(INTERVIEW) Colin Hautz, CEO of ArcelorMittal Powders: 50 million tonnes of metal powder

3D printing news was in no short supply at Formnext 2023; so far, we’ve published over forty articles, with more to come. 

However, one of the most interesting industry developments was not found at a large central booth but rather one of the smaller locations on the perimeter of Hall 12.0.

With a market capitalization of EUR 20 billion, by some estimates, steel maker ArcelorMittal is larger than the entire 3D printing industry. In January 2024, the company intends to activate its industrial-scale inert gas atomizer in Aviles, Spain. The output of the 1000 tonnes capacity system will be sold under the AdamIQ brand by ArcelorMittal Powders to users of laser powder bed fusion (LPBF), binder jetting (BJ), and direct energy deposition (DED) metal additive manufacturing systems. 

The vision is to leverage “ArcelorMittal’s metallurgical and digital expertise to unleash the potential of steel in combination with Additive Manufacturing.”

I spoke to Colin Hautz, CEO of ArcelorMittal Powders, to understand the company’s market entry strategy into additive manufacturing and the motivation behind the timing. 

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Why has ArcelorMittal entered the metal powders for additive business?

Hautz highlighted several key drivers for this strategic move, including supporting customers in the automotive sector, R&D initiatives, and market potential.

ArcelorMittal’s long-standing collaboration with the automotive industry, a critical market for the company, has traditionally focused on enhancing steel strength and light-weighting vehicles. However, as the automotive sector explores additive manufacturing, ArcelorMittal faced a gap since they didn’t produce powder. Entering the additive manufacturing space as a material supplier allows them to continue supporting these key clients.

Yet this is not ArcelorMittal’s first foray into AM; the R&D department has investigated additive manufacturing for about eight or nine years. Hautz mentioned that they have developed unique approaches that they are eager to bring to market. He emphasized that additive manufacturing achieves performance levels impossible with traditional manufacturing methods. Hautz fully credits Spain’s Meltio for developing their metal AM systems but notes, “Our R&D was a kernel of inspiration.”

Hautz referred to the “banana curve,” a concept originating from Nippon Steel, to explain the trade-off between the strength and elongation of steel. With traditional methods, higher strength usually comes at the cost of reduced ductility. However, additive manufacturing offers a way to break free from these constraints, enabling steel creation with both high strength and elongation.

DM spline shaft for automotive 3D printed in steel by Meltio. Photo by Michael Petch.
DM spline shaft for automotive 3D printed in steel by Meltio. Photo by Michael Petch.

Growth Potential and Market Analysis: Sharing a 50 million tonne opportunity

Recognizing additive manufacturing as a relatively small, compared to other business lines, but growing industry, ArcelorMittal chose to enter the market at what they still see as an early stage. Analysis of the additive manufacturing market suggests significant potential for growth, especially in enhancing productivity and reducing costs with existing technologies. Hautz believes ArcelorMittal’s technical experience can contribute to this growth, particularly in improving the productivity of the current installed base and new AM systems with greater build volumes than predecessors.

Hautz offered a conservative estimate of the industry’s growth, expecting 15-25%, potentially up to 30%. This growth could lead to a market size of 30,000 to 40,000 tonnes of powder demand over the next five years. He contextualized this by comparing it to the global steel market, noting that of the 1.8 billion tonnes of steel produced annually, about 100 million tonnes could potentially be replaced by additive manufacturing, accounting for scrap generated he believes approximately 50 million tonnes of metal AM parts are viable. 

A key challenge Hautz identified is the high market entry cost for users. He emphasized that the primary cost driver in additive manufacturing is not the material but the equipment and technology productivity. He noted, “70% (of cost) at least is your machine and maintenance.” Hautz argued that increasing machine productivity is crucial for reducing part costs. He even mentioned that when he asked car companies how much more additive manufacturing they would do if materials were free, the answer was none because “it is not about the material.”

The conversation addressed these machines’ capital expenditures and depreciation, impacting companies’ profit and loss. Hautz noted the importance of operational throughput, reliability, software improvements, and new technologies like beam shaping in enhancing productivity.

