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A titanium future

It is named after the deities of Greek mythology and is referred to as the “space age metal” – and industry experts are predicting it could kick the New Zealand economy into a higher gear. Titanium, as chemical elements go, sounds almost too good to be true: it doesn’t corrode, is non-toxic and durable, and has the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any metal. Its other properties include a “lustrous appearance” – so on top of the brains and brawn, it’s also pretty.

“We’re entering what many call the Titanium Age,” says Warwick Downing, a spokesman for the Titanium Industry Development Association (TIDA). The metal is already widely used for everything from jet engines to mobile phones, prostheses and sports equipment – and a new Applied Powder Metallurgy Centre in Tauranga is about to bring rapid high-tech manufacturing of these products to New Zealand.

Anchoring the scheme is a process developed over ten years and patented by kiwi company Titanox Development Ltd. The process turns titanium dioxide into alloy powders. Powder metallurgy, as it’s called, describes the range of methods used to turn that powder into solid objects, allowing for efficient manufacture of high-quality metal components.

Backed by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology and the Tertiary Education Commission, the scheme is forecasted to contribute more than one billion dollars a year to the economy. It is based within the engineering facility at the Bay of Plenty Polytech.

“Powder metallurgy is a completely different way of making things,” says Downing. “It adds to, rather than taking away. In traditional manufacturing, you cut away, say, 60 percent of your materials – but in powder metallurgy you start with a design and add only what you need to, so there’s also less waste.” 

The new Centre is also home to a full physical properties testing lab and one of a handful of laser sintering machines that exist worldwide, both of which are available for companies to use.

“The machine is like a printer. We take a CAD drawing, put it through and it builds the part from the bottom up – even to the point of an internal structure.”

It allows designers to make the types of complex shapes traditional manufacturers deem impossible, and it allows them to be made quickly. 

“It’s low-carbon footprint rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing,” says Downing. “Companies also need to be able to know what test results mean when designing a product. The world now is about using clever materials and applying them in clever ways – and that’s what we’re helping them to do.”

Below: Ian Macrae, founding chairman of TiDA (Titanium Industry Development Association) at the launch of the Tauranga Applied Powder Metallurgy Centre.