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State of the PM Industry in North America—2023

Rodney Brennen, President, Metal Powder Industries Federation

Powder Metallurgy (PM) is an advanced manufacturing metal-forming process for producing high-quality net-shape components for a wide variety of applications. The PM process comprises four categories: press and sinter (P&S); metal injection molding (MIM); metal additive manufacturing (AM); and hot or cold isostatic pressing (HIP/CIP). PM’s high material utilization promotes efficient use of raw materials, reduces energy consumption, and improves labor efficiency. These attributes have enabled PM to establish itself firmly in applications for the automotive, electrical, energy, aerospace, medical, defense, industrial, and consumer markets. To continue to grow, the PM industry must respond to the changing needs of existing and potential customers within these markets. Three major challenges that the PM industry faces are sustainability, the electrification of the automobile, and the acceptance of metal AM.

Sustainability factors are already influencing the PM industry’s customer procurement and investment decisions, and these factors will become more substantial in the future. As part of the industry’s sustainability activities, the industry continues to take steps to ensure responsible sourcing of materials and compliance with conflict mineral legislation and other international trade agreements as they evolve. PM technology is a resource-efficient alternative to other metal-forming technologies, providing endless opportunities for creating a more sustainable world. The industry is well positioned to support its customers' Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) goals with domestic manufacturing that can reduce transportation impact on the environment, while utilizing less material and energy compared with other manufacturing processes.

The automotive market is the largest consumer of PM parts. Government policies of increasing CAFE standards and reducing the dependence on fossil fuels, with a focus on green energy, has placed a heightened emphasis on the automotive industry to commit to the development of plug-in hybrid (PHEV) and battery electric vehicles (BEV). While near term combined PHEV/BEV volumes are about 12% of the fleet, this shift has been felt across the PM industry in the reduction of internal combustion engine (ICE) development programs.

Replacement of machined and cast parts, and the consolidation of parts into assemblies with metal AM components will affect the PM industry. While metal AM is capable of manufacturing unusual and complex component shapes that were previously difficult or even impossible to manufacture using other metal-forming technologies, there are still significant challenges to overcome for metal AM to become competitive with other high-volume metal-forming technologies. Continued expansion of available metal AM materials is required for the acceptance in medical and flight critical applications. Higher throughput for automotive applications is needed for metal AM to reach its potential.

Metal Powder Shipments

The total estimated 2022 North American metal powder shipments decreased by 4.0% to 345,596 mt (381,032 st).

Total iron powder shipments decreased 4.5% to 293,243 mt (323,311 st). Estimated copper and copper base powder shipments decreased 3.3% to 13,152 mt (14,500 st) and nickel powder decreased 5.3% to 4,036 mt (4,450 st). Aluminum powder shipments increased 1.4% and stainless steel shipments were the same as 2021.

Refractory powders had a mixed year in 2022 after robust shipments in 2021. Molybdenum shipments increased an estimated 23.4% to 695 mt (766 st). Tungsten powder shipments increased by an estimated 8.8% to 3,389 mt (3,736 st), and tungsten carbide powder shipments decreased an estimated 8.8% to 4,870 mt (5,369 st).

PM and friction-grade iron powder shipments were down 4.4% to 263,261 mt (290,255 st). Welding applications increased by 2.2% to 14,625 mt (16,125 st). Cutting, scarfing, and lancing applications increased by 1.1% to 831 mt (916 st). Miscellaneous uses decreased 12.8% to 14,526 mt (16,015 st).

MIM and AM powder producers continue to see increased demand for materials. The materials of choice are stainless steels and low-alloy steels, but there is considerable developmental work being performed on aluminum, copper, titanium, tungsten, and an array of other metal powders and alloys. Total 2022 North American MIM and AM powder shipments increased by an estimated 5-10% to 4,118,619-4,404382 kg (9,080,000-9,710,000 lb). Of this amount, an estimated 394,625 kg (870,000 lb) is dedicated to AM.

Conventional Press & Sinter

As the automotive industry decreases its dependence on ICE drivetrains, sweeping changes present serious challenges and opportunities for P&S. The global shift to electric motors offers an opportunity for magnetic materials to come to the forefront over the next decade. For AC applications, there is increasing interest in soft-magnetic-composite (SMC) materials with higher permeability, increased strength, and improved temperature resistance. Advanced motor designs are demonstrating the potential of axial-flux motors (AFM) and transverse-flux motors (TFM) utilizing SMC parts for automotive and non-automotive applications.

Many areas of PM can be considered a circular economy as they reduce material use; redesign materials, products, and services to be less resource intensive; and recapture “waste” as a resource to manufacture new materials and products. New lean-alloy materials are being developed by powder producers to meet current and future sustainability demands. One example is manufactured from 98% scrap with a low CO₂ footprint fossil-free electricity. The alloy does not contain copper, so it can be fully recycled at the end of its life. Additionally, continuous improvement of advanced premix lubricants, binders, and machining additives allows tailored customer support for all applications ensuring a stable raw material supply chain for parts manufacturers.

