to decide what standards you give to each of your suppliers to ensure that the parts you receive from supplier A and supplier B are identical. Today the top tier companies stipulate their own standards but there are few international guidelines that hold everyone in the industry to the same production standards and parameters.
Another aspect is that more expertise and understanding is needed on the differences between systems and technologies. It’s a very young industry and we need more leaders in terms of expertise and knowledge.