Metal Additive Manufacturing: 5 Questions to Ask a Potential Metal Powder Supplier
02 April 2020
Choosing the best supplier of metal 3D printing powders is critical for your AM operation’s success. However, the process of finding a new supplier can be both stressful and challenging, given so many requirements and risks surrounding metal 3D printing.
To help you on this quest, we’ve compiled a list of five important questions you should ask any prospective metal AM powder supplier.
1. What technology do you use to manufacture your powders?
Ensuring the quality of a metal 3D-printed part always begins with ensuring the quality of the material that will be used to create it. To understand the quality of powders you’d like to use for your applications, it’s crucial to learn what technology your supplier applies to produce them.
Metal powders in 3D printing must meet certain characteristics, like particle shape and size, powder density and low-gas content.
Metal powders can be produced using several methods, like electrolysis, chemical processes and atomisation. Yet, atomisation has been historically regarded as the best method for producing metal powders for AM, because it produces the most geometrically suitable (spherical) powders for 3D printing.
Without getting into the metallurgical weeds, in the atomisation process, the metal is heated until molten and either gas, water or plasma is jetted at the stream to break up the liquid into smaller particles. Physics then drives the droplets towards a spherical shape, seeking a lower energy state, as the particles cool and solidify.
If your application requires titanium (Ti64) powder, look for suppliers that use a plasma atomisation process. For other materials, gas atomisation would be the most common choice.
2. Do you have the capacity to meet my operational needs?
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it is important to understand what capacity your supplier can offer.
As more manufacturers approach high production volumes with AM, supply will tighten quickly. Make sure your powder supplier can meet your anticipated volumes and in an acceptable timeframe.
Additionally, if your supplier can produce powders in high quantities, it’s important to make sure that it also translates into high yield. The lower the yield, the higher the waste and cost. Therefore, a supplier that can deliver high yield provides you with the most value.
3. In how many materials do you specialise? Can you customise powders for my requirements?
As you become more experienced with metal 3D printing, you may consider using more materials. The right supplier will have a vast range of chemistries and sizes to best suit your application requirements.
In addition to standard stock materials, ask if your supplier can develop specialty alloys, since the same component produced with AM, may not require the same material used traditionally.
The right supplier will have the knowledge and capability to fine-tune material properties to help satisfy your part requirements.
4. How do you deal with risks involved in metal AM powder handling?
Handling metal powder is inherently hazardous, as it can be prone to fire and explosion, and there is also the physiological concern of long-term inhalation of, and contact with, metal powders.
From production, blending and screening, to shipping, safety must be a top priority and encompass equipment maintenance, handling processes and employee safety.
That’s why a closed process is preferable. Producing fine powder under pressure, with an inert gas such as argon, greatly reduces some safety risks.
There’s also a contamination risk if a supplier produces multiple alloys in the same location. When choosing a powder supplier, it’s advisable to visit the facility and walk through the production process to assess contamination mitigation and safety standards.
In this way, you’ll gain confidence that production is adequately segregated and properly ventilated to reduce powder contamination risks.
Additionally, the supplier should also we willing to share their best practices of handling powder, if you need them.
5. How do you ensure you meet regulatory compliances?
When considering a supplier, you want to be sure they understand the requirements of the AM industry and have the proper certification.
When it comes to working with metal 3D printing, there are many material compliances, including, but not limited to, documenting material composition, ensuring traceability and measuring the purity of raw material. Partnering with a supplier who understands how to meet these requirements is essential.
Finding the right metal AM powder supplier
Of course, there are other questions you should ask before deciding on a supplier. For example, if you’re newer to the AM field, you can also ask if they provide application support.
But, in general, the five questions above will help you to ensure that you’re dealing with a metal AM powder supplier that can best assist you on your metal 3D printing journey.
Discover the list of metal AM powder suppliers in our Additive Manufacturing Landscape 2019