An impeller MIMed with Inconel 713C, from Beckett MIM.
An impeller MIMed with Inconel 713C, from Beckett MIM.

While Germany has automotive, the US has firearms, and the Far East has electronics industries calling for MIM parts, the UK industry  –  until recently  –  has been limited to rather low volumes of electronic and medical manufacture for its uptake of parts. However, recent boosts in aerospace and defence grants have led manufacturers to demand more high-performance parts – and that’s where Beckett MIM comes in. Based in Sheffield, it claims to be the only company in the UK that can metal injection mould components from not only a range of steels, but also advanced metals such as titanium, nickel, tungsten, hardmetals, copper and other alloys.

This follows three years’ of R&D with The University of Sheffield, besides the 40+ years of plastics injection moulding experience Beckett MIM gained from its parent company, William Beckett Plastics.

Key applications for the MIM technology, besides aerospace, are automotive, medical (surgical instruments), consumer (jewellery and electronic components), fuel cell components and many others.

Currently, the company is moulding (using two Arburg AllRounder machines) and debinding parts in house, and sintering them using furnaces provided by the University of Sheffield’s Mercury Centre. MPR said down with Lukas Jiranek there to find out more about his plans for the company and British MIM in general.

Metal Powder Report (MPR): What's the history of Beckett MIM?

Lukas Jiranek (LJ): We officially became a limited company in January 2013. But the technology development goes back a bit further. The initial contact between the University of Sheffield and Beckett Plastics took place at the IMTS show in Chicago in 2010, in which Beckett was exhibiting as a plastics moulding company, and the University’s stand was covering advanced technologies. William Beckett, the MD, then visited the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield, where the demonstration units of metal injection moulding were based, at that time. He saw the process and decided to apply for a Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP) grant to develop it further. That’s when I came on board, as a KTP research associate, in October 2010. At this point, we also received Regional Growth Funding by the Technology Strategy Board to relocate the new company to a site in Sheffield and to help buy new machinery. We have another associate who started work in January, and will work on special alloys and more advanced processes over two years.

Beckett Plastics is an important company in its own right; it has won the Queen’s Award for Enterprise twice, in 2009 and 2012 for International trade, and has about 65 employees.

MPR: Tell me more about the technology.

LJ: We are working on a number of things. Firstly, we are developing titanium alloys (Ti6Al4V grade 5) and Inconel for the aerospace market.

 I think that’s where the most important development in MIM has been over the last few years, using more high-performance materials for the mainstream production. We are also developing stainless steel parts for automotive, and are looking at an advanced process of overmoulding and sinter joining of parts, to make more complex parts or using a combination of two different materials in one part. Ceramic injection moulding (CIM) is also a technology we hope to take on board at production scale.

MPR: What’s new about the technology?

LJ: Key to the whole thing is our debinding system, which we used in the moulding of titanium alloys. We use soluble polymers as binders and water as a solvent, which is a lot more eco-friendly, with zero contamination. It allows us to process any alloy. It's all about getting the process as clean as possible by, for example, not introducing anything aggressive such as nitric acid or other solvents. Because we are using water, we can achieve a better chemical composition of the final part. For titanium moulding, the most important aspect to consider is the oxygen and carbon content from the binder system, so how well we can control the process is very important. It is possible to really ‘clean’ titanium, and improve the quality of the part. Handling and storage of the powder also impacts this, as titanium powder reacts very easily with oxygen.

MPR: What companies are you working for?

LJ:  We are actively looking for companies to work with. We currently have two industrial customers already, and getting more and more enquiries. We are also having many long-term projects on hand that we hope will result in substantial orders in the future.

MPR: Why has MIM not really ‘caught on’ in the UK as yet, in your opinion?

