Norsk Titanium Brings Nordic Metal 3D Printing Stateside
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on August 17, 2016 |

While Norsk Titanium (NTi) was founded 2007, it wasn't until the last few years that the Norwegian metal 3D printing company began attracting a lot of attention and investment dollars in the United States. That's because, not only has NTi begun to expand its focus from 3D printing for the oil and gas industry to aerospace, but it has also started to work with a lot of big names, including Alcoa, Boeing, Airbus and, even, the State of New York.

In an interview with ENGINEERING.com, Chip Yates, vice president of Marketing at NTi, was able to touch on the moves that NTi has made to bring the company to prominence in the U.S. and worldwide.

NTi's Rapid Plasma Deposition Technology

When breaking down the various 3D printing technologies, NTi's technology of Rapid Plasma Deposition™ (RPD) falls into the metal 3D printing process of directed energy deposition (DED). DED sees thermal energy used to fuse material—usually a metal—as it is being deposited. Unlike direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) and similar technologies, DED has the unique ability to 3D print extremely large metal parts to near net shape, though the parts are subsequently refined with subtractive techniques.

RPD features a two-torch method that first heats the substrate and then heats the titanium wire. (Image courtesy of NTi.)
RPD features a two-torch method that first heats the substrate and then heats the titanium wire. (Image courtesy of NTi.)

RPD differs from some other forms of DED in that the process uses a plasma arc to melt titanium wire, rather than metal powder, to print parts. Yates elaborated on this process by saying, “We use a two-torch system where the leading torch heats the substrate to the temperature that's required and then the second torch heats the titanium wire, allowing us to deposit up to 10 kg per hour of structural titanium.”

Parts are then refined with post-processing techniques, with the object in the front being the most refined. (Image courtesy of NTi.)
Parts are then refined with post-processing techniques, with the object in the front being the most refined. (Image courtesy of NTi.)

Yates distinguished the RPD process from other metal 3D printing techniques like DMLS. “I'd say that we're not competing with the other metal 3D printing processes because we’re not going to print small, complex parts. We're not going to 3D print the GE LEAP engine nozzle. Really, we're aiming to replace the massive amount of forged parts that are currently flying on commercial aircraft,” he said.

Since the first RPD platform was developed in 2008, NTi has spent the past seven years refining the technology, resulting in the fourth generation of its metal 3D printing system in 2015. The MERKE IV™, as it's called, is capable of producing 48,502 pounds of finished aerospace-grade parts per year.

According to the company, parts are printed to within nearly 80 percent of the final shape of the end part. In turn, production costs are estimated by NTi to be less than forging or billet manufacturing. With the new Airbus A350 aircraft built from about 14 percent titanium, the company further estimates that each aircraft would produce about 154,000 pounds of titanium scrap, arguing that RPD could save Airbus $2.3 million in waste, energy use and lead time per plane.

This is one of the reasons why NTi has begun to move from oil and gas to the aerospace sector.

From Oil and Gas to Aerospace

Yates explained that NTi began with a lucrative career in the oil and gas space, working with the leading supplier of oil in Norway, but made the shift to aerospace when oil prices began to drop dramatically.

The latest RPD machine is the MERKE IV. (Image courtesy of NTi.)
The latest RPD machine is the MERKE IV. (Image courtesy of NTi.)

The certification process for aerospace, however, is no easy task. In fact, NTi shipped 2.4 metric tons of titanium aerospace parts for testing in the second quarter of 2015. “Aerospace qualification is tough mostly because every aerospace manufacturer has its own qualification process,” Yates said. “So, we're working with Westmoreland, which is an independent testing company, and we're shipping them literally tons of test sample parts. They're subjecting them to a battery of tensile, fatigue and other tests to demonstrate that our RPD process produces parts that meet the qualifications of the aerospace manufacturers.”

