AMS Spring 2023

Could 3D Printed Metal Made With Scrap Material Solve Our Aluminum Problems?

6K SmarTech

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The additive manufacturing division of 6K Inc, 6K Additive, has purchased the Pennsylvania company Specialty Metallurgical Products (SMP), a specialist in producing titanium and zirconium tablets for the metal alloys market. 6K, previously Amastan Technologies, rebranded in 2019, when it started producing AM powders out of reclaimed scrap metal using its own proprietary methods. 6K considers itself “…the premier supplier of metal alloying additives to primary and secondary aluminum producers worldwide.”

Rocket nozzle produced using 6K’s recycled AM powder method (Image courtesy of 6K)

6K, the parent company to 6K Additive, has been making a lot of big moves lately, and recently received $51 million in funding from the energy investment company Volta Energy Technologies. A year ago, the company’s scrap recycling operations alone gained $1 million from the Department of Defense. The president of 6K Additive, Frank Roberts, points out that, among other things, acquiring SMP “…[adds] an entire new product line to our current portfolio in zirconium tablets.”

The former president of SMP, Jim Clark, has also joined the 6K Additive team as a strategic advisor. He explains, “Becoming part of the 6K Additive team ensures our customers are provided with the same quality product, but backed by a larger organization that has the logistics and operational infrastructure to support our rapid growth.”

Joining forces with SMP should not only add to 6K’s expertise in the industry, but also ensures greater control over the supply chain involved in aluminum manufacturing, ensuring that 6K Additive’s constantly growing operations can continue along smoothly as the company expands.

6K’s proprietary microwave plasma system (Image courtesy of 6K)

Control over the supply chain—crucial in all industries the more that disruptions mount in every way imaginable owing both directly and indirectly to pandemic-related issues—might be more important in aluminum manufacturing than in any other field. Stories about this started trickling in basically as soon as grocery store shelves started emptying during the earliest days of quarantine in 2020; you may remember having seen story after story about how hard seltzer was out of stock because of supply chain disruptions involving aluminum can shortages. People blamed it on the increasing alcohol consumption due to COVID and stay-at-home mandates, but this was, of course, silly. I’m old enough to remember, for instance, when Trump’s commerce secretary, the comically old and rich Wilbur Ross, brandished a Campbell’s soup can on television in 2018 for some reason in defense of the Trump administration’s tariffs on aluminum and steel.

This is how billionaires hold a can of soup (Image courtesy of CNBC)

That is to say, we can expect the supply chain “disruptions,” involving materials as crucial to everything we consume as aluminum, to be less disruptions, and more the new way of the world. The now decades-old economic prophecies about emerging robust Chinese and Indian middle classes creating a bottleneck in global supply-demand relationships are coming to pass. A combination of innovative technologies like 3D metal printing from scrap and massive recycling efforts could be a long-term solution. 3D printing won’t save this Christmas, but it could eventually mean that nations have to rely less on international trade to take care of their own critical infrastructure.

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