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3-D Printing Heats Up Demand for Metals

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12/28/2016 | 08:55pm CET

The rise of 3-D printing is bringing hundreds of millions of dollars of new investments to a niche market that dates back thousands of years: metal in powder form.

Three-dimensional printers use metal powders to create a variety of products, from medical implants made out of titanium to rocket-ship parts made of a nickel alloy used by Elon Musk?s aerospace manufacturer SpaceX.

Demand for powders made of aluminum, cobalt and other industrial metals is poised to take off over the next decade as 3-D printing technology becomes more widely used, especially in industries that use tailored components and parts. IDTechEx, a research firm, forecasts the global 3-D printing powder market to exceed $5 billion in 2025, up from about $250 million in 2016.

Only a small number of producers globally supply metal powder that is suitable for use in 3-D printing. That has prompted a number of companies to focus on the powder business this year to tap this growing market.

Traditional producers are looking to develop smaller, higher margin businesses as China has taken over as the largest supplier of metals, said Julian Kettle, vice chairman of metals and mining at research firm Wood Mackenzie.

?[These companies] are looking to add value rather than occupy the pure commodity space,? Mr. Kettle said. ?It?s time to get out because [China] will kill it.?

To create a computer design, printers spread powder onto a surface and use a laser to fuse the metal together layer by layer. Also known as additive manufacturing, the process requires specially made powder for the printing of metal parts.

Demand for tailored parts in aerospace, automotive and medical industries is driving the interest in 3-D metal printing. Aerospace, especially, looks to be a promising field of growth as traditional manufacturing demand has slowed over the past few years.

Slowing demand led industrial metal prices to multiyear lows in early 2016, but prices have seen a resurgence as optimism over future growth and manufacturing has picked up. Prices for metals such as nickel and aluminum are up 17% and 13% for the year, respectively.

Earlier this year, AlcoaCorp. opened a metal powder plant in Pittsburgh as part of a $60 million investment in 3-D printing and materials, designed to develop titanium, aluminum and nickel powders. Arconic Inc. will operate the new facility.

?I think we?re at a point here where the capabilities of 3-D printing, particularly in metals, [are] so limitless,? said Klaus Kleinfeld, chairman and chief executive of Arconic, which spun off Alcoa?s traditional commodity business in November.

Mr. Kleinfeld said aerospace will account for about 40% of Arconic?s revenue. Companies such as Boeing Co., Airbus Group SE and Rolls-Royce Holdings PLC have used 3-D metal printing to create parts and prototypes on a small scale.

General Electric Co. also has been moving into 3-D metal printing and materials, bidding about $700 million to acquire Sweden?s Arcam AB and paying $599 million for Germany?s Concept Laser this year. In a September investor call to discuss an offer for Arcam and Germany?s SLM Solutions, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Bornstein said he expected 40% of revenue in the company?s 3-D printing business to come from services including materials and powders, which will be ?very lucrative.?

3-D printing was first popularized as a new way to produce plastic parts. But as the excitement around plastic 3-D printing dwindled, interest in metal printing increased. Sales of 3-D metal-printing systems reached more than 800 units last year, eight times more than sales a decade ago, according to industry analysts Wohlers Associates.

For all its promise, widespread adoption of 3-D printing remains a challenge due partly to high costs and lack of comprehensive testing. The technology for 3-D printing, which was created in the 1980s, is still in its infancy. Fewer than 100 companies are actively pursuing 3-D printing with metal powder, according to the Metal Powder Industries Federation.

Metal producers eager to get into 3-D printing also face a number of hurdles. About 53% of global metals organizations have invested or plan to invest in research and development in additive manufacturing, and 40% are considering an investment, according to an August report from consulting firm KPMG. But after years of low metal prices, a lack of capital could slow investments for the next few years, the report said.

?Most metals companies are trying to figure out how to make investments in this space as they go forward, but they?re looking for the right timeline,? said Eric Logan, lead metals strategist at KPMG in the U.S.

Iluka Resources Ltd. and BHP Billiton Ltd., the world?s largest mining company, have both invested in metal powder producer Metalysis. While Metalysis began producing metal powder eight years ago, Chief Executive Dion Vaughan said 3-D metal printing has driven most of its business since interest started picking up two years ago.

Mr. Vaughan expects 3-D printing powder to account for more than half of the company?s overall activity in the next year. ?It?s probably the most important thing that we do,? he said.

Write to Stephanie Yang at stephanie.yang@wsj.com

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