Liberty’s powdered metal initiative

International steel and industrials Group, Liberty has launched a multi-million programme to develop a new generation of powder metals aimed at revolutionising component manufacturing.

The initial £10m project in partnership with the Materials Processing Institute and Atomising Systems Ltd (ASL) is designed to create a new range of powder alloys ideal for 3D printing of precision components, leading to lighter, more efficiently-manufactured parts with zero waste, and open the door to mass customisation of complex steel products.

Even simple applications of the technology could achieve huge savings for end-users, claims Liberty. For example, these materials could halve the weight of aircraft seat buckles, saving over £2million in fuel costs over the lifetime of each plane, and 3D printing with these materials would allow affordable tailoring of artificial limbs to achieve a perfect fit for each patient.

Liberty will be developing a new generation of powdered steels that contain properties that overcome the barriers to 3D printing found in existing powder metals. The world market for powder metals generally is estimated to be £8billion a year, but the application of powders for 3D printing is still in its infancy.

With part-funding from Tees Valley Combined Authority, Liberty is establishing the new development facility at the Materials Processing Institute on Teesside in the UK, which will be equipped with the latest vacuum induction atomiser designed to achieve higher purity metal powders than currently available.

Liberty’s longer-term aim is to establish a £60m powder metals production plant on Teesside, feeding a network of advanced manufacturers and helping to make the UK an international leader in manufacturing with powder metals.

The company’s Teesside initiative has followed on from its leadership of the Government-backed CASCADE initiative, which brought together component makers and big-name end-product manufacturers such as Rolls Royce, Jaguar Land Rover and Siemens to develop a strong UK supply chain for powder metals.

Dr Simon Pike, Liberty’s technical director commented: “This project will be a very significant step forward for the international metals industry, building on the excellent foundations laid by the CASCADE. We’re confident it will unlock many other exciting opportunities for advanced industries over the coming years.”

He added: “Currently available powder is limited to stainless steel and tool steel which is high-cost and not that suitable for the additive manufacturing process, so we will be developing a new generation of powder alloys with finer grains that provide better mechanical properties making them stronger, tougher and more formable as well as being ideal for 3D printing.”

He explained that the material created could be used to produce near perfect components without the need for further refining of any kind.

Dr Pike said that multiple applications had already been identified for such materials in the aerospace, automotive, energy and industrial equipment markets. “This is a disruptive technology that will produce powder metals capable of changing the face of component manufacturing in the UK and internationally.”

Chris McDonald, CEO of the Materials Processing Institute, said: “The Institute has enjoyed a very successful and longstanding partnership with Liberty, and we are delighted to be supporting this powder metals project. Our collaborative expertise and the capabilities within advanced materials at the Institute will be integral to the success of the project, as well as the continued development of additive manufacturing processes.”

Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, said: “We have invested £4.6million in this exciting project to keep Tees Valley ahead of the game in this potentially huge new global market. Investment in new technologies is vital to create high-skilled jobs for local workers and this project paves the way for a whole new industrial cluster in the region. The fact that a company like Liberty has chosen Tees Valley shows the importance of backing the job creators, innovators and entrepreneurs to develop future-proof industries like this one.”

The vacuum induction atomiser is scheduled to be commissioned in 2019 by the world leading supplier ASL and, in line with Liberty’s GREENSTEEL strategy, plans are being drawn up to install a wind turbine at the site to power the equipment.