ArcelorMittal Powders is actively contributing to this field with its research and development. Hautz mentioned a white paper the company has prepared, highlighting its unique printing strategy that increases machine productivity without requiring hardware changes. This approach is part of their strategy to add value to the industry, focusing on making existing machines more productive.

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Hautz emphasized the importance of productivity in ArcelorMittal’s strategy, stating, “We’re looking at productivity as the main thing to try and unleash.” This approach extends beyond being just a materials supplier, as they also focus on bringing solutions to their customers. 

Additionally, Hautz highlighted ArcelorMittal’s various collaborations and joint ventures in the additive manufacturing space. One such venture is with TheSteelPrinters in Spain, a collaboration between ArcelorMittal and an Austrian firm, specializing in producing stainless steel parts and moving into nickel-based alloys. They primarily manufacture spare parts for hospital facilities but are also open to other orders. This venture originated from the R&D team’s demonstration that they could efficiently make spare parts.

Another venture Hautz mentioned is with a wire arc additive manufacturing company in Ghent, which ArcelorMittal partly funded. This company focuses on repairing large parts and serves ArcelorMittal’s plants and the oil and gas industry.

Any material you want – so long as it’s steel

ArcelorMittal Powders has opted for a unique positioning in the metal powders market for additive manufacturing. We only make steel because we are a steel company,” highlighting their expertise with over 500 steel metallurgies. This specialization in steel is a core aspect of their market differentiation. This sets them apart in a market where competitors often offer a range of metal powders. 

A key element of their strategy is addressing the industrialization and scalability of additive manufacturing. Hautz noted the trend towards large-volume series production and the requirements for larger machines. He mentioned machines like the Nikon SLM Solutions NXG XII 600, which require significant amounts of powder. To meet these needs, ArcelorMittal emphasizes producing large batch sizes, up to three tonnes, ensuring homogeneity and traceability of the powder, crucial for large-scale production.

ArcelorMittal Powders also brings their extensive experience serving large industry customers to the additive manufacturing sector. Hautz said, “We understand industry. We understand large-scale reproducibility, the traceability questions that are there.” This experience informs their approach to adapting production for additive manufacturing.

Regarding partnerships and collaborations, Hautz mentioned a significant but undisclosed deal with Sicnova related to military applications involving tonnage rather than kilos of steel powder. He also highlighted ongoing discussions in other industries, such as tooling, a primary market for the automotive sector. ArcelorMittal is advancing research in tooling and exploring opportunities in tire molds and brake discs for automotive applications. 

Companies such as Nikon SLM Solutions are building AM systems capable of substantially larger components. Photo by Michael Petch.
Companies such as Nikon SLM Solutions are building AM systems capable of substantially larger components. Photo by Michael Petch.

An opportunity bigger than the industry?

I’ve attended two editions of Formnext in relatively close succession, Formnext Frankfurt last week and Formnext Shenzen several months ago. The difference is stark. In China, the practical, production-focused use of additive manufacturing in China for high-volume items like tire molds and shoe midsoles or vape pens contrasts this with the more aspirational, high-end, high-value, but low-volume applications presented in Frankfurt. Hautz observes, “The fact that we’re still talking so many high-end niche applications shows that cost per part is still too expensive.” Hautz emphasized that productivity in metal additive manufacturing is key to expanding the technology’s addressable market.

Hautz noted the massive AM opportunity for the brake disc market in additive manufacturing, suggesting it could even surpass the current size of the additive market.

Brake disc coatings using DED have emerged as an AM application in response to EU regulations targeting fine particle emissions from cars under EU7. The issue at hand, as Hautz explained, is the emission of fine particles from the rusting of cast iron brake discs. The solution identified by the automotive industry is to apply corrosion-resistant coatings to these discs. A proposed method involves applying a stainless steel layer and a second layer embedded with hard materials like tungsten or titanium carbide for abrasion resistance.

