Titanium Powder 3D Printing Taking Off Thanks to UK’s GKN, Metalysis

An exciting development in the UK heralds more widespread adoption of additive layer manufacturing, or 3D printing, from titanium powder far beyond its current limited use in the aerospace industry.

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The UK’s Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) has agreed to invest £1.5 million ($2.3 million) in a collaborative R&D project, led by GKN Aerospace and Metalysis, the specialist metals technology company with partners Phoenix Scientific Industries Ltd. and The University of Leeds to develop the use of Metalysis’ high quality, low-cost titanium powder for use in aerospace additive manufacturing for the first time with a commercial partner.

Titanium castings made from rutile. Image courtesy of GKN Aerospace.

In an interview with MetalMiner, Dr. Kartik Rao, Director of Business Development at Metalysis discussed the potential benefits for not just additive manufacturing as a technology but for the adoption of titanium 3D printed parts across a range of industries.

Reduction in Costs

The cost of the powder in 3D parts makes up roughly 50% of the final cost, Rao explained, so a significant reduction in powder costs could be a major spur to the adoption of such technology in more applications and in industries beyond aerospace and medical devices, such as automotive.

Metalysis’ technology starts with rutile sand and in an electrolysis operation not unlike the Hall-Héroult process for aluminum, using carbon anodes and a calcium chloride salt bath, the rutile is reduced to pure titanium at a modest 800-1,000 degrees Celsius, similar to that required for aluminum reduction.

Perfect Powder

The resulting powder exhibits near perfect sphericity and size uniformity making it perfect for 3D printing, where such properties directly affect the surface finish and quality of the final component. While precise details of the economics are not in the public domain, a sense of the cost-benefit can be gleaned from the fact rutile is an ore priced at roughly $1,000 per metric ton whereas titanium mill products are priced at roughly $50-70/kilogram.

Powder produced by conventional processes comes in at $200-300/kg. A one-step technology clearly should be much cheaper than the lengthy conventional refining and manufacturing route for titanium mill products, opening up the potential for its wider adoption by industry and even potentially its substitution for stainless steel and aluminum parts in new applications.

Better Printers

As Rao was at pains to point out, wider use of titanium powder in 3D printed parts will not just be driven by lower cost and better quality powder, beneficial as those will be, but more efficient 3D printers with faster production times and larger chambers will play a very significant part as will the lower cost of printers that is already resulting from an increase in the number of machines being made. At present, Rao estimates there are only about 4,000 machines in operation but growth estimates predict this could rise by between a factor of 4 and a factor 10 over the next 20 years, by which time 10% of airframe parts could be made by 3D printing.

All of which explains GKN’s enthusiasm for the project. As a major tier-2 player in the aerospace industry supplying Boeing and Airbus plus military clients. GKN is a major producer of steel and iron powders in its own right, so the firm, no doubt, sees innovation in this sector as a key platform for growth in coming years. For Metalysis, which started life as a Cambridge University spin-off and last year received $20 million in investment backing from Australia’s ILUKA the world’s number 2 producer of rutile behind Rio Tinto, the tie up with a major aerospace firm opens not just opportunities for the firm but for the wider adoption and development of the technology for industry.

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