Aerospace, titanium and 3D printing in upward spiral

Aerospace, titanium and 3D printing in upward spiral
The Airbus A380, the world’s largest airliner, uses a choice of two engines, the Engine Alliance GP7000 turbofan or the Rolls-Royce Trent 970B-84

When thinking about the relationship between the titanium, aerospace and 3D printing industries, words like ‘dynamic’ and ‘disruptive’ spring readily to mind. These three interdependent industries are in a mutually reinforcing upward spiral.

By James Chater

Increasing demand for more efficient jet engines and lighter aircraft structures is forcing a rethink of how these aircraft are constructed; this is driving new manufacturing methods, especially 3D printing; and rapid advances in 3D printing are enhancing titanium’s role as a material used in components in a number of high-tech industries, especially aircraft, medicine and autos.

The spot market price for titanium has been declining, and is now the lowest it has been since the recession of 2008-9. However, industrial demand for the noble metal has never been stronger. Aerospace and prosthetics are growing industries which consume lots of titanium, especially when the growth in 3D printing is likely to stimulate demand. Titanium is also making inroads into the auto industry.

Titanium ventures

In recent years the titanium industry has undergone major structural changes in the form of acquisitions and mergers that streamline the supply chain. Berkshire Hathaway took over Precision Castparts and Alcoa bought RTI. Now Alcoa has just launched Arconic, a precision engineering company that supplies the aerospace, oil & gas, commercial transport and power generation industries with specialized components made of aluminium or special alloys, including superalloys and titanium alloys. Meanwhile Alcoa Samara, which produces fabricated aluminium in Russia, is teaming up with Ti giant VSMPO-AVISMA to form AlTi Forge, which will forge aerospace parts at Samara. In February Carpenter announced it would acquire titanium powder producer Puris.

Other titanium ventures include French armaments firm Safran’s bid to develop the titanium sector by pooling its R&D activities with those of MetaFensch and Eramet, owners of Aubert & Duval, a Safran supplier. The three companies will collaborate on the manufacture and recycling of titanium power. Safran is also partnering with Monash University and Amaero Engineering to develop 3D printing of jet engines. Kobe Steel, after winning a major contract for forged Ti alloy parts from IHI for shafts for a GE jet engine, will expand its aerospace titanium business along with its Japanese partner Jforge.

3D printing stimulates titanium industry

The greatest stimulus to the titanium industry has been the meteoric rise of 3D printing, or additive manufacturing (AM). AM is extending rapidly to embrace a wide range of products made of an increasing number of materials, including nano-materials such as the super-strong graphene. AM technology is now thought to be capable of ‘printing’ all the parts of the human body and is even starting to be used in house construction. Needless to say, makers of aircraft, cars and prosthetic and dental products are hard at work exploring the opportunities that AM offers.

The complete article will appear in the May/June edition of 3D fab+print magazine.