Highlighting ArcelorMittal Powders’ role in this development, Hautz mentioned their preparedness to supply the necessary materials for this application. “We have 430L in our lineup specifically for this application.”

The current state and future prospects of additive manufacturing

Discussing financial projections for ArcelorMittal’s venture into additive manufacturing, Hautz described it as a relatively small but strategic investment. He said, “This is about getting into the market and ensuring we wash our face.” He acknowledged the uncertainty in market growth but emphasized the importance of being involved in the early stages of the industry’s development.

Regarding potential expansion, Hautz mentioned that the next production location would depend on market growth and scale. He highlighted ArcelorMittal’s advantage in having its atomizer design, which allows for faster replication if needed. This approach provides them with flexibility and independence from supplier waitlists.

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Hautz highlighted the atomizer’s capability to handle large batch sizes, with the flexibility to go up to three tonnes, adding up to an annual volume of 1,000 tonnes. He stressed that this scale brings unique safety challenges, especially in an emergency where handling becomes critical. Hautz emphasized, “Once you’ve got three tonnes, if that’s escaping, you’re in big trouble.”

The CEO also touched on the unique aspects of their atomizer, such as specific methods for extracting powder and other developments that enable large-scale batch processing. However, he was cautious about revealing too much detail, noting the competitive nature of the industry.

Regarding quality control, Hautz mentioned that the machine was just about to start production and could not provide detailed insights into its quality control processes. However, he indicated that their approach to quality control is informed by their experience in the automotive sector, focusing on traceability from raw materials to the final product. He said, “We know from the auto sector what we must do to trace materials.”

ArcelorMittal Powders AdamIQ metal powder

Hautz explained the naming of AdamIQ, stating it stands for ‘AD’ from additive, ‘AM’ from ArcelorMittal, and ‘IQ’ for smarter use, aligning with the company’s ethos of “smarter steels for people and planet.” He emphasized the goal of proving smart production can also be productive. The range will include stainless steels (316L, 430L, 17-4PH), tool steels (H11, H13, M300) and low alloy steels (a dual-phase alloy; 4140 equivalent).

Regarding challenges faced during development, Hautz highlighted a significant issue in the market’s expectations, particularly around particle size. He questioned the standard 15 to 45-micron size range, noting from their research that this range could be counterproductive for achieving higher printing rates. Hautz expressed, “In our experience of printing if you want to go to higher productivity rates, it’s actually a negative to stay with the 15 to 45 size range.”

Another challenge Hautz mentioned is the difficulty in introducing new steel materials developed specifically for additive manufacturing due to the industry’s reliance on established materials like 316L or MS1. He noted, “If anybody could take whatever powder they wanted and not lose production by testing materials, we would come with a different product range.”

Hautz also discussed upcoming materials from ArcelorMittal, including a high elongation, high-strength material with unattainable properties through traditional methods and a cobalt-free maraging steel. He emphasized the need for more development projects with industry partners to explore new materials, lamenting the industry’s focus on design and printing parameters over material selection.

Aluminum vs Steel

The CEO of ArcelorMittal Powders discussed the company’s innovative approach in the additive manufacturing market, particularly highlighting a project that demonstrates their expertise in steel – and why aluminum might not be the first choice for lightweight applications.

Hautz described a joint project with the University of Nebraska involving a motorbike chassis, showcasing ArcelorMittal’s capability in lightweight design using steel. The original chassis, made of steel tubes, weighed about eight kilos and was later replaced with an aluminum chassis weighing 5.6 kilos. ArcelorMittal, however, reduced the weight further to 3.9 kilos using steel. Hautz pointed out the limitations of standard topology software in the market, initially suggesting heavier solutions of nine to ten kilos. ArcelorMittal overcame this by developing its topology optimization and design.

A key aspect of their design approach was hollowing out the structure, which Hautz noted strengthens the structure compared to a solid one. They also optimized printing parameters but chose to stick with the well-understood material 316L stainless steel. Hautz emphasized, “We have a solution which is 26% below where the aluminum was,” demonstrating that steel can still be competitive in lightweight applications.

