A new EU-funded automated approach for producing customised components is set for integration into manufacturing production lines. The process makes the technique of powder metallurgy faster and more energy efficient, boosting industrial competitiveness.
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Traditionally, Europe has dominated the global market of powder metallurgy manufacturing. A form of this process, known as sintering, involves the welding together of small particles of metal. These are placed in a mould where heat is applied to form complex shapes or alloys such as nuts and bolts or dental implants.
However, since 2009 China has overtaken the lead in hard materials production for aerospace, energy and medical technology industries. In response, the EU-funded EFFIPRO project has developed a faster and more energy efficient technique to enable European manufacturers to become more competitive.
EFFIPRO’s new technology prototype is called Hybrid ERS and can be used for the sintering of conductive metallic powders. It is fully automated and more energy efficient than current methods. This helps industries including the automotive, computing, electronics and healthcare sectors, enabling manufacturers to reduce energy consumption and waste.
The project tested the technology for the production of hard metal tools with promising results. The product outputs, such as cutting tools and drills, improved material properties including increased hardness and fracture toughness. This technology is now also patented for industrial uses.
“Our current application shortens the sintering time significantly, saving energy and thereby making this process a good candidate for sintering nano-structured materials,” says project coordinator Iñigo Agote of Fundación Tecnalia Research & Innovation (Tecnalia Research & Innovation Foundation) in Spain. “The development of new industrial sintering techniques will reduce environmental problems of energy consumption and will also increase the EU’s competitiveness in powder metallurgy manufacturing.”
Next steps for practical industrial applications
Powder metallurgy creates better components for mining tools or cars and computer transistors from metallic powders, sourced from iron, aluminum, nickel or other elements.
To produce these sintered parts current methods, known as Field Assisted Sintering Technology (FAST), apply an external electrical current. The EFFIPRO project improved this process.
“Today’s industrial powder metallurgy processes result in long processing times and high energy consumption,” says Agote.
EFFIPRO’s achievements are a new hybrid system for the sintering of powders; the creation of a prototype machine; fabrication and testing of hard metal, including cutting tools; and development of a ceramic material, for use in a manufacturing die, with improved material properties such as high resistance to thermal shock and low thermal conductivity.
Project partner MIRTEC is already commercialising the ceramic powder developed for dies during prototype testing for industrial applications.
And since the end of the project in 2016, two other EFFIPRO project partners have started looking to upscale this technology for end-user needs in the mining sector.
The patented technology will eventually be licensed to a manufacturer for the production of equipment.
Projected estimates of an on-the-market product for manufacturing production lines are two to three years’ time boosting Europe’s global manufacturing competitiveness, says Agote.