North West manufacturer LPW supplies high-grade metal powders for additive manufacturing. CEO and founder, Dr Phil Carroll told James Lawson how high-tech innovation is spearheading his company’s expansion within this fast-growing market.
Established in 2007 in Lymm, Cheshire by Dr Phil Carroll, LPW Technology Ltd is a market-leading British company that develops, processes and supplies cutting-edge metal powders for the additive manufacturing (AM) industry.
In this interview, Carroll discusses the company’s successes, challenges and the support received from regional government.
Why focus on supplying metal powders?
PC: All many vendors want to do is sell a machine. Our vision is to understand AM from the perspective of the metal powder. We were the first to say: “We’re not going to throw in any old metal powder. We’re going to control the quality and we’re going to optimise powders specifically for AM.” Purity, size, consistency and cleanliness are our watchwords.
How mature are 3D metal printing applications?
There was a lot of hype around AM five or six years ago but, until recently in the metals market, most of it’s been about prototyping. But over the past few years, a lot of big engineering companies have been quietly doing the R&D and are now putting it into mass production.
For example, Siemens builds and repairs gas turbine parts like burner tips using AM. GE has 3D-printed its GE9X jet engine’s turbine blades and the fuel nozzles for the LEAP engine. Building the nozzles used to mean assembling 20 different components. Now it’s down to one.
In the medical sector, Stryker has FDA approval for its titanium spinal implants. Dental crowns and bridges, aerospace, defence: wherever you have a high complexity component that’s expensive to make, AM is a no-brainer.
Designers have a lot more freedom compared to casting or machining. Components can be cheaper, lighter and simpler and you can use novel materials.
When did you start producing these powders, and what’s different about your facility?
The business has been going since 2007. For the first few years, we were effectively a consultancy. I was setting up machines and developing processes for others. We’ve spent the last four years experimenting and learning what we’ll need for full production. We’re designing those lessons into the new factory we’re building in Widnes.
Historically, a metal manufacturing environment looks like something out of the dark ages. We’re trying to make a steelworks for the 21st century and that means adopting pharma levels of cleanliness. Our new factory will have pressure, temperature and humidity control, with the different areas divided by air showers and interlocking doors.
Thanks to the atomisers, the quality assurance software and other equipment that we’re putting in, we’ll have the capability to make the cleanest single super-alloys in the world.
How do you manufacture pure metal and alloy powders?
There’s no one process that is best for all materials, so you’ve got to select from and combine them. We supply powder using all of them: plasma, gas atomisation, EIGA and PREP included. We have a team of production engineers focused on making our processes leaner and removing the risk of contamination.
There are over 20 R&D engineers working on alloy development, sensors and software. Our in-house AM printers test the materials we produce, making the same component every day. It’s about generating data on reproducibility and understanding processes.
We’ve run several Knowledge Transfer Partnerships [KTPs] and funded PhDs with both Sheffield and Liverpool Universities, including a PhD in material development. All of the students ended up working with us. There’s a four-year alloy development project with Lancaster University that’s just started – jointly funded by us and the Royal Academy of Engineering.
Alloy development is a long game, you’re talking at least a couple of years and probably more. Then it can be five, ten years or longer before you start to see new materials being used.
Besides improving your production processes and developing materials, where else in AM are you innovating?
Traceability is another area where we operate. We already reprocess used powder for customers in the UK and will shortly be starting in the US too. Any powder not melted during manufacturing stays in the machine and gets reused.
That’s basic economics. But moisture and oxygen in that atmosphere means the powder degrades, and you’re also mixing different batches together. So, the structure of a component made with powder used 10 times will be very slightly different to one made with new powder.
That doesn’t matter so much with prototyping, where you’re making a one-off mainly to look at. But for something like a production turbine blade, strength and fatigue performance are critical.
To give the traceability needed to control manufacturing, we’ve built our PowderLife lifecycle management system and PowderSolve software. Just like you have cartridges for a laser printer, we have hoppers for industrial metal printers.
Designed to minimise contamination, they fit straight onto the customer’s machine and take up to 1,000kg of powder. Our sensors monitor the powder and report wirelessly to a database. Customers also send powder back to our lab for testing.
How are you developing these services?
