The Future of Metal Powders Obviously Includes 3D Printing, Says GKN

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3D printing is the future — but that’s only part of the story. No single technology will dominate the future of manufacturing, but advanced technologies are certainly disrupting the status quo. Additive manufacturing is, no apologies for the phrasing, reshaping industry. Not only the way things are made, but the approach to thinking about the entire supply chain is becoming a wider conversation impacting hardware suppliers, machining shops, and materials suppliers alike. Global engineering business GKN plc has been placing a larger emphasis recently on advanced technologies, particularly embracing 3D printing as the technology enables new approaches to design. This emphasis has been evident throughout the company’s operating units — including its dedicated GKN Additive brand, established late last year.

On the materials supply side, GKN Sinter Materials in the GKN Powder Metallurgy division has extensive experience in metal powders and, as Markus Josten, Global Sales Director, Disruptive Technologies & Markets, explained when we sat down to talk at the recent RAPID + TCT, has been looking toward the future of metal powders.

“We are coming from conventional metallurgy,” he began, noting that the company compacts and sinters metals with a focus on about 85% automotive and the rest industrial MIM.

“In 2013 we asked what will be the future with our metal powders. It became so obvious when we thought about 3D printing.”

Hoeganaes, also part of the GKN Powder Metallurgy division, is one of the largest metal suppliers in the world, Josten noted, producing 310,000 tons of powder annually, including additive manufacturing materials. He noted that 13 million parts are made daily using offerings from the GKN Sinter Metals team.

“We have the materials, the design experts; we have different additive manufacturing processes. Primarily laser, we are also looking into binder jetting, because we already have sintering knowledge. We see a footstep in automotive, where we are already familiar, and look to advance,” he told me.

“We want to take 3D printing capabilities forward. Alongside our powder, everything is there. We offer one value chain for everything. In our Additive Manufacturing business, we have advanced materials, prototyping, tools, spare parts, induction coils, small series production, motor sport.”

We have been following GKN’s applications of additive manufacturing as the company fully embraces the technology as part of its portfolio and business strategies. Automotive applications shine large for the team, as projects such as motorcycle redesign and bringing a new steel material to Porsche manufacture. Josten himself is of the opinion that 3D printing will have significant impact on the future of the automotive industry, notably the aftermarket.

“We see possibility when we combine additive manufacturing with conventional technologies,” Josten continued, underscoring an important point regarding the complementary nature of manufacturing techniques.

“Normally we produce millions of parts. With AM we can do prototyping and small run production that was not a possibility before. Our vision, where we want to work, is guided by our digital agenda. There is no other technology guided by the digital revolution that we see like this.”

Part of this strategy manifests through collaborative work in the industry, such as that GKN undertakes with 3YOURMIND. Introduced last year, the InstAMetal platform offers a front-end solution for customers interested in metal 3D printed parts. As we talked, Josten pointed to the importance of 3YOURMIND as a startup partner as GKN continues to examine “how this technology disrupts traditional powder batch.”

We looked next into what GKN is doing to differentiate in an increasingly busy space. It comes down to two major factors: breadth and agility.

“We are one of few companies with a full value chain,” Josten explained. “We are agile. We have a very small team to move forward, we have experience with all these technologies for several years. GKN Additive is a small team of about 75 people within two business operations, backed up by a large organization.”

This agility of a small team working with the resources of a large, global parent makes for a strong combination in moving forward with young technologies. GKN Powder Metallurgy comprises a global team of approximately 7,400 employees in GKN Sinter Metals and Hoeganaes.

In looking ahead, Josten noted that a major goal for 2018 is to firmly establish the company’s digital agenda.

“We have learned a lot, about automotive, about prototyping; we need more to keep doing better. We are setting up an operational additive manufacturing organization that can manage tasks for the future. We want to go farther; prototyping so far is nice. Focus is in serial production for automotive. For binder jetting, a lot is in place to focus on for the future,” he told me.

I asked what the major message for GKN is as additive manufacturing comes into play across the business operations. The goal is an ambitious one: leadership in the space.

“We want to become a leader in additive manufacturing, to be a full value chain provider. Whatever they want to do in additive manufacturing, we want to provide this service,” Josten said.

Even since our recent conversation, GKN has made progress toward its goal; today, GKN Powder Metallurgy announced that it has become one of the world’s first metal 3D printing suppliers to become certified with a new standard, having passed the IATF 16949:2016 audit. The standard, which the International Automotive Task Force (IATF) developed in 1999 and revised in October 2016, is designed to bring together certification systems in the global automotive supply chain, with the most recent version adding more focus on customer orientation.

In the announcement, GKN Powder Metallurgy notes that this standard is “one of the most demanding certifications in the industry today” and achieving it represents another step toward opening new business opportunities as metal additive manufacturing industrializes.

“The IATF certificate is a significant step on our path towards challenging established supply chains and industrializing 3D printing technology globally. We believe in the disruptive potential of AM to transform future product thinking and traditional manufacturing,” said Guido Degen, SVP Additive and Business Development.

“Today we are already in production with automotive and industrial prototypes, small series and spare parts for the aftermarkets, but this is just the beginning. We strive for making AM mass productions, that provide the highest quality and productivity, accessible to the leaders of the automotive industry.”

Discuss metal powders, GKN Sinter Metals, and other 3D printing topics at or share your thoughts in the Facebook comments below.

[All photos: Sarah Goehrke]


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