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For Metal Alloys Producer Carpenter Technology, 3-D Printing Means A Whole New World Of Opportunity

To show the deep and wide-ranging impact of 3-D printing/additive manufacturing (AM) technology on our legacy industries, there’s probably no better story than that of 130-year-old Carpenter Technology Corporation.

Philadelphia-based Carpenter Technology is a publicly-traded company (NYSE: CRS) with a market capitalization of nearly $2.5 billion. Founded in 1889, it’s long been known as a producer of premium specialty metal alloys for mission-critical manufacturing applications, including aerospace, medical, industrial, energy and consumer electronics. For 13 decades, then, the company has focused on innovating alloys to serve metal forming processes that have been around for centuries: casting and forging. Carpenter’s focus has been on creating new metal alloy formulas and processes for enhanced performance under extreme operating environments, and in selling various fundamental product forms of those various alloys to its customers.

This remains a big part of what Carpenter Technology does. But now the company has launched Carpenter Additive, a whole new business unit to serve the growing market of AM. “We’re moving to where it now makes sense to print things originally designed for other metal manufacturing technologies,” said Ben Ferrar, Carpenter Additive’s Vice President and General Manager. “I’ve been in the AM business for 11 years. When I started you’d load a print job and cross your fingers. Now, we have companies moving into true manufacturing with full-scale 3-D printing.” Seeing this need coming, the company went looking for expertise. “It was the major reason behind our acquisition of LPW Technology,” Ferrar said. Carpenter Technology bought the UK-based LPW, a key developer and supplier of metal powders to the AM industry, last October.

The purchase underscored the need for Carpenter Technology to take an entirely new approach to its business to serve the AM market. Its customers who have been gravitating toward AM are driven by the new design possibilities the company offers, growing confidence in the technology, and the steady advances in the part build rates possible. “The yield and productivity equations are starting to tip the balance of the business case for advanced designs,” said Will Herbert, Carpenter Technology’s Director of Additive Technology and R&D. “The build rate directly correlates to the cost of the parts.”

That reality has thrown the additive industry some curve balls. First, the materials science part of the business is presenting new challenges. “In traditional metal forming, the machinist cannot mess up the fundamental metal properties,” said Ferrar. “When you load the metal powder for a 3-D printing job, though, you only melt part of the powder – then you re-use the rest, maybe 20 times over. We have to ensure the finished product has the right quality and same properties, despite that repeated thermal cycle.”

That means not only designing the best alloy, but also having the physical properties of the metal powder itself right for the application. That’s a lot more than just printing. The back end of the process can be equally demanding. “3-D printing doesn’t just give you a part ready to go in a jet engine,” Herbert said. “We can assist with post-processing too, providing a total solution – even for customers who are just starting out in their 3-D journey.”

It’s that identity as an end-to-end solutions provider, rather than just a raw materials supplier, that Carpenter Technology is now building for itself. “We were working with a medical implant company that wasn’t getting the results it desired in printed material,” Ferrar said. “We reviewed their application, developed a new chemical composition and manufactured a new powder for them. Then we printed test specimens and developed a new post-processing heat treatment for them – all in seven days! The ability to leverage Carpenter Technology’s 130 years of knowledge is really enabling Carpenter Additive to develop solutions for our customers.”

Carpenter Technology serves all the existing metal 3-D printing technologies and is getting prepared for the emerging technologies coming over the next five years. “We’re working with today’s materials, and tomorrow’s,” Herbert said. “We’re approaching that both in-house with our own R&D teams and working with external partners on their most challenging applications. We tie that to our legacy – we’ve always developed materials to support industry.”

“The strategy of the company remains the same as ever, but just focused on breakthrough new technologies,” said Ferrar. “Our focus remains on the same mission-critical applications – we don’t work on low-end components where a stronger, lighter, more corrosion resistant alloy is not needed.”

One interesting aspect of Carpenter Technology’s breakthrough AM development work is the company’s look at some of its old formulations. “Lots of alloys we developed in the past might not have been that good for traditional forming methods, but they could prove to be good for AM,” Herbert said. “On one hand, 3-D printing is just another metallurgical technique. But it’s also an interesting blend of the metallurgical and digital, where we are now collecting and analyzing data at every step of the process. We can invent faster.”

“It’s really about leveraging the materials,” Ferrar added.

The company sees big things coming soon. “These technologies are already starting to impact Forbes readers’ lives,” said Herbert. “When they get on a plane, there are already parts in it that are 3-D printed. At the doctor’s office, they’re already using AM implants. In their cars, parts are going to creep in and take over from legacy manufacturing without them even knowing it. So for us, in a world where a lot of the time we’re now operating with AM materials that still have a short history, that means we have to give our customers confidence in the quality, by which we mean equivalence to known materials, reliability and repeatability. People want to know their systems are of the highest quality, and that’s what Carpenter Technology is delivering.”

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