State of the PM Industry in North America—2022
Rodney Brennen, President, Metal Powder Industries Federation
The North American powder metallurgy (PM) industry has not been immune from the unprecedented challenges facing the global supply‐chain. We continue to feel the negative effects of the COVID‐19 pandemic. I don’t think anyone could have imagined this virus would take a million American lives. The semiconductor microchip processor shortages, resulting in orders being pushed out or even worse, cancelled. Most automotive companies, whose vehicles use an estimated 20‐100 processors each, depending on the vehicle’s features, agree that recovery will begin in the second half of 2022, but a normal supply won’t be met until well into 2023. Volkswagen doesn’t expect demands to be met until 2024.
The container shortages, that has caused difficulty receiving raw materials and shipping finished product to our customers. The Royal Bank of Canada estimates one‐fifth of the global container ship fleet is currently stuck in congestion at ports. The Great Resignation, where employees simply quit. In February of this year, total “quits” by employees in the manufacturing sector hit a record 345,000, a short‐lived record as March registered 360,000 quits. The unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia had an immediate effect on the availability of raw materials, sending prices skyrocketing, while also causing other global disruptions. And let’s not forget the ongoing electrification of the automobile, our industry’s main consumer of PM parts. All major and minor automotive companies have aggressive plans to discontinue or severely limit the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2030. However, many of these major disruptions should be viewed as opportunities. They have forced companies to work smarter, be more efficient, and innovative. New production output levels are being achieved thanks to changes and innovations made because of the pandemic. Many companies report reductions in energy consumption, furnace atmosphere gasses, scrap, and waste that is sent to landfills as a direct result of operating more efficiently.
Some companies have replaced older equipment with the latest computer controlled “Industry 4.0” technology. This “Internet of Things” approach allows equipment to “talk” to each other and learn the best parameters for the process. Automation within the industry continues to grow as a solution to the overall shortage of workers. From pick‐and‐place robots at the compacting presses and furnaces, to 100% vision system inspections, automation will continue to increase. With nothing on the horizon to reverse the shortage of workers, we can all be grateful that robots usually show up five days a week and don’t take extended breaks. Even with the excessive amount of manufacturing quits during the Great Resignation, the manufacturing sector has proved quite resilient over the past year where new factory orders have soared over 14%, year‐over‐year. All of this is positive. The PM industry is alive and well, landing back on its feet, and on its way to recovery.
North American Metal Powder Shipments
The total estimated 2021 North American metal powder shipments increased by 8.1% to 359,928 mt (396,834 st).
PM and friction‐grade iron powder shipments were up 6.6% to 275,309 mt (303,538 st). Welding applications increased by 30.2% to 14,309 mt (15,776 st). Cutting, scarfing, and lancing applications increased by 21.0% to 822 mt (906 st). Miscellaneous uses increased 11.5% to 16,665 mt (18,374 st).
Metal Powder Activities
Powder producers continue to respond to the needs of the industry by developing new and improved materials and additives for conventional press and sinter, MIM, and metal AM. Over the past 2 years, dry lubricants have been in limited supply and high‐demand, forcing companies to seek alternatives. The demand to improve “value‐added” machining has resulted in new high green strength materials that are suitable for green machining.
With the electrification of the automobile increasing, soft magnetic and soft magnetic composites are being researched by all major iron powder producers. Most have ongoing collaborative efforts with their customers and academia to identify higher permeability, lower core loss, and increased part strength materials and processes. The MPIF Standards Committee is keeping a keen eye on this development. These magnetic materials have a vital role in the future of electric vehicles, as well as home appliances and other electric devices, and will require standardization. MIM and AM powder producers are seeing strong demands for materials. Generally, the materials of choice are stainless steels and low alloy steels, but there is considerable developmental work being performed on aluminum, titanium, and an array of other metal powders and alloys. Total 2021 North American MIM and AM powder shipments increased by an estimated 5‐10% to 3,934,767‐4,202,178 kg (8,656,487‐9,244,792 lb). Of this amount, an estimated 360,000 kg (793,664 lb) is dedicated to AM. Improving powder quality will benefit both MIM and AM. A narrower particle size distribution range, greater sphericity, fewer satellites, and less internal porosity will improve throughput, mechanical properties, and overall process consistency. Typically, these powders are manufactured by gas atomization, but capacity has been added recently for plasma atomization and research continues to develop water‐atomized low‐alloy materials for MIM and AM.