Around 10% of our turnover currently comes from them and it’s growing rapidly. By next summer, we will have an ISO17025 laboratory in our new factory and we’re also in the process of building a US lab. In the past couple of years, we’ve easily spent £1m on lab equipment alone.
We have eight customers across the nuclear, defense and automotive sectors using PowderSolve, our AM quality control software package which manages data from powders across multiple locations and multiple machines, giving a clear overview of production status.
Exactech [a US medical implant manufacturer] has just implemented it. We sell the software on traceability and certification, but the data will allow us to do a lot more in future. In Widnes, for example, we’ll pull data from everywhere: raw materials, manufacturing, post-processing, the laboratory, right through to the data the customer generates.
Metal 3D Printing
Powder bed fusion is currently the most popular metal 3D printing process, implemented using a variety of technologies. Pure metal or alloy powder deposited
layer by layer is sintered (fused together) by a laser or electron beam. Components fabricated this way are usually strong and durable, potentially consisting of many
thousands of fine layers.
Intricate structures can be produced directly from CAD data, incorporating complex features such as channels, tunnels and voids. With non-uniform layers causing unwanted porosity or insufficient melting, powder quality has a critical influence on final component properties.
Developing and optimising alloys is the most obvious application. In a production environment, that takes years and you spend millions. Using the data, we can see how the materials are changing, whether they are fit for purpose and then how we can improve them.
Companies like HP and GE are investing heavily in AM. How is this sector changing?
It’s been a niche industry – and still is. The total global consumption is probably a couple of thousand tons. But the metal side of AM is growing rapidly. We have a global market share of around 20% and have grown at around 35% annually for the past four years.
Last year we turned over just under £12m and this year it will be £15m. By 2021, it’ll be £35m. We export 70% of our sales and won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Export in 2016. After the UK, our top markets are America, Germany and then Japan, with resellers in Asia and further afield. Our new US facility in Pittsburgh will come online next month.
Is Brexit affecting you?
Leaving is going to be a pain. I think many exporters will shift distribution to Europe. If you ship in bulk and then split it down abroad then you only have to go through the customs border once.
You’ve got to have a plan B so we’ve set up a German office to mitigate the risk. The uncertainty around sterling isn’t good either. We import and export significantly, some contracts are in euros, others are in dollars. We’re trying to get customers to sign five- and 10-year agreements and the instability makes that off-putting.
What sort of challenges is your rapid growth bringing?
Our headcount has doubled to 90 in the past year. We constantly have five or 10 open positions that we struggle to fill. For a small company, our skills base is very high. We have PhDs on our shop floor working alongside our apprentices.
All our software and firmware is written in-house and we design our own PCBs. You’ve got mechanical engineers, lean manufacturing engineers, metallurgists… it’s the full suite of engineering disciplines.
So, recruiting is a real issue – for example, good software developers are almost impossible to find – but it’s not about the North West, finding skilled engineers anywhere in the UK is challenging. And yes, we support apprenticeships – we have 10 apprentices at the moment and they attend Riverside College in Widnes.
It’s rewarding to see the progress they make. Our first apprentice started five years ago and he’s now our production manager. Turning to senior management, there are some very good engineering companies around the North West from where we’ve recruited senior staff.
Our HR manager is ex-BAE Systems, our R&D director is ex-Rolls-Royce – the list goes on. For a small business, our internal systems are mature and work well.
What’s your experience of manufacturing as a start-up in the North West? It’s somewhere with true industrial pedigree and will you be in Liverpool with The Manufacturer Live in November?
Yes, I’d heard about the Liverpool show and we’re definitely going to attend. Liverpool’s local government has been brilliant, helping us find sites and supporting us in putting the new buildings together. I never thought I would say that about a council!
AMSCI [Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative] gave us a grant of £3m and LCR 4.0 [a Liverpool City Region hi-tech support programme] also advise us on electronic design.
My only criticism is the lack of transport infrastructure. If I want to go to Sheffield, it should take me an hour or less to get there from Warrington, but one meeting currently takes up the whole day.
Liverpool’s LEP has a great drive towards manufacturing which is reassuring – it’s not all about financial services or big warehouses for Amazon. It’s an acknowledgement that while an engineering job might not be the highest paid, it’s a quality job and one worth supporting.
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