Rob, powder metal manufacturing techniques are growing as a percentage of metal parts manufacturing in automotive, where they're already responsible for a large proportion of those parts, as well as industrial controls. Aerospace is also getting interested, but volumes are still quite small. Other major industries are medical and consumer electronics.
Sounds like this is much more than a niche product in automotive. Once again, the auto industry is leading in new materials and technology. It's quite a different industry than it was when I was growing up in the Detroit area in the 60s and 70s.
Obviously, the powder metal industry would like to compare the cost of PM processes to the cost of machining parts out of mill products. This comparison makes PM look very attractive for all but extremely small-volume production. However, as Ann points out, PM's real competition comes from investment casting and forging. It would be nice to see some cost comparisons here.
Another important factor to consider is that the mechanical properties of PM products usually aren't as good as forged or cast products. As Jim Dale points out, a fully-dense PM part will have mechanical properties comparable to a casting -- but achieving full density in a PM part is no easy task. You won't get it in a traditional pressed and sintered part.
That being said, PM is a good option for certain applications. The article does a good job of pointing out its advantages.
I always love to see better methods of making parts! Suzuki was making powder metal transmission gears in the 80's. The methods are well known, so it seems that we are seeing better materials being used? It looks like we are getting much better in materials formulating than ever before, bravo!
Dave, thanks for the input about PM vs other metal component fabrication techniques. We know you're a fan of metals and especially of machining and welding, so it was interesting to see your input on investment casting and forging. I agree, cost comparisons for a given example product would have been revealing but, as usual, they're very hard to come by for publication.
@Ann: I got my start as a process engineer in an investment casting foundry, so I have a certain bias in favor of casting and against PM. I suspect that most people tend to be biased towards materials and processes they are familiar with. I'm aware that it's a bias, and try to keep an open mind.
Unfortunately, this bias has been confirmed to some extent by bad experiences with PM parts. These bad experiences were mostly due to designs which didn't take the nature of the PM material or the limitations of the PM process into account.
Of course, you could say the same about casting, or any other process. Designers ignore the limitations of manufacturing processes at their own risk.
Dave, I know what you mean about low-quality PM parts. I've been on the receiving end of low-quality cast parts (and probably also low-quality PM; I find those harder to identify visually or tactually). My operating principle as a consumer is either it's the design or the materials or the combination that makes a bad part. You can also accuse QC, but QC may only be able to notice whether the duck walks and quacks like it's supposed to, not whether it breaks because it's actually a badly designed goose. That said, I was impressed at what PM can do when it's done right.
@Ann: You bring up a good point -- the relationship between design and quality.
To me, "low-quality PM parts" are parts that are poorly compacted, poorly sintered, cracked prior to sintering, or made using contaminated powder. The good news is that these are all problems that can (potentially) be fixed. Process the material correctly, and the part will work.
On the other hand, if a part is not properly designed, it won't work, no matter how well it is made. For example, using a PM part in an application which involves significant impact loads is almost always a bad idea.
Sometimes the presence of a quality defect may lead you to believe that you're dealing with the first situation, when you're actually dealing with the second.
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