Q&A: Additive Manufacturing Powder Supply Chain

We caught up with Frédéric Marion and Pier-Luc Paradis, both with AP&C – a GE Additive company, to find out more about their position paper, Additive Manufacturing Powder Supply Chain: Fundamental Expectations for Highly Regulated Industries.

Q&A with Frédéric Marion and Pier-Luc Paradis 

Q: Why is AP&C releasing this position paper now? What do you want readers to take away? 
Pier-Luc: Metal additive manufacturing is still in its expansion phase, with a lot of companies just getting started with it. In our mind, as one of the leaders in the industry, sharing our knowledge on materials and powders - not just with newcomers, but also with those organizations that are a little further along in their journey - is an important part of driving the additive industry forward. 

Frédéric: We’re seeing an exciting shift in the market as users start moving from research and development and begin to accelerate the transition to serial production, often with multiple printed parts. 
Q: We have a wide range of customers in many sectors, so why the specific focus on highly regulated industries?
Pier-Luc: The medical and aerospace industries were early adopters of additive and today are additive super users. Both these highly regulated industries require high-performing products and a good quality-management process to mitigate all the risks and provide high-quality and controlled products. 

Frédéric: We’ve been working for the past 15 years with many of the early adopters. They have navigated the challenges of adopting a new manufacturing process, have met the most stringent requirements and are now in the process of industrializing additive across the enterprise. 

Together with these customers we continue to innovate and continuously improve our product and our processes. And as Pier-Luc says, it’s important to share our powder strategy and supply chain efficiency learnings for the wider benefit of all additive users. 
Q: Why did you focus on the four topics you cover in the paper: quality, service, performance and collaboration? 
Frédéric: The four topics are cornerstones of a sound strategy. Our experience shows that they are key to ensuring supply chain continuity and growth. Manufacturing high-quality products that exhibit good performance is critical to meet demanding industry requirements and regulations, but it is not enough.

Pier-Luc: Indeed, and since metal additive technologies are relatively new, as an industry we need to increase the general awareness around reactive metal powder handling. So, providing good customer service and a commitment to collaboration that allows for knowledge sharing means we can improve and continue to push the limits of our technology. 

By focusing on these four pillars, an organization can gain confidence in its own supply chain, accelerate its adoption of additive and ultimately develop new, innovative parts. 
Q: The paper is rich with technical information, but equally you talk a lot about collaboration, transparency and change management. How and why do they intersect?
Pier-Luc: As a growing industry, additive manufacturing processes require continuous improvement. This is true not only for machine manufacturers and users, but for the raw material producers as well. 

But any change has the potential to induce some level of risk. Open, transparent collaboration among all parties creates shared confidence and makes it possible to drive efficient change management across the supply chain to try and reduce all the risk from the process - from start to finish. 

Frédéric: Also, and again speaking from years of experience, many challenges encountered by the machine maker, the user and the powder producer will be similar. This is particularly true for powder handling and testing. Sharing collective experiences quickly resolves issues and can even adapt proposed changes.
Q: What excites you most about the metal powder space today… and what’s around the corner?
Pier-Luc: Developing new products that help our customers unlock innovation is always exciting. With additive technology, there are endless possibilities for part design and characteristics.

Frédéric: Powder characterization still remains a challenge. We see a lot of ongoing research to better define with simple metrics the dynamic behavior of powders. The current work on how powder rheology can be improved and can impact print behavior is really interesting to follow. 

A lot of effort is also underway to develop new alloys that will maximize the specificity of additive manufacturing. To be honest, some of these will remain niche products because a lack of data remains a challenge, and that might impact wider acceptance. 

I see more potential for alloys that are already available but, until now, have been seldomly used in additive manufacturing. Here I’m thinking about shape memory alloys like nitinol, intermetallic alloys like titanium-aluminide, refractory alloys like tungsten or niobium and high-entropy alloys.