Expert Interview: The Barnes Global Advisors and Metal Powder Works CEO John Barnes on the Importance of Materials Innovation to AM’s Evolution

31 January 2023
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In 2022, Hubs’ survey of engineering and 3D printing communities in their ‘3D Printing Trend Report 2022’ saw 44% of participants cite new materials and composites as the year’s top development. 

Yet, in the sphere of metal AM, there remain only 16 release AMS specifications for metal powder. 

As additive manufacturing’s influence permeates wider industrial circles and more companies consider the benefits it may bring, providing them with the knowledge and tools to push further innovation will be imperative. 

We sat down with John Barnes, CEO of The Barnes Global Advisors and Metal Powder Works, to discuss how his two businesses are driving integral change in the field. 

Let’s begin with Metal Powder Works. Could you tell us a little more about MPW’s ‘DirectPowder Process’; was there a gap in the metal AM market that its invention closes?

I think in a lot of ways our ‘DirectPowder Process’ accumulates our 20 years of manufacturing experience and applies it to powder production. 

Powder production is based on atomization, which is a centuries old technology. But the consistency of the powder is wildly variable – when we used it whilst trying to qualify parts for Airbus, we always had to change settings on the printers to accept batch to batch variation. 

Our ‘DirectPowder Process’ for powder production is incredibly consistent – in one study, we supplied 2 batches of powder, 12 months apart off two different machines and the average particle size was only 3 microns different. When you reduce the variability of the feedstock in this way, inherently you start to reduce the variability of everything else. If you don’t, it’s really hard to hammer it out elsewhere in the process. 

Metal Powder Works sees that. You tell us what size of powder you want, and we only make that – it’s a very high efficiency process. If you want a 20 to 63 micron powder, for example, 95% or more of what we produce is going to be that size of powder, meaning we have very little loss in the process. That’s why we’re very affordable, which is not often true of traditional powder production. 

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[Image Credit: Metal Powder Works]

‘Don’t use atomisation’ is not our message. We’re saying that atomisation works when you have economies of scale – stainless steel, Inconel 718, a lot of people use these. But if you want more materials to become available for AM, the atomisation process, economically, is probably not going to provide a solution. That’s why you only have around a dozen materials that are available as powders today.

There are over 100 different aluminum alloys alone. If you look at a modern day aircraft, it uses a dozen different aluminum alloys, several titanium alloys, probably a dozen from steel – the materials are optimized for what they need to do. Additive manufacturing needs to move in a similar regime.

What importance does materials development have in 2023?


Over the decades, we’ve gone through phases where the designer was considered ‘unimportant’, and the focus was all on manufacturing. Then, all of a sudden, the design became important – manufacturing had caught up with what we could design, and we needed to push the design angle again. Today, we’re seeing that manufacturing is struggling to keep up. However, with these new advanced manufacturing technologies like AM, the designer is being given a new tool set. 

We’re enabling the designer to go back and rethink, for example, how the inside of a car should look, and along with this development goes materials.  These are key to enabling them to come up with these new designs. 

The automotive industry has gone through a decade or more of material substitution, for instance. They took steel and replaced it with aluminum, and then aluminum with plastic, until they ran out of things to replace, and they turned to redesign again. With advanced technologies and additive manufacturing, you can come up with designs delivering lightweight parts, yet also achieving the same performance, if not better.

The future’s all about teams. If you look at any of the advanced manufacturing technologies – AI, automation, robotics, 3D printing – they all require a team, because no one discipline can do it. 

Additive manufacturing is a team sport. You have a designer, you have a structures person, you have a materials person. There’s a lot going on in the printer box. You’re simultaneously creating a shape and a material at the same time. you’ve got feed stock coming in and industrial gasses and lasers – there are all kinds of things happening. That doesn’t happen without a team.

I like the idea that 3D printing is a lens through which we can keep rethinking different aspects of production.


I think that’s it. 3D printing isn’t a thing, it’s a family of things. It’s almost a way of thinking. 

Depending on the end effect you’re aiming for, you choose the printer that gets you there. If you’re going to print skin cells, there’s an answer. If you want to print a house with concrete, well, there’s an answer for that. If you want to make a plastic part, there’s an answer for that, too.

But they’re all built on the same premise, which is this ‘layer by layer’ construct. And that’s difficult because we’ve carved things out of rock and wood ever since the beginning of human time. Now, it’s time to think about the inverse of that – that takes a long time. 