Conventional Press & Sinter
Parts makers report a continued surge from the industrial sector, requiring value‐added, near‐ net‐shape parts that have cost‐effective lean‐alloy materials, with high material utilization rates. Most have realized increased backlogs, month after month. Disrupted supply chains have resulted in the re‐shoring of some PM parts, but not to the extent that most had hoped.
The general feeling from the conventional press & sinter parts makers is high single‐digit to low double digit‐growth for non‐automotive applications. The current outlook for automotive applications is not as good due to supply chain disruptions.
We estimate over seventy percent of the iron powder shipped is used for parts in internal combustion engine (ICE) passenger vehicles. Unfortunately, it appears HVs have limited use, or are not using, powder forged connecting rods and PM main bearing caps. And obviously, EVs don’t have connecting rods and main bearing caps.
To put things into perspective, there is roughly 9 kg (20 lb) of iron powder used for powder forged connecting rods and main bearing caps in an 8‐cylinder engine. So, as HVs and EVs gain greater acceptance, we can expect iron powder shipments to decline until other applications pick up the volume.
Each year, we estimate the amount of PM in a North American passenger vehicle. In 2021, there were roughly 15 million vehicles sold, about 500 thousand more than 2020, but 2 million less than pre‐COVID 2019. The semiconductor shortages had a devastating effect on vehicle sales as car lots were empty.
The automotive manufacturers diverted the semiconductors to produce the higher‐margin large pick‐up trucks and SUVs over the lower‐margin sedans. This was great news for the PM industry as the large passenger vehicles consume an average 27.2 kg (60 lb) per vehicle, followed by the midsize crossover vehicles at 18.1 kg (40 lb) and the sedans at 9.1 kg (20 lb) Our best estimate for EVs, less the battery, ranges from 1.8‐3.6 kg (4‐8 lb) of PM. Taking everything into consideration, the estimated average weight in a 2021 North American passenger vehicle remained at 16.8 kg (37 lb)
A lot has been made of the doubling of EV sales, to about 800,000 vehicles in 2021, compared with 2020. This represents about 5% of the vehicle sales. Many attribute this electric vehicle increase to the lack of overall vehicles available due to the semiconductor shortages. Remember, the North American automotive manufacturers limited smaller ICE sedans and crossovers builds, the types of vehicles targeted by the EV manufacturers.
As the semiconductor shortage weans, and HVs and EVs gain greater acceptance, the PM weight in passenger vehicles will likely decrease 2‐3% annually without new applications. However, there are opportunities to introduce the use of powder forged connecting rods and PM main bearing caps in HVs, and new applications in EVs.
But we can’t depend solely on the automotive industry. In 2001, MPIF launched the PM Industry Vision and Technology Roadmap. One of the six priorities identified was “Focus on emerging product needs” that noted:
“Reliance on the internal combustion engine is decreasing and PM producers must develop materials and systems required for emerging fuel cell and hybrid‐electric vehicle technology.”
That was over 20 years ago, and we are still talking about it today…
Metal Additive Manufacturing
President Joe Biden and his Administration have launched Additive Manufacturing (AM) Forward. Part of the Bipartisan Innovation Act, AM Forward is expected to improve the competitiveness of America’s small and medium enterprise (SME) manufacturers; creating and sustaining high‐paying manufacturing jobs; and improving supply chain resilience through adoption of additive manufacturing.
Several large, iconic American manufacturers have made a voluntary pact to support their U.S.‐ based SME suppliers’ adoption of AM. For example, GE Aviation will target SME suppliers to compete on 50% of the quotes on products made using AM or related technologies, targeting 30% of its AM parts from U.S.‐based suppliers. Siemens Energy will target purchasing 20‐40% of its AM parts and services from U.S.‐based SME suppliers. Lockheed Martin will conduct research with SMEs to improve the performance of AM processes as an alternative to castings and forgings; and it will further participate in university and technical college programs for AM workforce development. Honeywell will target U.S.‐based SME suppliers to quote products, machinery, and tooling utilizing AM or related technologies.
The continuing acceptance and growth of metal AM has shortened the window from concept to new part launches, and in many cases, combined numerous components into one, because of the design freedom AM offers. AM is flexible. It can be used as a standalone component production process; used for prototyping during the design process; and it can be used to make molds, tooling, and fixtures. It can also be the low volume precursor solution for a high volume component produced by another metal forming process, like metal injection molding (MIM).
