Titanium’s punt to create a mini-NZ ‘Silicon Valley’


Those of a certain age may best remember titanium as a rainbow coloured metal that was a big jewellery hit in the late 1980s.

So why should people think that New Zealand’s a good place to develop a titanium industry – and to have a $750 million a year target for it in 10 years time?

It is the fourth most common metal in the earth’s crust, there’s plenty of places around the world that manufacture with the material and there doesn’t appear to be a pent up demand for titanium products.

The first part of the answer is to forget, initially, titanium as a solid metal. Imagine it first a powder, most likely a Ti alloy powder.

Combine that with Tauranga company Titanox’s process that delivers significant quantities of good quality powder in a very wide range of alloys and good particle size, and another part of the puzzle is revealed.

“That’s a key for powder metallurgy [PM] here, and its driven off that,” says Titanium Industry Development Association chief executive Warwick Downing. “That piece of intellectual property is significant.”

The Tauranga, Bay of Plenty Polytechnic’s Windemere campus-based centre is a joint venture between private companies, NZTE, FoRST and the Tertiary Education Commission. TiDA has purchased and installed a number of specialist PM consolidation machines and is the nerve centre for what is hoped to be a titanium-oriented Silicon Valley type blossoming of businesses in years to come. The focus of the center is ‘additive manufacturing’ compared taking away material such as milling.

From a physical and mechanical properties point of view, titanium has a number of advantages over its metallic competitors.

  • Best weight to strength ratio of any metal
  • Highly corrosion resistant (in most cases more so than stainless steel)
  • Ductile, but not brittle
  • Excellent weathering properties
  • Non-magnetic
  • Biocompatible
  • Relatively high melting point
  • Good shape memory properties

As an initial powder, titanium can be formed to shape in a number of different ways Dowling says.

  • Injection moulding (similar, though different to plastic injection moulding)
  • Compacting/sintering
  • Hot working processes (e.g. extrusion, rolling, forging)
  • Spray forming
  • Laser deposition/laser sintering (3D layering process)
  • Foam structures
  • Screen printing
  • Coating

“At some point along the way to form a shape, generally heat and maybe pressure is applied,” Dowling says “The purpose of TiDA is to help companies access some of these processes, provide testing facilities and help their product development processes.”

PM allows new products to be made which were not previously possible, and because precise shapes and sizes can be formed, further machining or manufacturing steps are eliminated. Examples of products include hip joints, cogs, nozzles, jet engine parts, sports equipment, compressor blades and aircraft components. Demand for titanium in products such as laptops, mobile phones, cameras, sports gear and other gadgets is also continuing to soar.

The centre also works closely with Waikato University and IRL in what Dowling describes as being a unique set-up as TiDA focuses solely on powder metallurgy. Other centres in Sheffield, England and in Germany have PM as part of a wider mix.

“Many companies in New Zealand don’t understand what powder metallurgy is, and how we can work with their companies,” he says.

As well as raising TiDA’s profile for and among NZ companies, some very large multinationals are also following what the centre is up to.

Its focus is maximising titanium’s potential revenue for the country however.

The analogy Dowling gives is that New Zealand could sell a dollar’s worth of powder overseas. That powder can be made into a product, worth say $10 (for that $1 of powder). Such knowledge can often be obtained ‘off the shelf’ as such. But, if there’s innovative product design, there can be a $100 return on $1 worth of powder.

“That’s the economic driver,” Dowling says. “We want to sell products with smart design and clever manufacturing techniques. But it is about integrating design at the start.”

TiDA is therefore a way for companies to test Ti-based ideas and processes, and the centre has a number of machines to measure the performance of the products it makes. While a key part of its intellectual property is based on a superior Ti powder, the centre’s success will depend on the ability of kiwi companies to come up with new applications, products and markets for PM technologies. Part of the centre’s advantage is that it can create a prototype directly from a CAD drawing, greatly speeding up the development process to determine whether a new product is feasible or not.

TiDA’s success will also be underscored by being highly efficient when companies come to it with a project. “In these circumstances, six months is a long time, three months an ideal time,” Dowling says.

“Our attitude is, here’s the concept or idea, let’s get it going as soon as possible. We want something out the door and in a market trial within that three to six month period. Our focus is bring products into market fast. That’s what our companies want too.”

At the same time, there are a number of large investors keeping a close eye on innovations and ideas brought to TiDA.

“These people realise that when you have some projects, they may need some capital,” says Dowling. “They’re saying, give us a call, as they’re very much looking for these opportunity areas. They’re looking to build up the capability in New Zealand.”

P.S. – on the jewellery front; apparently titanium is favoured by jewellers because it is considered ‘warm’- it always feels like it is at body temperature. The metal can be made to change colours through different heat processes.

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About sticknz

sticK is by Peter Kerr, a writer for hire. I have a broad science and technology background and interest, with an original degree in agricultural science. My writing speciality is making the complex understandable. I am available for outside consultancy work, and for general discussions of converting a good idea into something positive
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