June 21, 2023
Frank Roberts, President
Frank is the President of 6K Additive where he led the concept and construction of the recently built 6K Additive Global Manufacturing Center. The new facility is a 45-acre, 80,000 sq. ft. state-of-the-art production facility for premium additive manufacturing powders. This facility is ISO9001 certified and is currently in the process of AS9100 certification. Frank has over 20 years of experience in the specialty metals industry where he was the CEO of AL Solutions (acquired by 6K in 2019) and he led his team in a greenfield development and facility construction for manufacturing of alloy additions for the aluminum industry. He has extensive experience in all facets of metals manufacturing including process design, project management, finance, and operations management. Frank holds a Metallurgical Engineering degree from Penn State University.
6K Additive has had several recent announcements related to expansion. How has 6K’s strategic focus enabled this rapid growth?
Frank: The rapid growth of 6K Additive can be attributed to several factors.
- Sustainable powder manufacturing – this is a topic that in four short years has gone from “Ah that’s nice, but…” to “This has risen in importance in our organization. How can 6K Additive contribute to our sustainability targets?” For us being the leader in sustainable AM powder production has increased the conversation with our customers 10x and has brought new customers with sustainability initiatives to start the conversation
- Our ability to take scrap material as feedstock opens the breadth of materials we can produce at scale and cost-effectively. Highly sought-after refractory materials such as tungsten, C103, rhenium as well as copper for high-end applications in aerospace, rocket manufacturing, and medical have caught the attention of the market for 6K Additive.
- Our capability to recycle critical materials such as nickel and titanium has brought attention and opportunity in the form of government grants to 6K Additive. Supply chain challenges and the Ukraine war have shined a spotlight on finding these critical materials in places like military stockpiles. Our ability to process these materials both for our powders business and alloying business has helped us with government agencies, labs and government suppliers
Titanium and the related supply chain have received a lot of attention of late. How important is a more circular titanium supply chain to national defense and other sectors that use this material?
Frank: Extracting titanium from its ore is an energy-intensive process that produces significant CO2 emissions. A circular approach that allows for easier reuse and recycling of titanium products can significantly reduce these emissions, contributing to sustainability goals across the board.
Cost matters to everyone. Through innovations including carbon credits we can reduce the cost share from materials for our customers. Additionally, a circular supply chain reduces the need for disposal costs associated with waste management. Through our buy-back program we can turn a cost line into income.
Titanium is especially important to national defense. The USA has only small domestic reserves of titanium to be extracted, with the bulk of global reserves in China and Australia. Any disruption in the supply chain whether intentional or not could have serious implications for national security so a domestic, circular supply chain is essential to mitigate foreign policy and logistics challenges. Unfortunately, through the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing war in Ukraine, we have seen first-hand how fragile global supply chains can be and how important it is to ensure we have a secure, transparent, and domestic supply chain for critical materials.
6K recently collaborated with Fraunhofer Institute on some very interesting research. What was studied, what were the findings and why is it important?
Frank: Our initial LCA for nickel looked at the benefits of producing powder and we were able to show a 92% decrease in energy and carbon emissions for our spheroidization process vs. typical atomization process. Fraunhofer then took our data and combined it with a complete analysis of the ecological footprint for LPBF manufacturing of an oil and gas component to understand the complete sustainability factor from our powder, to print to post-processing vs using CIFGA produced powder for a single part. This study showed a total reduction in CO2 emissions of 82%. This is important for users to see that the environmental benefits hold true all the way through the printing process.
6K has also pursued an interesting approach to carbon credits and the need to factor in recycled materials. Why is this important and how could this lead to more recycling or reprocessing of waste material?
Frank: The concept of carbon credits is linked to the principle of reducing a company’s overall carbon footprint. This can be done through a holistic approach to reducing GHG emissions through cleaner processes and adopting more sustainable practices. Following up on the LCA that we did with Foresight on the production of our nickel and titanium metal powders, we are doing a secondary LCA to understand the carbon reduction equivalent that can be attributed to a company, simply by purchasing our metal powders.
As carbon credits can be traded (i.e., if a company emits less than its allocated share, it can sell its surplus credits to other companies that are struggling to stay under their limits) they have a real economic value. By transferring this economic value in the form of carbon reduction equivalent credits per kilo of powder, we are providing users with a direct financial incentive to use our sustainable materials. Our buyback program then adds a financial incentive to recycle used powder, revert and end-of-life parts to produce a truly circular solution.
Equally, when companies are required to account for the carbon footprint of their supply chains, they will opt to source more recycled materials to reduce their overall emissions.
What does sustainability in additive manufacturing mean to both you and your organization?
