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Motor City Firm Offers Trio of Titanium Parts Manufacturing Technologies

TriTech Titanium Parts produces custom, net-shape titanium parts, collaborating with customers to match the best process to their unique requirements

By Mark Shortt (Design-2-Part Magazine)

October 4, 2022

3D binder jet printing
TriTech produced the top four parts using 3D binder jet printing and the bottom part by metal injection molding.

Many people are at least somewhat familiar with titanium—a strong, lightweight metal often found in bicycle frames, fishing gear, tennis rackets, and golf clubs. The material is also known for its use in items like watches, hand tools, cell phones, and medical and dental implants.

But is there something about titanium that people, especially part designers, are often surprised to learn? According to Robert (Bob) Swenson, president and owner of TriTech Titanium Parts, LLC, the answer is yes.

Swenson is a metallurgical engineer who’s worked 35 years in the metals industry, specializing in titanium for the better part of three decades. In an interview with Design-2-Part, Swenson described titanium as “a unique material” that’s generally understood to be on the expensive side.

“I think what people may not realize, especially as they’re designing parts or components, is that yes, titanium is a little bit more expensive, but we need less of it,” Swenson told D2P.

Less of the material is required for certain applications, Swenson said, due to titanium’s high strength-to-weight ratio. A customer who designs a 3-pound steel part, for example, may only need to use one pound of material, or one-and-a-half pound, if they switch to a titanium version of the part. The higher cost of titanium per unit weight is offset because you don’t need to use as much of it to achieve the same engineering requirements.

“Even though it costs a little more, you can achieve more with it,” Swenson said.

TriTech Titanium Parts is a contract manufacturing company in Detroit that manufactures net shape titanium parts. The company, launched in April 2022 as a spin-off of titanium firm AmeriTi, has structured its operations to support custom manufacturing for clients seeking high-performance parts in numerous industries.

To produce these often complex parts, TriTech employs three manufacturing processes—3D binder jet printing, metal injection molding, and investment casting—at its 20,000-square-foot facility. “We’ve got one of the first production titanium printers for the binder jet process,” Swenson said. The company works with each customer to identify the best product technology for their parts manufacturing project (see Titanium Parts Manufacturer Says It Matches Best Production Technology to Customer’s Design).

TriTech bills itself as “the only U.S. company to offer three production technology options under one roof to deliver net shape titanium precision parts for small batch to high volume.” It works with a fully domestic supply chain, sourcing high-quality materials in the U.S. and Canada.

“We do everything here in Detroit, and these processes that we use are fast—they’re quick compared to a machining operation,” said Swenson.

The company’s shorter supply chain has its benefits. By not importing parts or materials from overseas, TriTech can avert potential supply chain disruptions originating overseas or at U.S. ports.

“A benefit of our domestic supply chain is that TriTech can go from design concept to rapid prototyping to production quickly, to meet customers’ tight time frames or first-to-market launches,” TriTech states on its website.

Choosing the right process for each part

All of TriTech’s processes—metal injection molding, investment casting, and binder jet 3D printing—are efficient methods that waste less material than a subtractive machining process. Each one can produce net shape or near-net shape parts that require minimal, if any, secondary processes to remove excess material.

“Although a near-net shape part may require some finish machining, polishing, or grinding, all three of our processes can give us a net shape part, so we can eliminate those machining operations,” Swenson said. “There’s less waste, and they’re quicker processes, too.”

ceramic mold for investment casting
TriTech team members prepare ceramic slurries to make a shell mold for investment casting.

Naturally, each process has its strengths and limitations with respect to specific applications. Swenson said that when customers contact TriTech, they may have preconceived ideas of the manufacturing technology that they’d like to use to produce the part. But it becomes clear which process is best suited for its customer’s part after considering a number of variables.

Among the primary variables that a designer or user must consider are anticipated part volumes, tooling expense, part size and complexity, and desired surface condition. Another is speed to market.