LJ: It’s a difficult process to bring in-house, because it requires specialist machines, polymer chemistry expertise for the binder systems, and also expertise in sintering and metallurgy, so it’s a combination of different skills.  It’s still not mainstream technology here; it’s a fairly conservative industry still. The take up of powder metallurgy in general is very low compared to Germany and the US. And obviously in China and Asia there are large MIM companies making parts, it's a multi-million pound industry there. For us, the biggest obstacle to take up is the lack of knowledge about the technology. End users, and particularly designers, don’t automatically go for MIM when designing parts. For our part, when we are promoting MIM, we generally get to speak to managers, but not [as much with] the designers! If they design the part for machining, it’s hard for us to compete with that, as it’s an entirely different process. For example, they may design structural parts that use more material, rather than using well-designed, lightweight structures. That’s a big difficulty for us. I think MIM is slowly gathering momentum, however.

MPR: Could the popularity of additive manufacturing (AM) help push MIM into prominence?

LJ: It’s possible that the advent of AM could help improve the uptake of MIM, since you can use a similar design for each. At the moment, AM is crucial for us in prototype design. However, the benefits of MIM over AM are clear, particularly in terms of complex parts and mass production. AM also uses larger powder particles than MIM, so the parts can come out rougher and not so precise – we can get a much better surface finish. We can also use a wider range of powders. Printing a part can take many hours, while moulding a part can take just a few seconds.

MPR: Tell me about your current set up.

LJ: We have two Arburg AllRounder machines, for plastics and metal moulding, plus water debinding and a drying oven, and we do sintering at the Mercury Centre for health and safety reasons, in a separate production centre. The moulding machines have a slightly different set up for plastics and metals. Soon, we would like to have our own production unit so we can do sintering in-house and set up a three-year business plan to do this. We hope to move into new premises next year, and order a custom-made furnace for around £450,000,which will take up to 10 months to make. Our plan, however, is basically customer driven. If we get a substantial order, that will justify an early purchase!

MPR: What industries are you targeting?

LJ: At the moment we are targeting aerospace, but again it is customer-driven. We’d like to be able to develop the technology for medical devices as well. If we can develop the technology to satisfy those two markets, we will be able to supply any industry. For us, it’s all about the quality of a part, so it’s important to get the customer interested in the quality and expertise we can offer. For example, one customer came to us with a stainless steel MIM part that was rusting, and the crucial thing for us was to understand how we can stop that.

MPR: What is the potential of MIM?

LJ: The market has grown almost 10-15% each year since the 1980s, and there has been lots of progress recently using lightweight materials. Aerospace companies want to lose weight, but increasingly, the automotive companies have wanted to as well. Lightweight, plus cost per parts, are the main drivers of the industry currently. Because of the increase in PM technologies, including AM, the powder metal price is currently coming down, so prices are getting better and better for us.

MPR: How is the process going to be fine tuned in the future?

LJ: With the development of new alloys. At the moment, we are still competing with the standard alloys. Titanium grade 5 is almost 60 years old, and is perhaps not the best alloy for PM, but is still standard in the industry. I think in the future engineers will not only design a part, but also ‘design’ the material for it, so materials science will be integrated into the design and we can use more ‘exotic’ alloys.  One of the great advantages of PM is the flexibility of materials.

MPR: What other markets could develop?

LJ: In the UK, medical and aerospace applications are still the most profitable, but Asia is the biggest producer of MIM overall. In terms of volume of products, the biggest in Europe is definitely Germany. Ceramic injection moulding (CIM) is quite a big market, too. Since the materials are so expensive, the market share between MIM and CIM is something like 90/10 in terms of volume of parts, but 50/50 in terms of sales.

Electronics are still one of the biggest markets for MIM in Asia for making connectors and housings, but currently in the UK it is difficult to compete with MIM companies in India or Taiwan.

MPR: And what’s the future of Beckett MIM?

LJ: We’ve got lots of things on hand. We’re looking into the MIM of tungsten carbide for cutting tools. It’s not very common at the moment, and pressing, sintering and machining is usually done instead. But MIM will give it more complex shape, and avoid having to machine it.

We are looking into moulding a combination of different materials. This isn’t being done commercially yet, because sintering is an issue  –  especially finding the right processing conditions for two different materials. MIM has lots of potential. In many ways, even current MIM technology is more advanced than the current demand would suggest!