Current Issue

Fall Meetings

The Ti Evolution

By on
MCN Editor Beth Gainer From new biomedical applications to aerospace, titanium proves a powerhouse in the industry.

The Titanium Virtual Conference & Expo on October 5 explored several applications for titanium, as well as the ever-changing use of and demand for this metal.

In the session, Live Medical Technology Discussion with Speakers & Committee, the International Titanium Association joined an array of participants in the medical research field to discuss cutting-edge medical applications for titanium. 
An application of titanium that shows medical promise is 3D printing. 

Contributing to this discussion was Eliana Fu, industry manager: Aerospace & Medical at TRUMPF North America, Farmington, Conn. She pointed out that titanium is the popular metal for medical implants and that the ability to do 3D printing with titanium holds promise for medical science.
 
“I think that if you’re talking about why medical implants and why titanium is probably the most popular metal used in the biomedical field, I feel like the understanding of what 3D printing or additive manufacturing can do for custom parts for patients, specific tailored parts, is going to be immense,” she said. “A couple of years ago, we saw a titanium 3D printing of a rib cage that was custom made and custom designed for a specific person. I think we’re going to see more and more of that, and that it’s going to become more commonplace. I think that clinicians and physicians will work really closely with patients in the future.”
  
“Now that we’ve learned all these lessons from supply chain woes,” she continues, “people are going to be a bit more sensitive about doing things like printing closer to where the implant needs to be, rather than waiting months for material to arrive.” She estimates that 3D printing of titanium parts is going to be more localized, taking place in hospitals and clinics rather than waiting for parts to arrive via shipment. “So from my optimistic point of view, I think that’s going to allow higher quality of life for people who receive these types of implants,” she said. Charles Tomonto from Johnson & Johnson, New Brunswick, N.J. agreed that a futuristic development is to do 3D prints of titanium parts right in the operating room. 

One potential stumbling block, however, is the FDA approval process, which can be lengthy and filled with red tape. Yet participants of this session remain hopeful. “I hope the regulatory [authorities] will be open to different technologies,” said one participant about this biomedical sector, “because that’s what’s going to drive them to push themselves and be better at reproducibility, repeatability and being within tolerances.”

To gain FDA approval, one participant noted, “ultimately you do a submission on the product, that you demonstrate the product is safe and effective, and that you always produce a safe part. And anytime we make a change on the production floor, you’ve got to demonstrate that it’s a safe and effective change and then file it with the [FDA].”

One participant said titanium is a great material and, in terms of medical applications, many people unfortunately don’t have access to the technology that uses titanium. “As the cost goes down, I can see the size of the market, the pie getting so much bigger,” he says. “[Titanium] is a material that people really like and need, and it works very well.” 

In a session titled Titanium Metal Industry Overview, Ross Embleton, analyst for the titanium and rare earth markets for Roskill, Wimbledon, London, United Kingdom, said that in the industrial sector, titanium has the highest portion of demand in the chemical industry, as the metal is used in pipes and tubes, or in the form of an oxide film, to provide corrosion resistance. Embleton added that titanium is also used in high performance cars in brake suspension and exhaust systems, where weight-saving benefits outweigh the metal’s high price.
But this session, like several other sessions, focused largely on the metal’s importance in the aerospace industry.

COVID-19 “decimated the aerospace industry due to the grounding of commercial air travel in April 2020,” says Embleton, who added that this has understandably decreased the demand for titanium, which is an important player in aerospace.

Yet, hope prevails as the aerospace industry rebounds. Embleton said titanium’s material properties “suit the global drive for reducing carbon emissions, and [titanium] is lightweight and strong.” He added the metal’s compatibility with carbon-fiber reinforced plastics also makes it appealing for use in aircraft manufacturing, giving titanium an advantage over competitive materials such as aluminum.

Embleton also emphasized that modern planes contain more titanium than their antiquated counterparts, and as these older models are replaced, titanium consumption could continue to grow, especially if the newer models contain carbon-fiber reinforced plastics.

COVID-19 led to more than 3,000 plane retirements in 2020, he said, and these will need to be replaced as demand returns. According to the U.S. TSA, checkpoint travel numbers have rebounded from an average of 110,000 passengers per day in April 2020 to 1.9 million in August 2021. While this number is promising, it is lower than the 2.4 million passengers per day average from August 2019.

In a session titled Boeing’s Market Outlook and Titanium Supply Chain, Jeff Carpenter, director for supply chain operations, materials & standards for Boeing, Mukilteo, Wash., agreed the pandemic has adversely affected airline traffic and customers. He said domestic commercial flights are about 80 percent of what is typical, and cargo flights are at about 120 percent of what is typical. And because of the COVID-19 restrictions at international borders, international flights are about a quarter of what they were in 2019.

He attributed the skyrocketing cargo flights to ship freighters being backed up, adding that this situation is advantageous for airlines. 

In addition, he said COVID-19 has forever changed the public’s buying patterns, further contributing to increased numbers of cargo flights. He cited Italy as an example. Pre-pandemic, the country’s economy did not have a large online buying presence. This changed during the country’s lockdown. 

Carpenter pointed out titanium is understandably used more in twin-aisle planes than in single-aisle planes. “If you’re in the titanium-making business, this is important to think about because long-haul drives twin aisles,” he said. “Traffic is coming back. If you’re in the titanium business, you’re watching inventory burn, you’re watching where your titanium is used – whether in a single aisle or twin aisle – and you’re all anxiously waiting for the inventory burn and the snap back.” 