“Lower volume parts are better for investment casting and for binder jet printing,” Swenson said. “You can get the lowest cost with metal injection molding, but it takes a higher volume because there’s tooling expense. Binder jet is probably going to be the winner on part complexity, but metal injection molding is not far behind it.”

The largest parts are best suited for investment casting; the smallest, for metal injection molding. Metal injection molding also produces parts with the best surface condition of the three processes, Swenson said, adding that a polishing step can overcome a less than stellar surface produced by binder jet printing.

Swenson said that for every application, speed to market is a key consideration. Now that TriTech offers binder jet 3D printing, it can complete the printing of a complex part 10 days after receiving a solid model. That’s different from metal injection molding or investment casting, which require tooling and take much longer, he said.

“There are different needs for every customer, and what we’re seeing right now is, it’s really neat having all three technologies. We’re not biased—we can just pick the best one.”

Corrosion resistance is another property that favors the use of titanium in certain applications. That’s particularly true in marine applications and in oil and gas drilling, where components need to withstand harsh environmental conditions. Another reason designers choose titanium is its biocompatibility, an advantage in medical and dental applications.

“It’s got good biocompatibility, so it does very well with the body,” Swenson said. “Certain stainless steels have nickel in them, and some people don’t do as well with stainless steel, so I think that titanium’s biocompatibility is certainly an advantage.”

Technical challenges require manufacturing expertise

Along with its benefits, titanium presents significant technical challenges for manufacturers that make parts with it. Because it’s a highly reactive metal, parts manufacturers must take precautions to prevent fires and explosions that could result if the material isn’t handled properly. Manufacturers need to master these processing issues regardless of whether they’re investment casting the metal, or using titanium in powder form for metal injection molding or binder jet 3D printing, Swenson explained.

 “It’s a very reactive metal, so when we’re melting titanium metal for investment casting, we have to do that in a vacuum,” Swenson told D2P. “That’s a little bit different than a typical aluminum foundry, or steel or copper foundry. But it also has to be poured very quickly.”

Titanium is also very reactive when used in its powder form for molding or printing. “We’re dealing with a powder that’s 25 microns or smaller, and we have to handle that with an inert atmosphere. So all of our processing is done under an argon blanket,” Swenson said.

Quality at the center of a customer-first attitude

In parts manufacturing for the automotive, aerospace, medical, marine, and oil and gas industries, variation is the enemy. TriTech uses data analysis to monitor the consistency of its parts, which are customized to its clients’ unique design requirements.

 “Quality is extremely important to us. You get one little hiccup or one little problem, and it’s really tough to recover,” Swenson said.

TriTech is working to obtain its ISO 9001 quality management system registration, and expects to receive it before the year end. The manufacturer was ISO registered when it operated as a division of AmeriTi before spinning off in April 2022. When Swenson sold AmeriTi, the ISO registration went with AmeriTi.

“We still have all the procedures and techniques and methods here, and we continue to follow those,” Swenson said. “But officially, we need to get a new registration.”

By putting quality at the top of its daily to-do list, Tritech gives customers confidence in the parts that it produces for them.

“We do it with procedures and training and internal auditing, watching the data,” Swenson said.

At the center of TriTech’s quality policy is a company-wide commitment to continuous improvement. Team members receive constant reminders to stay focused on process and product improvements—words and phrases like “variation is the enemy,” “continuous data analysis,” “exceed customer expectations,” and “never stop learning.”

A big part of the quality mindset, Swenson said, is TriTech’s motivation to exceed customers’ requirements and expectations. This is reflected in its team’s attitude toward customers, and the relationships they’ve developed with them, Swenson said.

“We have very much a customer focus, a customer-first attitude, and quality is the foundation of that. We need everyone—all of our employees—to be thinking about quality all the time.”

Translating these thoughts into action means refusing to cut corners on procedures. TriTech watches all of its processes closely, monitoring its process control data to make sure it’s producing parts correctly and efficiently.

Swenson has the experience to back up that claim. Quality played a major role in the development and success of his former company, AmeriTi, which grew tenfold in the 25 years that Swenson presided over it.