Nevertheless, NTi has made significant strides in this regard. In 2015, the firm received an investment from RTI International Metals before RTI was purchased by Alcoa. Since then, Alcoa and NTi have begun exploring ways of collaborating, including blending Alcoa’s long history of traditional metalworking techniques with NTi's newer metal 3D printing technology.

About the partnership, Yates said, “I wouldn't say that we have a competitor in the larger manufacturing space because other companies are either working in a different area or are direct collaborators. Alcoa is a great example because we're working with them to replace forged parts with additively manufactured parts.”

He added, “We look at a lot of the legacy forging companies as partners or potential partners. That's why we’re working on new hybrid technologies such as “print-then-forge” and “forge-then-print” processes. We’ll 3D print a part that's near net shape, but we'll need some finishing processes to bring it to the final shape with forging. There are also forged parts that come to us, and we’ll 3D print on top of those parts to dramatically reduce the by-to-fly ratio of the legacy forging process.”

Aside from Alcoa, NTi has begun working with such aerospace giants as Boeing and Airbus, through its 3D printing subsidiary Premium AEROTEC. NTi has shipped at least two proprietary Airbus A350 XWB parts to Premium AEROTEC, which began testing the parts in order to qualify them for actual flight on aircraft. After Boeing evaluated NTi's MERKE III machine earlier in 2016, the aerospace manufacturer ordered parts from NTi made by the newer MERKE IV for qualification and testing.

The process is a long one, but Yates believes that, for some aerospace OEMs, qualification may be nearly complete. “We've got partnerships with a number of large aerospace OEMs and I think that we should have something qualified for a commercial aircraft by the end of the year. It's fair to say that the timing for RPD to be flying is imminent,” he said.

A Massive Metal 3D Printing Facility Lands in New York

Yates pointed out that, unlike other metal 3D printing companies, NTi is not in the business of selling machines. Instead, the firm is a parts producer that leverages its RPD expertise to fill orders for its clients. According to Yates, this client list is actually quite a long one, and NTi is aggressively expanding the capacity to fulfill demand. For that reason, NTi has just opened a second MERKE IV manufacturing plant in Norway and will open an industrial-scale metal 3D printing facility in Plattsburgh, N.Y.
The NTi Technical Center in Oslo, Norway. (Image courtesy of NTi.)
The NTi Technical Center in Oslo, Norway. (Image courtesy of NTi.)
The New York facility is the result of a $125 million public-private partnership between the state, SUNY Polytechnic Institute, and NTi and its investors. Yates explained that the site will begin with 20 MERKE IV machines, capable of producing 400 metric tons of aerospace parts per year, before another 20 systems are installed. So far, the state has just released $4 million for project planning, and, once complete, the facility will be the first such aerospace additive manufacturing plant in New York.

However, even with the New York facility, Yates doesn't believe they will be able to quench the large demand for aerospace-grade, structural titanium parts. “There were a lot of different offers on the table for where we can bring this technology. In fact, there still are. So, while we will be opening the large facility in Plattsburgh, we might also open a site in Singapore or a facility to serve the Japanese market for example. We decided to go with New York partially for monetary reasons, but mostly because of the location, business environment, and our ability to partner with the local workforce and educational institutions to make the biggest and most positive impact possible,” Yates said.

Ultimately, Yates would like to see a time in which metal 3D-printed parts can be used in place of forged components in a variety of places. “We're in an exciting time where I think that additive manufacturing is finally going to live up to its promise. I've got a 3D printer in my garage that prints little plastic parts, but nothing that could replace parts made with traditional manufacturing. Now, we’re actually going to see 3D-printed parts that can actually be screwed in and fitted to an aircraft in place of a forged part – now that’s awesome!”

He concluded, “It would be great to see a day when we can replace every part on an aircraft with an additively manufactured part and Norsk Titanium is committed to that vision.”

As NTi continues to expand, the impression was clear that the firm doesn't simply aim to be another small fish in the 3D printing space, but one that intends to join the larger fray of aerospace. And, with the progress made so far, it seems the industry won’t have to wait for long.

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