Metal Injection Molding
The MIM industry continues to be robust, as evidenced by the successful MIM conference earlier this year. Most MIM parts producers continue to experience double‐digit growth. The medical and firearms sector continue to be the prime consumers of MIM components. Even better, the demand for general industrial applications and automotive MIM components continues to increase annually.
It is estimated that U.S. MIM sales in 2021 hit $520 million. Normal business challenges faced by MIM companies, such as the continuing need for skilled employees, global competition, and rising raw materials costs, have been replaced by the more immediate supply‐chain crunch and long‐term concerns regarding the affect metal AM growth will have on raw materials availability.
In 2021, the tungsten market significantly increased on an overall basis with continued strong growth in the semiconductor market, driving demand for high purity tungsten powder due to the demands for newer generation chips used in 5G, personal computers, super computers, smartphones, electric vehicles, smart TVs, and other “Internet of Things” devices. Tungsten powder for the defense industry also remained strong. Another positive trend that boosted tungsten powder shipments was North American customers buying from domestic producers instead of Asian producers whose supply chains represented significant delays and risk.
The tungsten carbide market moderately improved but was still impacted by a reduced North American oil and gas exploration and a depressed coal mining market. There was a moderate increase in demand for tungsten carbide for cutting tools and wear parts due to a resurgence in manufacturing, but the demand was impacted by shortages in raw materials and labor, as well as transportation issues and rising costs.
North American oil and gas rig counts finished the year up 65% over 2020, which had the lowest levels since 1949. At the end of 2021, the North American rig count was 676 compared to a 20‐ year average of 1,514 and the most recent five‐year average of 842. In 2021, coal production in the US was up 8% over 2020 according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, but 2020 was one of the worse years on record. Reduced automotive production resulted in inconsistent demand for cutting tools. Other manufacturing sectors picked up in 2021, but again shipping backlogs and COVID‐19 lockdowns in China disrupted raw materials.
Longer transportation timeframes have had a significant impact on international shipments of tungsten concentrates and other raw materials. The uncertainty has led manufacturers to increase inventories to avoid the possibility of running low on raw materials. For the most part, increased prices did not have a discernible impact on demand from many industrial manufacturers in the North American market.
North American molybdenum powder demand was estimated to be up by 33%. Molybdenum is used in PM applications for such industries as aerospace, automotive, medical, defense, industrial, and electronics. Demand for these applications surged in 2021 increasing the need for molybdenum powders for the diverse PM parts that service these markets.
Powder Metallurgy Outlook
I believe the industry will be able to adapt and overcome, but we will need the mindset and resources to adjust to the changing environment. As an industry, we need to showcase our strengths and work together to advance the technology. We have a lot of advantages over other metal‐forming technologies. Many companies in our industry have aggressive programs to become carbon‐neutral, sooner than later. Last year we learned about iron powder being used as an energy source, combusting it with hot gases to drive an engine, producing sustainable electricity. We also learned about a sustainable energy‐focused infrastructure for storing zero‐emission metal‐hydride energy. This innovative, safe, and renewable energy storage solution utilizes high‐density PM pellets. Other non‐traditional applications for metal powers include water purification, thermal management, and solar energy. And how about the research to remove oxygen from moon dust? The process byproduct is metal powder that one day could be used to make structures on the moon.
These are just a few examples of creative uses and new opportunities for metal powders. We need to set our sights long‐term, not just on meeting our monthly goals. We need to invest in R&D to create new applications and uses for metal powders and PM parts. And we need to work together for a common goal.
We have a lot to look forward to as we advance the PM technology.
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Editor’s note: Digital copy available. Contact Dora Schember at 609‐452‐7700 / email@example.com
About the Metal Powder Industries Federation
Metal Powder Industries Federation is the North American trade association formed by the powder metallurgy industry to advance the interests of the metal powder producing and consuming industries and provides a single point of reference for all MPIF member companies.
About APMI International
APMI International is a non‐profit professional society which promotes the advancement of powder metallurgy and particulate materials as a science. Its purpose is to disseminate and exchange information about PM and particulate materials through publications, conferences, and other activities of the society.
About the Center for Powder Metallurgy Technology
The Center for Powder Metallurgy Technology merges the academic and corporate powder metallurgy worlds together with a joint goal to promote PM industry progress. This progress depends on the business community and its drive for profit, and it also takes the educational community with its dedication to research and the pursuit of knowledge.