“You only achieve that by keeping the customers happy and supplying very, very good products so that we can maintain existing customers and add new customers,” he said. “It’s going to be that same kind of mentality that we’re going to carry through with TriTech.”

TriTech’s strong customer focus—its determination to understand its customers’ requirements and exceed them—can also help OEMs mitigate supply chain risks. Swenson said he and his team know that their job is to be responsive to their customers. That includes doing everything they can to exceed their customers’ delivery requirements.

“A customer came in last week who wanted prototype parts, and they gave us seven days to produce it. We agreed to that, and we got them the parts in four days,” Swenson said. “We had a person come in over the weekend and run an extra furnace cycle, and we were able to deliver the parts early.”

The company’s experience as a single source vendor can also help OEMs mitigate supply chain delays. Taking on single source responsibility requires pre-planning, Swenson said, to ensure that critical spare parts, duplicate equipment, and preventative maintenance programs are in place.

“If we had a problem or a [disruptive] event, we have the critical spares in place so we could keep running and make sure our shipments are on time for our customers,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of experience and the right attitude for taking on those kinds of single source supply lines.”

Future growth opportunities

 TriTech is preparing to achieve ISO 13485 registration for medical device manufacturing next year. Swenson said the company is beginning to work on some medical device applications, and how those business opportunities develop will help determine whether the company receives its certification early or later in the year.

In the meantime, TriTech’s capabilities align well with the needs of a growing number of manufacturers that are boosting demand for net shape parts, shorter supply chains, and materials that improve part performance. Swenson identified the need for high-performance parts as a significant trend he is seeing today.

“People are going to continue to drive performance for their products in certain applications,” he said, noting the light-weighting of automobiles as an example. “Going electric is going to drive performance, and I think titanium has something to offer there.”

Automotive, aerospace industries generating strong demand

A report from ResarchAndMarkets.com backs up Swenson’s view. It envisions a promising future for titanium in the global automotive market, driven by rising demand for titanium in sports and luxury cars and increasing use of the metal in high-performance vehicle designs. The report, “Titanium in the Global Automotive Market: Trends, Opportunities, and Competitive Analysis,” predicts titanium will grow at a CAGR of 4.3 percent in this market from 2021 to 2027.

Among the emerging trends the report identified were growing use of titanium in electric vehicles, as well as increased application of the material in suspension spring and brake calipers. Titanium for exhaust systems is expected to remain the largest segment while also registering the highest growth over the forecast period, according to the report.

As the trend toward lighter weight cars opens up growth opportunities for titanium, Swenson sees a category of applications where titanium’s lighter weight provides an advantage for carmakers. He described that category as “parts that move.” Such parts could be moving forward or backward, like a trigger on a firearm, but they could also be rotating in an automobile application.

“If a part has to be turning, or it has to go from a stopped, standstill to a rotating position, it’s easier to rotate and will get rotating more quickly if it’s lightweight,” Swenson explained. “It’s going to move quicker than a heavier part. So it’s easier to overcome the inertia of a titanium part than it would be for a steel part.”

Similarly, demand for titanium in the global aerospace market is expected to increase over the next five years due to the material’s ability to reduce the weight of aircraft parts, thereby contributing to higher fuel efficiency, according to another report from ResearchAndMarkets.com.

The report, “Titanium in the Global Aerospace Market: Trends, Opportunities, and Competitive Analysis,” forecasts the global aerospace titanium market will reach an estimated $3.4 billion by 2026, and register a 9.2 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR) from 2022 to 2027. Airframes are forecast to remain the largest application for titanium within the aerospace market.

Swenson said titanium’s compatibility with another weight-reducing material, carbon fiber, is also a factor that’s driving its increased use in next-generation aircraft. Some of the newer aircraft that are using carbon fiber also increased the titanium content in fasteners and rivets to hold the plane together. “That turned out to be really good because titanium does well with carbon fiber,” Swenson said.