When PIM International last visited Sandvik Osprey, a leading global supplier of gas atomised metal powders, in August 2011 the company announced plans to construct its largest ever fine powder atomiser. Some 18 months later, the company updated us on progress that has been made and provided us with their views on the future outlook for the MIM industry.
The Osprey team explained that a number of significant infrastructural changes have been made since our visit. “To support the installation of our latest and largest fine powder atomiser first of all we had to significantly uprate all of the on-site amenities, namely atomising gas, electricity, cooling water and compressed air,” explained Martin Kearns, Powders Group Director. “The majority of this work was planned during the annual plant shutdown over Christmas 2011 in order to minimise the disruption to operations. Unfortunately this meant that our Engineering team did not get to enjoy the festive season as much as the rest of the company, however they did a fantastic job in completing the work on time which allowed us to restart production as planned in early January.”
Having successfully completed this first phase of the development, the next stage of the project involved some substantial civil engineering work. “There was insufficient floor space in the building which houses the existing atomisers for the new plant,” stated Paul Davis, Engineering Manager at Sandvik Osprey. “Activities in an adjacent building were relocated to make it available to house this new atomiser, however it was not tall enough to accommodate the height of the atomising chamber, so we had to raise the height of the building by several metres.” To minimise construction time the structural steelwork for the extension was fabricated off-site by a local contractor and then transported to the factory. Construction of the roof took place over a two week period during the spring and cladding the exterior of the building quickly followed so that installation of the atomising plant itself could start in earnest in May.
The gas atomising plant design is based on Sandvik Osprey’s proprietary fine powder technology. “We have taken the opportunity of incorporating a number of upgrades in the configuration of this latest plant to improve both overall operational efficiency as well as the working environment for the production staff,” explained Kearns. “The fundamental atomising technology itself, however, is based on the same tried and tested designs that are successfully employed on the existing fine powder plants. By adopting this approach it allows us the flexibility to manufacture a wide range of products on a number of plants simultaneously so we can be responsive to changes in market demand.” The manufacture of critical plant items was carried out in house and final assembly and installation was carried out by the Engineering team at Sandvik Osprey. Construction took place over a three month period such that final commissioning could begin in late July.
“Commissioning the new atomiser has gone well and to the time scales we anticipated,” explained Ian Stimson, Production Manager for the Powders Group. “We have been progressively increasing our atomising capacity over the past two years and so are well practised at bringing new plant and equipment on-line quickly and efficiently.” The new atomiser has now been operational for some three months and is already producing significant commercial quantities of MIM powder. Qualification trials are well advanced with a number of key customers and the feedback to date has been overwhelmingly positive. At steady state operating conditions, Sandvik Osprey commented that this latest investment will increase the company’s overall fine powder production capacity by more than 50%.
In parallel with the investments in atomising capacity, the company has also been continually investing in its downstream powder processing facilities and has more than doubled its sieving and classifying capacity in the last three years. Personnel numbers have increased significantly to support this major capacity expansion.
Market statistics over the past five years have consistently shown that growth rates in the MIM market have far exceeded those seen in more conventional areas of Powder Metallurgy such as pressed and sintered products. In mid-2011, when Sandvik Osprey made the decision to invest in this new capacity, the demand outlook from the MIM industry was extremely strong. Some 15 months on, and despite the on-going uncertainties in the global economy, the outlook for fine powder demand remains positive.
“I would acknowledge that market sentiment today is perhaps not as strong as it was back in 2011, but the overall picture remains very positive,” commented Keith Murray, Sales and Marketing Manager, EMEA. “If we look at the MIM industry on a regional basis then demand in the Asian and North American market is continuing to grow strongly whilst in Europe the short term outlook is for more moderate growth. We continue to see the adoption of MIM technology expanding into new application areas and expect this trend to continue well into the future.”
Outside of the MIM industry, Sandvik Osprey also report that they see continued growth in demand in a number of applications, such as specialist coatings and additive manufacturing. Kearns concluded, “It has certainly been a challenge for us over the past two to three years to keep a pace with the unexpectedly high growth in demand, but it has been a welcome challenge nonetheless and one which I believe the whole Sandvik Osprey team has responded to positively. This latest investment is a clear demonstration of the support we enjoy from the global Sandvik Group and of our commitment to supporting the sustainable growth of the MIM industry. If the market continues to develop in the same positive way, then we can look forward to installing a seventh atomising plant here at our site in Neath, South Wales, maybe sooner than we think.”