He pointed out that economic recovery, vaccine efficacy and pent-up demand are increasing, thus boding well for the aerospace industry. 

In a session titled Titanium Demand Trends in Defense Aerostructures, Sam Stiller, vice president, commercial at Howmet Engineered Structures, a division of Howmet Aerospace, Inc., said the defense aerospace industry has been going strong despite the pandemic. “Amid the turbulence of commercial aerospace, we have witnessed a relatively stable and even a growing demand picture in defense,” he said, adding that global military expenditures rose 2.6 percent last year.
Titanium aerostructure plays a significant role in defense, which is a resilient sector, and global military spending is at an all-time high, according to Stiller. He added that geopolitical forces and global trends will continue to drive increased defense spending. 

Stiller said the economy, supply chain, climate, technology and the pandemic all create uncertainty. “I think these factors add up to a current moment of change and transition,” he said. It’s moments of uncertainty and changing dynamics that tend to drive military budgets and expenditures.”

He discussed global defense marketing technology topics that affect titanium. For example, “rotorcraft are more complex than ever, and those in development today are pushing the performance envelope for vertical lift technologies,” he said. “New rotorcraft platforms are being asked to travel farther and do so more efficiently. Weight and power become critical requirements. Those performance needs increase the use of titanium and other related advanced materials for those structures.” He added that airframes increasingly rely on composite materials, as titanium works well with composite materials. 

In addition, titanium is tough. It bears the heat of aerospace engines well, according to Stiller. “Engines are getting a lot hotter, so the structures are getting a lot hotter. Titanium maintains its high-strength, high stiffness, and high temperatures where you can’t have a material going soft on you. Temperatures on current generation aircraft are incredibly hot, and we should expect to see that trend continue, which should then continue then in turn drive more titanium demand,” he said, adding that titanium’s other benefits outweigh the metal’s expense. 

Moreover, titanium handles local loads well. “In all platforms, there are areas of high local loads, components like wing-attach fittings, landing gear components, and attached structures, which drives the need for material with very high strength and toughness, even when normalized for density differences.” 

Overall, cutting-edge biomedical and aerospace applications give titanium an edge over the competition.

[Sidebar:]
Aluminum Industry Pleads: It’s Not Steel 

At September’s Aluminum Association Fall Meeting, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves delivered prerecorded remarks to the Aluminum Association’s Fall meeting. His comments, and the Biden administration’s efforts, were largely well received by the group, with one notable exception – the association’s continued frustration with Section 232 tariffs and the next possible step in their evolution. 

Graves pointed to the administration’s focus on Chinese overcapacity, for years the area of international trade the Aluminum Association has been most concerned about. Additional suggestions the administration will pursue work on this front through a multilateral approach was applauded by the industry.
Earlier this year, an antidumping and countervailing duty case against 16 countries earned a positive determination, another move supported by the trade group.
 
The Biden administration also saw through one of the AA’s long-time goals with the creation of an Import Monitoring System, similar to one that’s been in place for years in steel. “That will be helpful for the industry going forward, monitoring trade flows on a real-time basis, as opposed to the two-month delay you get before the Census data is released,” said John Herrmann of Kelley, Drye and Warren, the trade group’s legal firm on trade issues. 

Unmentioned by Hodges, but backed by the association, was the continued application of Section 301 tariffs against China as a means encouraging the Chinese to negotiate. “Given the number of trade irritants we face with China, that’s exactly the right approach to bring the Chinese to the table,” he said. 

But one area where the Aluminum Association has yet to see eye to eye with the new presidential administration is the same issue they had with the previous group, the one-size-fits-all approach to steel and aluminum through the application of Section 232 tariffs. 

The Aluminum Association was never a strong supporter of the tariffs, particularly the broad-based application across the globe. In a recent op-ed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, former Aluminum Association President and CEO Tom Dobbins illustrated the many ways the supply chain for the two materials differ.  

“We ask that the Biden administration take a moment to consider the many differences between U.S. aluminum and steel. Steel is largely a domestic industry, whereas aluminum relies on international supply chains. Steel is often produced entirely in one facility, whereas aluminum requires separate facilities, sometimes on other sides of the world, for smelting, rolling and processing. Steel is made from iron ore that can be mined in the U.S., whereas aluminum is made from bauxite, a mineral the U.S. mines very little of. Steel is facing subsidized overcapacity in Europe; aluminum is not,” Dobbins wrote. 

It was thus with increasing frustration that as the Biden administration and European leaders worked to move away from Section 232, they are again making the same mistake the previous administration did in treating the two materials the same, the association believes. 

One proposal to address unwinding of Section 232 is the implementation of tariff rate quotas on imports of European steel and aluminum into the U.S. The association is staunchly opposed to such a solution. 

The AA has rather proposed a three-year wind down of tariffs, moving first toward reaching “tariff parity” with the EU, whereby the normal tariffs coming into each country would be equivalent. Right now, normal duties in the U.S. are quite a bit lower than those imposed by the EU. 

Ultimately, the association would like to see the elimination of all tariffs, “looking forward to free trade in aluminum products in the U.S. and Europe,” Herrmann said. “Hopefully there will be an opportunity to pivot on that position on in coming days and weeks.”

The association notes that a gradual wind down of the Section 232 tariffs is not just favored by the domestic aluminum industry, but also supported by its counterparts in Europe.