Automation, reduced energy consumption, data monitoring, and efficiency continue to be the focus of P&S equipment manufacturers. Equipment manufacturers understand that the low-hanging fruit is long gone for the parts producers, so the development of equipment to support value-added, near-net-shape parts requiring high precision secondary operations has opened new opportunities.

There are mixed feelings from the P&S parts makers depending on the markets served. The feeling is the new normal business level is steady. Non-automotive projections range from high single-digit to mid-double-digit growth. The current outlook for automotive applications is relevant to the make and model supplied, but most parts makers report the automotive market to be flat to mid-single-digit for the remainder of the year. However, there are reports of new applications launching for PHEV/BEVs.

Electrification, supply chain localization, and sustainability will remain key challenges for P&S for the near future, forcing automotive and industrial suppliers to adapt, evolve, and cultivate new opportunities.

Metal Additive Manufacturing

Metal AM has the potential to change the production, time-to-market, and simplicity of components and assemblies. Continued growth depends on advancements in materials and material properties, processes, and manufacturing efficiencies. New materials developed to support the metal AM industry include high-wear-resistance alloys, water-atomized iron, copper, tool steels, nickel-based superalloys, cobalt-based alloys, aluminum alloys, and titanium alloys for specialized applications.

Equipment manufacturers continue to answer the call. Research & development atomizers are being utilized for small production batches of powders. Furnace manufacturers are satisfying the needs of Binder Jet parts producers. Metal AM part producers are taking advantage of hot isostatic pressing to ensure the integrity of their parts. New software leverages advanced simulation to enable users to correct for distortion experienced by metal AM parts during sintering due to gravity, friction, and shrinkage.

To expedite the acceptance of metal AM, the Association for Metal Additive Manufacturing (AMAM) recently issued two standard test methods for tension test specimens and anticipates the release of a new MPIF Std 35-AM Materials Standards for Metal Additive Manufactured Parts that will standardize Binder Jet SS-316L and 17-4 PH stainless steels. After the Binder Jet materials are approved, work will commence on Laser Powder-Bed-Fusion materials.

The overall outlook for metal AM is the same as for all advanced manufacturing processes - increased efficiency, reduced cost, and digitization of the process are required for the technology to be accepted and mature. If metal AM lives up to its expectations, it could significantly affect the overall use of metal powders and will positively influence market penetration. For many applications, metal AM will become increasingly competitive with all metal-forming processes.

Metal Injection Molding

The MIM market continues to be driven by individual sectors adopting the technology due to its superior net-shape capability, reliability, and economic benefits. Many MIM companies see growth assisted by re-shoring efforts, as end-users shift from overseas suppliers to purchasing locally. Growth for all companies working in MIM depends on the success of part makers to gain increased market share against other metalworking technologies, and that is where R&D efforts are focused.

The MIM powder/feedstock suppliers outlook is positive for the near future. This positive view includes the stability of standard offerings like stainless steels, low-alloy steels, and titanium alloys. There has been increased interest in superalloys that are coming into commercialization. Efforts to tailor particle-size distributions to increase part accuracy and develop powders/feedstocks to manufacture larger parts continues to be a focus.

Molding equipment demand is stable as overall production demands are being met by existing equipment. MIM furnace demand continues to grow. Automation is expected to increase as skilled workers become scarcer.

The successful MIM2023 conference again reflected the robust MIM industry. Most MIM parts producers continue to experience double-digit growth. The medical and firearms sector continue to be the prime consumers of MIM components, but the demand for general industrial applications and automotive MIM components continues to increase annually.

Refractory Metals

In 2022, the tungsten market continued robust growth in the semiconductor market, driving demand for high purity tungsten powder for new generation chips, and demand for simpler chips continues to outpace capacity. This industry will continue to remain strong for many years as the U.S. is building 14-24 new semiconductor plants over the next 3-7 years.

The U.S. has increased the defense items that use tungsten, while trying to replenish its depleting inventory. The trend to source domestically has added to tungsten powder growth as companies try to minimize supply chains, risk, and dependence on China.

The demand for tungsten carbide for cutting tools and wear parts was moderately down compared with 2021. The market was negatively affected by a continued downturn in oil and gas exploration and coal production, weaker housing construction, and less ICE vehicles being produced. The growth of the EV will reduce the amount of cutting tools used in the production of vehicles.

The growth of EVs can be positive as $250-$300 billion investment in the construction of new electricity generation plants and hundreds of thousands of charging stations is expected over the next 3-5 years. Various tungsten alloys and tungsten carbide will be consumed in the construction and applications for the network and charging stations.

Oil and gas rig counts finished 2022 up 28% over 2021. At the end of 2022, the rig count was 863 compared with a 20-year average of 1,514. The past five-year average was 801. Coal production was only moderately up 3% over 2021, making 2022 the third worst year in coal production since 1970.