Moving now to quite a different kind of business you’re involved in, can you speak a little about The Barnes Global Advisors and the value it provides to businesses?


We started off with helping people to digest additive manufacturing. Our great team of engineers have a lot of experience in highly intensive markets –  aerospace, defense, medical , heavy transportation. We draw on our experience of things that didn’t go well the first time we tried it, so that we can streamline it for other people. 

Lots of people are very confused about requirements and qualification with additive manufacturing – to us, the process is always exactly the same. Whether you’re talking about a locomotive or an aircraft, the process is the same, even if the level of intensity and testing you might undergo may differ. Understanding requirements involves establishing what success is going to look like – we help companies work backwards from there. 

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We give the same advice to everyone, from printer companies to materials companies. If you know what the customer needs, it’s about determining what problem you are solving, what the value there is, and then working backwards and figuring out how we enable that to come in. 

Along the way, we’ve introduced workforce and skills development training, first with our ‘Designing for AM’ course, teaching people what additive is, where it’s used, the pros and cons, and each of the different processes. TBGA is unique in that the team has experience using all families of AM processes – we can talk about powdered, direct energy, material extrusion, all at a working level. Importantly, we do that with an independent lens – we’re not tied to any other company, meaning we look at things like engineers do. 

In the last couple of years, we have integrated a group that we call ‘Media’, focused around translating all that technological knowledge and sending that message out to the market. Manufacturing is a very interesting (and noisy) marketplace – it’s different from those focusing on commercial or consumer products. 

We’ve found that through the workforce piece, the media piece, and then the consulting, there’s harmony in the way we work. It allows us to flex from a strategy project all the way through to introducing products to the market. Increasingly, we’ve seen through all these supply chain disruptions that we can help the US government and others to understand how they can adjust, and consider whether additive manufacturing might be a solution. 

When you have a highly automated technology like additive manufacturing, can that come in to help with human problems like these? That’s the question we’re looking at now, maybe combining solutions from additive manufacturing, automation, and possibly robotics, to make a solution that works for the end requirement. 

At the end of the day, if customers can’t get their parts, we need a better solution. That’s a global problem. As fragmented as we seem to be as a society, we’re all suffering from the same things. 

Your work with Metal Powder Works and The Barnes Global Advisors are quite different. If you could draw one similarity between what the two companies contribute to the AM sphere, what would that be?


The one thing I’ve learned is it’s very difficult to take your own advice. When I have my Metal Powder Works hat on, I’m largely the customer that TBGA would normally work with. So occasionally I think to myself, “oh, I need to take my own advice and structurally do these things”. 

Another thing is the importance of balance. One thing about TBGA that I’m really happy about is that we have a pretty gender diverse group. I think that we generate a better answer for our customers because we have different thought processes. I hope that this is indicative of the future. 

We’re conscious that we need to be involved in the industry, to be part of its fabric. Trying to encourage people to think about manufacturing as a career is also something we need to be promoting. Whether it’s as a technical person, or whether it’s in marketing. 

Are there any current AM trends that you’re most excited about?


I think in general the trend is industrialisation – that brings the need to solve problems like the digital workflow, which can be very fragmented today. We’re realizing that it’s important to think about our processes holistically – additive manufacturing is not just about printing a shape. 

If you think again about materials, they’re also becoming more important due to industrialisation, which comes not only with technical issues but also business-based problems – if the printed part is going to cost more, for example, it had better do more. This is the value proposition side of things. 

Our body of knowledge is increasing. At one point, we saw perfectly spherical particles are super important in the Hall Flow. We know now that Hall Flow is really just a proxy because we don’t have a better standard. Once we acknowledge that, we can push back and consider that maybe ‘perfectly spherical’ isn’t right – maybe we need less spherical, or to acknowledge that ‘spherical’ is a continuum in the first place, not binary. It’s that age old movement – if it takes very little energy to get into position, it takes very little energy to get it out of position. There’s an optimum, and we want to keep it there. 

I think that’s why the industrialisation piece is so important – it involves solving various relevant problems. Whether that takes into account productivity and cost issues, or wider global issues, there are lots of problems of a different making to be solved. 

I’d like to think that, at some point, consuming less energy and producing less CO2 will become a metric that more people use, with cost still being important. Rather than costing twice as much to produce less CO2, why can’t it be neutral on both fronts? A process that costs the same amount as a legacy process, but emits a whole lot less CO2, is surely the right answer. 

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