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State of the PM Industry in North America—2024

Michael Stucky, President, Metal Powder Industries Federation

Powder Metallurgy (PM) comprises four major categories: press and sinter (P&S); metal injection molding (MIM); metal additive manufacturing (AM); and hot or cold isostatic pressing (HIP/CIP). 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. An advanced manufacturing process that can produce robust net-shape components, PM’s high material utilization promotes efficient use of raw materials, reduces energy consumption, and improves labor efficiency.

The current North American PM industry is driven by applications in the automotive market. Environmental concerns have significantly altered the focus of the automotive sector, to say the least. Just a few years ago, most automotive companies went “all in” with battery electric vehicles (BEV); discontinued research & development on internal combustion engines (ICE); and announced massive reductions in their engineering workforce. PM companies became increasingly concerned.

Today there is a new focus on hybrid (HEV) and plug-in hybrid (PHEV)electric vehicles. The best of both worlds, with reduced emissions while operating primarily on battery power and increased distance with the backup ICE. Higher fuel efficiency through improvements in engine performance, weight reduction, and alternative or supplemental power systems will be key drivers. The use of lightweight metals, such as aluminum, magnesium, and titanium will increase, but ferrous alloys will remain the most used metals due to their high specific strength and lower cost. PM should benefit from this new focus.

Other growth opportunities for PM technology over the next 10 years include energy, aerospace, medical/dental, electrical and magnetic, defense, and industrial and consumer products. The need for alternative energy sources will drive new markets and applications for PM; the aging population will continue to create a need for PM applications in the medical industry; global economic development and rising living standards will have a significant impact on PM in consumer products.

Metal Powder Shipments

Optimism was high heading into 2023, but short lived. By the end of January, iron powder shipments, the best indicator of the health of the PM industry, were down over 10% from January 2022, and projected shipments never came to fruition. The total estimated 2023 North American metal powder shipments decreased by 1.2% to 341,420 mt (376,428 st).

Total iron & steel powder shipments decreased 1.0% to 290,452 mt (320,234 st). Estimated copper and copper base powder shipments, along with stainless steel powders, decreased 10% to 11,842 mt (13,056 st) and 5,714 mt (6,300 st), respectively. Nickel powder decreased 1.1% to 3,991 mt (4,400 st), while aluminum powder shipments increased 8%.

Refractory powders were strong during the first half of 2023 but finished the year down an estimated 10.9% compared with 2022. Molybdenum shipments increased an estimated 10.1% to 765 mt (843 st). However, tungsten powder shipments decreased by an estimated 14.7% to 2,890 mt (3,186 st), and tungsten carbide powder shipments decreased by an estimated 11.4% to 4,316 mt (4,759 st).

PM and friction-grade iron powder shipments were flat at 263,157 mt (290,140 st). Welding applications decreased by 4.3% to 13,990 mt (15,424 st). Cutting, scarfing, and lancing applications decreased by 1.3% to 820 mt (904 st). Miscellaneous uses decreased 14.0% to 12,486 mt (13,766 st).

MIM and AM powder producers entered unchartered waters in 2023, but most expect it to be an anomaly and not reflective of its long-term trajectory. Feedstock producers, who are large powder consumers, maintained significant inventories of raw powder to ensure consistent supply for customers. At the same time, parts makers worked through unusually high inventories that resulted from over purchasing in 2021-2022, a reaction to disrupted powder supplies. Adding to the unstable conditions were declining orders throughout the year. The unusual circumstances affected both powder and feedstock producers.

Spherical stainless steels and low-alloy steels are the primary MIM and AM materials, but considerable research & development has resulted in successful components from aluminum, copper, titanium, tungsten, and an array of other metal powders and alloys. North American metal powder consumption for AM is estimated to have increased by 10% in 2023 to 434,088 kg (957,000 lb). However, the combined MIM and AM metal powder shipments decreased by an estimated 10% to 3,706,757-3,963,944 kg (8,172,000-8,739,000 lb). Some industry insiders believe the decrease in shipments for MIM could be even greater, but all expected a correction during 2024-2025.

Conventional Press & Sinter

There are mixed feelings from the P&S parts makers depending on the markets served. The indecisiveness of the automotive industry took a toll on P&S, resulting in consolidations and closing of companies; reduced workforces; minimized capital investments for equipment; and a reduction in R&D where the automotive industry drove technological advancements.

However, it also offered new opportunities. Some saw the global shift to electric motors as an opportunity for magnetic materials to come to the forefront over the next decade. Development continues in soft-magnetic-composite (SMC) materials with higher permeability, increased strength, and improved temperature resistance for AC applications. 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.

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 growth for the remainder of the year. However, many anticipate new applications launching for PHEV/BEVs, and they are waiting with open arms for the resurgence of ICE vehicle applications.

Non-automotive projections range from high single-digit to mid-double-digit growth. These applications tend to be quicker time-to-market, lower volumes, but the low-hanging fruit is gone and most require some type of value-added secondary operations.

Automation, reduced energy consumption, data monitoring, and efficiency continue to be the focus of P&S equipment manufacturers. Equipment manufacturers continue to introduce equipment to support value-added, near-net-shape parts requiring high precision secondary operations, opening new opportunities for the parts makers. 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 makers.

Sustainability, supply chain localization, and electrification will remain key challenges for P&S, 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. But 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.

Thanks to the materials advancements, new equipment is hitting the market. Research & development atomizers are being utilized for small production batches of powders until large volumes support scaled-up atomizers that will further commercialization. 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) has issued 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 this year 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 North American MIM industry remains healthy with an overall optimistic outlook for the industry, although few are predicting high rates of growth in the short term. MIM occupies a small niche among all metalworking processes and remains subject to significant fluctuations. The ability to create complex shapes reliably and economically in high volume remains the MIM technology’s core strength.

