Montreal-based PyroGenesis Canada, a Canadian plasma process specialist, is developing a new, plasma-based process for the production of metal 3D printing powders. The new process could have a greater market impact than its original Plasma Atomization technology. Over the last few years, the company has gradually laid the foundations for its re-entry into metal powder production, citing the popularity of 3D printing as the primary reason for its return. In April of 2016, it announced it would be creating a spinoff company to deal solely with additive manufacturing. PyroGenesis now says it could have even more in store for the 3D printing industry than previously thought. Essentially, it’ll now be able to produce 3D printing powders for inkjet-style 3D printers, in addition to EBM and SLS 3D printers.
“PyroGenesis’ Plasma Atomization technology already produces powders for EBM and Laser Sintering in optimal quality and quantities,” said President and CEO P. Peter Pascali. “To the best of our knowledge, only plasma technology can produce the high-quality powders required for these printers.” Generally, customers with EBM and SLS 3D printers require powders in 15-106 micron range. But a recent turn of events led PyroGenesis to realize that certain fine powders it was also producing (5-20 micron ‘MIM cut’ powders), could also be used for inkjet 3D printing. (Last year, printing giant HP entered the additive manufacturing market with its Jet Fusion 3D printer, contributing to the growing interest in inkjet-style 3D printing.) PyroGenesis’ discovery could be likened to a coffee vendor suddenly realizing it can supply fine-ground beans to a huge market of espresso-favouring customers, in addition to its French press and drip-coffee clientele.
“Ironically, until the interest by 3D inkjet-type metal printers in smaller powder sizes, the MIM cut was considered an undesirable by-product of the Plasma Atomization technology, with most of the economic value residing in the other two cuts encompassing the 15-106 powder size distribution,” Pascali explained. But after PyroGenesis realized that there could be a potentially large market for ultra-fine metal 3D printing powders, it hit the brakes on what it was doing and decided to make a radical turn. “Several months ago, it became apparent to us that the appetite for this ultra-fine powder was significant,” Pascali revealed. “As a result, we decided to pause our ramp-up phase to make adjustments to our Plasma Atomization technology in order to try and shift the particle size distribution towards this low end of the spectrum.”
According to PyroGenesis, this shift towards finer powders has been successful “beyond expectations.” The new process allows the company to exercise significant control over the coarseness of its produced powders, allowing it to easily switch between powders for its three kinds of 3D printing – EBM, sintering, and now inkjet. Moreover, the process is actually cheaper than methods the company was previously pursuing. Additionally, Pascali said that this was just the beginning for PyroGenesis’ new powder production process, which could be improved to be even more cost-effective. “Given our plasma expertise and our familiarity with the technology, we believe we have not even scraped the surface of what this new process can do with respect to production rates and powder quality.” Part of the company’s future plans include making Grade 23 MIM cut titanium powder, the highest-grade titanium powder available. At present, PyroGenesis says it’s able to produce Grade 5 titanium powders using its new process, but has its sights set on Grade 23. PyroGenesis’ previously announced that the ramp-up phase remains scheduled for completion between the end of September and beginning of October of 2017.