A Canadian powder producer is scaling up production for additive manufacturing (AM). Liz Nickels spoke to its COO and CEO about the next steps.

Equispheres, headquartered in Ontario, Canada, specializes in producing entirely spherical metal powders via a proprietary atomization process. In this process, powder features such as particle size distribution (PSD), morphology, and chemistry can be improved to achieve specific behavior in the laser melting process and to meet defined application requirements, according to the company.

The company is focuses on making powders for additive manufacturing (AM) in the automotive, aerospace, and defense industries. In January 2021, the company introduced three new lines of aluminum powder for AM which it said could improve end part strength and performance across a range of applications, with a 20-30% increase in the a-basis design allowable over traditional powders. The powders are suitable for applications requiring fine features and precision and could provide a 50% improvement in dimensional accuracy.

Plans are now to increase commercialization and scale up of the powder and in October 2021 Equispheres appointed Thomas Bloor as its new head of global business development. At the end of the year engaged Calvin Osborne was appointed chief operating officer to oversee production at its Ottawa manufacturing facility.

“We are entering an exciting phase of our growth, with inflecting market demand coinciding with our business scale-up plans,” claimed Kevin Nicholds, CEO. “As our output rises to meet global demand, Calvin is the right person to manage that process.”

Economic challenge

According to Osborne, the company’s powder production could “radically reduce” the cost of AM, allowing it to compete economically with traditional production-volume manufacturing technologies.

Osborne was previously assistant director of engineering for the solar business of Schneider Electric and vice-president engineering for Andronic. In a previous role, he also managed the product commercialization process for Kodak Graphic Communication Group Canada.

Kevin and Calvin explained to me the challenges surrounding commercializing and scaling up of AM, and the industry in general.

“Without question, the main obstacle for the adoption of metal additive manufacturing is cost,” said Kevin. “Metal additive manufacturing technology provides tremendous benefits in terms of flexible manufacturing, improved supply chain logistics, and light-weighting and has been proven in everything from automotive, to healthcare to aerospace.

“The issue is that metal AM is 10x more costly than traditional manufacturing. Most of that cost is a direct result of the painfully slow production speeds of very expensive printers. Until that cost profile is reduced, demand for powder will remain limited.”

“The good news is that innovative technology is improving the economics,” added Calvin. “Modern printers are now on the market that are designed for mass production and are equipped with many high-powered lasers. More importantly, material providers such as Equispheres have developed powder specifically tailored for metal AM that can use the capability of these modern printers and increase the production speed such that the printer costs are amortized over a large number of parts.

“Presently, Equispheres powder can reduce the metal AM cost of production by a 50% – and we can improve on that number. When customers combine our powder with a modern multi-laser printer, the economics of metal AM printing can support volume production.”

How about aluminum powders in particular?

“Because metal AM is a very expensive process, it is primarily used in ‘low volume – high asset value’ applications such as aerospace and healthcare where specialized material and alloys are required,” Kevin told me. “Therefore, metal AM tends to use exotic materials such as titanium or Inconel. Currently, aluminum represents only 10% of the powder market.

“However, aluminum is the second most used industrial material and is prevalent in the transportation industry because it has the necessary strength-to-weight characteristics required for light weighting. As metal AM costs reduce, aluminum will become the dominant material.”

Plugging holes

I asked if lockdown had affected the market and the industry in their experience.

“The AM industry, like all industries, was a little shaken at the beginning of the pandemic,” admitted Kevin. “But overall, the pandemic has accelerated the interest and adoption of AM as it is an effective tool for managing and ‘plugging holes’ in supply chains. Importantly, next-generation printers have arrived on the market and have sold briskly. From an Equispheres perspective, these new printer models have driven our sales significantly.”

How is the 3D printing market in Canada?

“Canada is very well positioned in the AM market,” Kevin suggested. “We have the raw material, several quality powder producers, very large printing facilities and a large base of potential AM users in the automotive and aerospace manufacturing industry. There is a robust hub of AM companies that collaborate and compete in the Canadian market. It’s collegial and exciting.”

According to Kevin, there is a CAN$17 billion aluminum powder market out there, ready to be harnessed when production costs fall. “This market will become ‘unlocked’ as the cost per production of cubic cm of material continues to drop and compete economically with traditional manufacturing processes,” he said.

Calvin agreed. “With modern printers and Equispheres powder, volume production of aluminum parts is currently cost competitive and around 25 cents per cubic cm,” he added. Importantly, these numbers continue to drop. “When the technology achieves 12 cents per cubic centimeter, traditional manufacturing will undergo a seismic disruptive change. The market is almost there, and Equispheres has been scaling to meet the demand.”

There will, of course, be obstacles to overtake. “Once the cost issue has been resolved, the next obstacle to adoption will be the supply of skilled users of AM and the knowledge and skill to use the technology,” admitted Calvin. However, “Equispheres is working hard to ensure this isn't the stumbling block and is investing in training a large team of applications engineers that can aid the industry in the use of metal AM technology and our powder.”