Growth for companies working in MIM depends on the success of part makers in gaining increased market share against other metalworking technologies, and R&D efforts are focused on increasing dimensional control/reliability and overall cost reduction. The medical and firearms sector continue to be the prime consumers of MIM components, but the demand for firearms has steadily decreased over the past 3 years. However, general industrial applications and automotive MIM components continue to increase annually.

The MIM powder/feedstock suppliers outlook is positive for the 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. The Metal Injection Molding Association’s Standards Committee is currently reviewing its first titanium standard.

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. There are a considerable number of MIM manufacturers that have a presence in AM, primarily utilizing Binder Jet technology due to its process similarities.

The status of MIM in North America appears to be reflective of the industry worldwide, with all geographic regions facing similar issues and concerns. Most MIM parts producers anticipate single-digit growth in 2024 with expectations of double-digit growth in 2025 and beyond.

Refractory Metals

The Russian-Ukrainian war is still having an impact on the demand for tungsten powder. Several high-volume defense applications utilized by Ukraine and surrounding allies were delayed due to funding in the second half of 2023. Funding has been approved for Ukraine and for rebuilding inventory in the US, increasing volumes.

To reduce lead times and the dependence on Chinese tungsten, North American companies are trying to source domestically by recycling tungsten waste and developing more tungsten mines. Additionally, Section 301 tariffs and Department of Defense contract clauses will have more of an impact in 2024 and 2025.

The demand for tungsten carbide cutting tools and wear parts was mixed. Vehicle production was up in 2023 and machining in manufacturing remained about the same. The rest of the wear market was negatively impacted by a continued slowness in oil and gas exploration, coal production, and weaker demand in the housing construction market. It is forecasted that the EV market will continue to reduce the amount of cutting tools used in the production of vehicles.

North American oil and gas rig counts finished the year down 18% over 2022. At the end of 2023, the North American rig count was 708 compared with a 20-year average of 1,467 and the most recent five-year average of 712. In 2023, coal production in the US was down 2.9% over 2022 according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency.

North American molybdenum powder demand increased in 2023. Molybdenum applications include aerospace, automotive, electronics, defense, industrial, and medical. Demand for these applications continues to remain strong in these growth areas and there are few substitutes available. Ukraine continues to consume these items while the US is trying to rebuild its inventory.

In 2023 and 2024, the industry experienced delays and shortages in raw material supply due to mine closures and reductions in output in Chile, China, and other parts of the world. Molybdenum is often found with copper and as a result can be a by-product of copper refining, typically 50-60% of molybdenum comes from copper refining. China, the largest molybdenum ore contributor, reduced its output in 2022 and 2023, and is expected to continue throughout 2024. These shortages, reduced output, and closures have led to price volatility for molybdenum.

Powder Metallurgy Outlook

All manufacturing segments, not just PM, have faced challenges in recent years due to geopolitical uncertainty, supply chain disruptions, changing consumer preferences, and increasing regulatory scrutiny. However, several positive factors, such as rising global demand, ongoing technological advancements, and increasing investment in automation and digitalization, continue to influence the market, and the outlook for manufacturing remains positive. Manufacturers who can effectively balance cost pressures and maintain a strong focus on quality are likely to survive the current crisis and come out more resilient in the end.

Among the factors that could affect manufacturing in 2024 is the continuing adoption of advanced technology, such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and the Internet of Things (IoT), which have the potential to improve overall efficiency and productivity while reducing costs.

Over 70% of the iron powder shipped in North America is estimated to be used for parts in passenger vehicles. In 2023, approximately 15.5 million passenger vehicles were sold in the U.S., of which only 3.12 million were sedans. The current consensus is new-vehicle sales will be 15.5 -15.8 million units in 2024.

Annually, 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 2023 North American passenger vehicle remained stable at 15.9 kg (35 lb), same as 2022.

Sales of EV growth in the U.S. continues to slow. In the first quarter of 2024, just under 270,000 new EVs were sold, 7.3% of all new automobile sales. While annual EV sales continue to grow, the growth rate has slowed considerably. Sales in the first quarter of 2024 rose 2.6% year over year but fell 15.2% compared with the fourth quarter of 2023, the first quarter-over-quarter downturn since the second quarter of 2020.

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. 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.

PM 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. Additionally, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and MPIF are collaborating in assessing large-scale components via HIP.

As MIM and metal AM continue to be identified as the solution, additional opportunities in medical and dental markets will develop. 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, and surgical devices, to first aid and wound-care products.

Homeland security requirements will drive the development of innovative technologies to meet the detection, energy, lethality, mobility, and protection 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.

Computers, farm/off-road equipment, firearms, home appliance, jewelry, lawn and garden, power and hand tools, recreation transportation, sporting goods, and telecommunications, as well as other high-tech industries, will need component solutions as they provide new products and services to consumers.

PM is a resource-efficient alternative to other metal-forming technologies, providing endless opportunities for creating a more sustainable world. Innovative design considers both the strategic advantages of sustainability and minimizing adverse environmental impact. PM’s sustainable value is primarily derived from its net-shape capabilities and its high material-utilization that minimizes energy inputs, reducing the impact on the environment.

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 for metal powders and PM parts. The PM industry will need to continue to invest in the development of our people, acknowledging and valuing their contributions to its success, and encouraging them to share their ideas. The industry must respond to the changing needs and demands of existing and potential customers with agility and ingenuity, while maintaining higher value than competing manufacturing technologies.

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.

 

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