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Making the case for a small Titanium mill

You may ask yourself: Why Titanium? Since the invention of the Kroll-Process in 1932 – the predominant process used in the production of Titanium sponge – and the first industry-grade productions in 1950, only 70 plus years have passed. From the moment the first 20 kgs were produced in 1938 to today’s 140,000 metric tons per annum, the material has come a long way.
 
More and more interesting applications using Titanium are found all the time. In the last 15 years alone, the worldwide output of Titanium products has doubled.

By Thomas Schiefer, Chief Executive Officer, ZIROM


The reasoning behind the growth in Titanium (Ti) usage is the construction of more fuel-efficient airplanes, and therefore contain more Ti materials, besides the regular composite materials that are used. A closer look shows us there are many advantageous properties of Ti, lending itself to more excellent application opportunities:

• High corrosion resistance – Ti forms an oxygen layer on the surface and becomes very corrosion resistant.

• High tensile/yield strength – Ti has a very good resistance to longitudinal stress without tearing apart.

• Highest strength to density ratio – Ti parts can fit into small spaces but bear a high load.

• Heat treatable, easily weldable – Ti can withstand high temperatures and can easily be welded.

• Excellent biocompatibility/bone – Ti does not react with body fluids, tissue, bones.

• Osteointegration – Ti structure integrates well.

• Non-magnetic – Ti is not visible on x-ray, MRI, etc.

• Composites compatibility – Ti has the same expansion rate as composite materials.

• Low modulus – Ti is much more elastic than steel. Springs made of Ti are therefore much shorter and lighter.

• High Fatigue Resistance – Ti is very resistant to permanent mechanical stress.

Table 1
Table 1

Different industries have different requirements

As seen in Table 1, the excellent properties of Ti and its alloys are not equally important across all application areas.
Aerospace applications, for example, are quite straightforward and have high requirements by virtue of the application. In this domain, the lot sizes are usually big and will not have many value-creation steps from the titanium mill to the aerospace manufacturer.

In other industries there are also many application areas that require large quantities of material, but with relatively low specifications (e.g. desalination plants, cooling installations on ships). There is no doubt that quantities of Ti have been developing in these areas are over the years.

Table 2 shows that a lot of applications require smaller Ti lot sizes with a higher quality.

Table 2
Table 2

Is there room in the market for a small Titanium mill?

There are many emerging applications and new technologies in other domains that might require Ti materials, but they will often be in smaller quantities. 

Instead of focusing solely on big quantity developments, it is important to show the added value that a small Ti mill can bring to the industry. A strong focus needs to be placed on adding significant value to the product, because the total output quantity of a small mill will remain a fraction of the output of a big Ti mill.

The products in small quantities, as shown in Table 2, could be delivered via stockholders, service centers, or a small Ti mill. For all three options it is necessary that the serviced markets are those with many smaller Ti consumers, which produce high-end products. The price point of Ti requires that Ti consumers are not replacing the material with cheaper and less durable alternatives.

Mainly the markets shown in Table 3 accommodate this demand profile. Other markets, which are not listed in Table 3, will also use smaller quantities, but to a lesser degree.

Advantages/disadvantages of a small Titanium mill

Advantages:

• More competitive offer as the trading partners between the Ti consumer and the mill are eliminated.

• Ability to provide better technical advice and support, because the technicians/R&D are at hand for clarifications and direct work with the customer.

• More flexibility with delivery terms, as only a direct agreement between the manufacturer and Ti consumer is necessary.

• Exotic alloys, which the stockholder would not normally provide, can be discussed and eventually be sourced. If development is necessary, then this can be done as well.

• Eventual quality concerns can be addressed with delay and solved directly before they lead to longwinded complaint procedures with more parties involved.

Disadvantages:

• Not being geographically close to the customer and therefore more difficult to construct a relationship of trust.

• Quantities will be linked to production related MOQs (minimum order quantity) and cannot be as small/flexible, as in the case of service centers or stockholders.

Given the high-demand applications for the Ti material, it has become increasingly important to get a technical consultancy whilst sourcing the material. The multitude of standards and capabilities of the material require the user to have a better understanding of the material. Sourcing materials from far away has led to many manufacturing and quality problems. In these cases, it becomes very difficult to be fully compensated for lost cost and reputation.

A small Ti mill is an optimal partner for smaller quantities and close technical cooperation, which smaller projects and emerging applications need in order to be successful in the market. 

Table 3
Table 3

How can a small Titanium mill help with recycling?

One of the big disadvantages of Ti is the material price and, with it, the generated scrap quantities.

If a company is not working in the Aerospace market, or is a smaller Ti material user, it generates scrap but has no well-defined procedure for how to deal with it. This creates a headache for the company, and they usually sell the scrap with additional effort to a scrap dealer, which in the end does not pay too good a price. The manufacturer is not in the market for the return of scrap materials, and therefore has little knowledge about the market prices for Ti scrap.

Titanium mills have understood the problem with scrap generation and recycle scrap. One additional and very important benefit of a small Ti mill is to create the possibility of organizing a closed loop with the materials, and to provide a cost-effective solution for the problem of consumers of smaller quantities. Plates/bars, etc. are being delivered and scrap is taken back, eventually even as a part-payment of the delivered material.

What are the risks with recycling?

Large Ti mills use recycled materials for a very long time. It is important, that:

• The input quality is clearly defined (i.e. vacuum quality without cracks, holes, etc.) Everything else can be downgraded and sold into lower grade applications.

• The correct recycling equipment, such as an Electronic Beam Furnace with Cold Hearth (EB-CH), or a Plasma Arc Furnace with Cold Heath (PAM-CH), are being used as only these equipments deal with High-Density and Low-Density inclusions, which might occur in the material.

• Material testing is conducted to the strictest standards in order to avoid any material defects.

The process is quite laborious and requires a rebalancing of all the alloying elements. The advantage in the recycling process is to be seen more in the ecological aspects of the procedure. As material prices fluctuate in a different pattern, a significant cost and expertise needs to be applied for recycling. There is also a differentiation to be made for which alloys can be recycled. One criterium is the general availability of scrap. The industry is moving more towards a small range of alloyed Ti materials, rather than a 100% optimization of the material properties via chemistry. This is because the infrequently used materials are almost non-recyclable due to the small quantities available.

This range of materials is (1) pure Titanium grades, (2) Ti6Al4V, (3) Ti3.5Al2V, (4) 6-2-4-6, (5) 6-2-4-2, and (6) 6-6-2. The more complex these materials get, the higher the likelihood of chemistry imbalances and unusable materials. Materials with more complex chemistries are best processed in a PAM-CH because of the protective Helium atmosphere.


Conclusion

Titanium production is increasing continuously, and short-term quantity reductions are compensated quickly due to the new applications being added all the time. Existing and new challenging applications call for a close collaboration between the customer and the mill, and a small Ti mill is therefore filling a market requirement.

Recycling is a must in today’s world. Small Ti mills can bring the advantage of systems to manufacturers that process smaller quantities, and can contribute to more streamlined processes while optimizing costs.

About the author

As the CEO of ZIROM Titanium, Thomas Schiefer quickly grasped the technical specifics of the products and the structure of the Titanium market. With a background in finance and broad, all-round experience in most areas of business, he restructured ZIROM’s product portfolio into high-spec/high-value products and expanded the reach of the company’s sales operation into many Asian and European countries. Thomas invites connections at www.linkedin.com/in/thomas-schiefer

 

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