North American molybdenum powder demand increased in 2022 by an estimated 23.4%. Molybdenum is used in PM applications for aerospace, automotive, medical, defense, industrial, and electronics. Demand remains strong and there are few substitutes available. Commencing in 2022, certain defense items that use molybdenum are being consumed by Ukraine at rates nearly impossible to sustain. This demand will continue, and efforts are underway to increase capacity and rebuild the U.S. inventory.

The molybdenum industry experienced delays and shortages in raw material supply due to mine closures and reductions in output in Chile, China, and other regions, resulting in the highest molybdenum price in 17 years. Molybdenum ore is often a by-product of copper refining.

Powder Metallurgy Outlook

Over 70% of the iron powder shipped in North America is estimated to be used for parts in passenger vehicles. The U.S. inventory-to-sales ratio dropped to its lowest point in February 2022, as Russia's war on Ukraine resulted in gasoline price increases. During that same period, inflation also impacted new car prices, pricing many U.S. consumers out of the market, resulting in roughly 13.7 million vehicles sold, about 1.2 million less than 2021, for the lowest sales year since 2011. The current consensus is new-vehicle sales will be 14.6 -15.1 million units in 2023.

Each year, we estimate the amount of PM in a North American passenger vehicle. The large platform pick-up trucks and SUV passenger vehicles consume an average 24.9 kg (55 lb) per vehicle, followed by the midsize platform crossover vehicles at 13.6 kg (30 lb) and the sedans at 9.1 kg (20 lb). Our best estimate for a PHEV is 6.8 kg (15 lb) and BEV, less the battery, is 2.3 kg (5 lb) of PM. Taking everything into consideration, the estimated average weight in a 2022 North American passenger vehicle was 15.9 kg (35 lb). The PM weight in passenger vehicles will likely decrease 2-3% annually without new applications.

PHEVs and BEVs are gaining acceptance at a rate higher than most people are willing to accept, with an increase in 2022 of 2.7% over 2021. The number of BEV models nearly doubled from model year 2021 to 2022, going from 20 to 38, with the number of BEV models in 2022 surpassing the number of PHEV models for the first time since 2014.

Previously, PHEV and BEV manufacturers reduced time-to-market at any cost, but are now more cost conscious, opening the door for PM as a solution. Later this year, the 2024 Mercedes-Benz AMG will be powered by the first production axial-flux motors which can be compact and significantly more efficient than radial-flux motors. This could be the opportunity the PM industry and SMC materials have been seeking, and the MPIF Standards Committee expects to issue its first SMC standards later this year.

Strategic and reshoring production of electromagnet and permanent magnets is a supply chain opportunity for the PM industry, including powder and component production. Development of rare-earth-free magnets would provide a competitive advantage over rare-earth magnets.

The aerospace industry must become more fuel efficient to minimize fuel cost and respond to expected pressure to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Structural optimization will continue to search for light-weighting opportunities that enhance structural performance, strength, and stiffness. PM hot isostatic pressing (HIP) and metal AM technologies will expand opportunities in aerospace applications. The need for more efficient engines will continue to drive development of higher strength materials that can operate at higher temperatures. PM superalloys will continue to be used in extremely demanding applications.

The medical market encompasses a broad spectrum of sub-markets or segments that include products ranging from cosmetic enhancements, dental, diagnostic equipment, hospital furniture and equipment, implants, medical mobility equipment such as wheelchairs, prostheses, pharmaceuticals, and surgical devices, to first aid and wound-care products. As metal injection molding (MIM) and metal AM continue to be identified as the solution, additional opportunities in medical and dental markets will develop.

Homeland security requirements will drive the development of innovative technologies to meet the detection, protection, mobility, lethality, and energy needs for defense. Advances in security screening, such as X-ray scanning, will continue to make use of tungsten-based collimators and shielding that are processed by PM. Refractory metals will continue to be used in kinetic-energy weapons, hypersonic systems, and for maintaining proper weight distribution in missiles and aircraft. PM light-weighting is a solution to improve fuel efficiency and enhance mobility. Components with unique combinations of properties may be produced by merging PM processes. Fabrication and repair of parts, both in manufacturing facilities and in the field, may be performed by metal AM technologies.

Applications such as telecommunications, computers, home appliance, lawn and garden, farm/off-road equipment, power and hand tools, recreation transportation, jewelry, sporting goods, and firearms, as well as other high-tech industries, will need component solutions as they provide new products and services to consumers. Like the shift towards EVs, there will be new opportunities as the lawn and garden and agricultural manufacturers introduce battery powered products for markets that have banned the use of fossil fuel powered devices and equipment.

These are just a few examples of creative uses and new opportunities for metal powders. We have a lot of advantages over other metal-forming technologies. As an industry, we need to highlight our strengths and work together to advance the PM technology. We need to invest in R&D to create new applications and uses for metal powders and PM parts.

We have a lot to look forward to as we advance the PM technology.

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Contact Dora Schember at 609-452-7700 / dschember@mpif.org for additional details.

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.

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