This project exemplifies ArcelorMittal’s fresh perspective and deep expertise in steel, challenging preconceived notions about the material’s limitations in additive manufacturing. Hautz’s account underscores the company’s commitment to innovation and its ability to leverage its steel expertise to achieve superior weight reduction and structural efficiency outcomes.

Sustainability standards for the steel industry

Our discussion turned to the company’s commitment to sustainability, particularly in producing steel powders for additive manufacturing. Given the volume of CO2 emissions from traditional steel production, ArcelorMittal is positioned to make a significant impact.

Hautz highlighted ArcelorMittal’s efforts in setting sustainability standards for the steel industry, mentioning their XCarb brand, which represents low carbon emission steel, and an XCarb fund aimed at driving forward the technology for decarbonizing the steel industry. He noted the significant contribution of the steel industry to global CO2 emissions, saying, “The steel industry is responsible for seven to 8% of global CO2 emissions.”

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The conversation then shifted to the specifics of producing sustainable steel powders. Hautz pointed out the challenge in sourcing clean scrap steel, as it often gets mixed with other metals or contaminated with cutting fluids. He underscored the importance of obtaining clean scrap, which ArcelorMittal can manage effectively as a steel producer.

Hautz also mentioned their commitment to using renewable energy sources. “We’ve contracted for green electricity. It’s 100% from renewable sources,” he said, adding that their industrial gases, another significant energy consumer, are also sourced from renewable energies. 

Regarding closed-loop systems, Hautz expressed openness to discussing systems where scrap steel from industrial production can be returned to them for recycling. This approach aligns with the growing interest in life cycle assessments (LCAs) in additive manufacturing, which increasingly factor into the decisions of larger users.

Finally, Hautz talked about reducing the carbon footprint in the printing process itself. He pointed out that reducing support structures in printing improves efficiency and lessens the environmental impact since supports are essentially waste. “When you see the support-free printing, that is an LCA improvement,” he stated.

The future of metal additive manufacturing at ArcelorMittal

Hautz emphasized the initial step of proving their capability to produce existing alloys, followed by introducing new alloys to the market. These include a cobalt-free maraging steel and a low-nitrogen 17-4 PH. He highlighted a unique, high-elongation, high-strength steel that has yet to be available in the industry and a low-carbon steel called DP 800, which is a general-purpose steel but not corrosion-resistant.

Besides material development, Hautz stated that their focus is also significantly improving productivity. He explained their goal of enhancing productivity with existing hardware and helping customers achieve more efficient throughput. Hautz stated, “We are trying to produce more productively with the same hardware, how to get that into the market, how to help our customers to be more efficient.”

On the long-term vision for the additive manufacturing industry, Hautz emphasizes its role as a complementary tool within the broader manufacturing landscape.

Hautz stated, “(AM) will become a more widely used technology, but will it replace all other manufacturing? No, it will become another tool.” He elaborated on this perspective by comparing additive manufacturing to other manufacturing technologies, such as CNC machining, where different levels of tooling and approaches are employed based on the specific requirements of a task. Hautz highlighted the importance of recognizing the unique capabilities and limitations of additive manufacturing, suggesting that while it won’t replace traditional manufacturing methods entirely, it will become an increasingly significant part of the manufacturing toolbox.

Regarding the industry’s future growth, Hautz believes that additive manufacturing will continue to expand. “Certain things will never make sense to do in additive. You can’t do certain things in any way other than that,” he said, acknowledging the specific niches where additive manufacturing is irreplaceable. He is optimistic about the market’s potential, predicting it could reach a million-ton market, though the timeline for such growth remains uncertain.

In summary, Colin Hautz sees additive manufacturing as an integral, yet not all-encompassing, component of the future manufacturing industry. He envisions a landscape where additive manufacturing is utilized alongside other techniques, each chosen for their particular strengths and suitability to the task at hand. His vision reflects a pragmatic and balanced view of the role of additive manufacturing in the broader context of industrial production.

Read all the 3D Printing Industry coverage from Formnext 2023.

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Featured image via ArcelorMittal.

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