Frank: Sustainability is at the core of everything that we do at 6K from reusing and recycling materials as our feedstock to our energy-efficient process for producing metal powder. Additive manufacturing has a multi-faceted concept when looking at sustainability considering everything from materials sourcing (virgin or recycled), the part design, the AM technology used in manufacture, the useful life of the part and the end-of-life solution for the part. Within each step, there are opportunities to reduce energy inputs, reduce waste, improve recyclability, and increase the design optimization of the part.
At 6K we focus on the pre-part processes, namely production of the metal powders that can be used with AM machines. We start with the feedstock, the initial source of the material. As our feedstock we can use scrap material – or what was once considered scrap material — rather than virgin materials. Even if this were the only thing we did, it would still be a huge improvement to traditional powder production! But we go further.
With the UniMelt® production system, we dramatically reduce the energy inputs required per kilogram of usable powder. As we achieve over 90% yield of the desired particle size, virtually every kilo of feedstock material we put in comes out as a usable kilo of powder. This is substantially better than traditional gas or plasma atomization technologies, where more than half of the powder produced can be out of spec.
The microwave plasma energy source in the UniMelt is also impressively efficient at turning energy in to useful energy. And because our feedstock is domestic, we also slash the amount of transport miles required while also strengthening supply chain resilience and reducing reliance on foreign suppliers such as China and Russia— especially in national security applications.
Finally, we can process materials such as refractories that have historically been extremely difficult to produce. This opens new use cases, each with the potential to positively impact the sustainability of a product or open entirely new sustainable routes.
6K Additive has always had a strong interest in pursuing more sustainable manufacturing solutions for your customers and across the industry. How has this focus on sustainability benefited your customers and their environmental goals?
Frank: The potential for additively manufactured designs to have significant environmental benefits over their lifetime — especially where light-weighting parts for aerospace, automotive and defense applications — is well known. Historically, however, the powder used to create the parts has had a significant detrimental environmental impact, lessening the potential lifetime gains. By partnering with 6K, manufacturers can still enable the in-use benefits of additive manufacturing while also mitigating some of the upstream impacts, bringing their sustainability goals closer without needing to revolutionize their processes.
I don’t think there are many manufacturing organizations today that aren’t thinking about more sustainable production simply because environmental sustainability and commercial sustainability are growing closer all the time. Through our initiatives like carbon credits and buy-back program, our customers can access the environmental benefits and improve their bottom line at the same time – a combination that will truly power the transition to sustainable manufacturing.
Have you seen the potential for more readily recycling specific materials impact your customers material choices? Are your customers opting for more recyclable materials?
Frank: Customers have several incentives by working with 6K Additive in this regard. There are obvious benefits to using environmentally friendly powder, but what customers have quickly realized is that they can gain additional benefits by selling their used/out-of-spec powder back to us with our powder buy-back program. A prime example of the benefit is their use of tantalum which can run as much as $2,200 kg. If they have used material that has gone out spec from the printing process, that material serves as our feedstock which significantly lowers their total investment. Another example would be titanium. This material can’t be sold for scrap value, it must be incinerated or put into a landfill, neither of which is environmentally friendly and can be expensive for the customer. With 6K Additive, they shift what was a process and financial burden to an actual lowering of their powder cost.
At the recent AMGTA Annual Member Summit, the team from 6K Additive was engaged in very open conversations with companies who compete or overlap with you in the marketplace. How do you view this type of collaboration or sharing of ideas – competing vs growing the total market?
Frank: At 6K Additive sustainability is at the core of our mission so advocating for this across the industry is a high priority. It is not uncommon for competing companies to partner and work together especially when you are working to a common goal such as sustainability. Take for example an organization that uses hydropower to run their plant, they are bringing a benefit to the industry which is great, however, they may produce oversized powder in their process. We can collaborate to buy their oversized powder as our feedstock. In this scenario both organizations win and both are moving toward a more environmentally friendly process.
Have you seen the demand or expectation of more sustainable manufacturing solutions from your customers change over recent years? How does this factor into your strategic planning?
Frank: As referenced above, the demand has significantly grown for sustainable manufacturing solutions. Customers are increasingly concerned about issues such as carbon emissions, resource depletion, waste generation and the overall ecological footprint of the product they purchase. They expect manufacturers to adopt sustainable practices and implement eco-friendly measures where possible.
We see it in 6K Additive, but also with our battery material sister company 6K Energy. Both organizations leverage our UniMelt microwave plasma technology which displaces legacy, dirty technologies with a much more environmentally friendly platform. For an organization like 6K Additive our strategic plan relies heavily on the inherent benefits we can bring to our customers and what separates us from the rest of the market.
The UniMelt microwave plasma allows us to differentiate in many ways and is truly the poster child for responsible, sustainable manufacturing.
Anything else you would like to share with the other AMGTA members?
Frank: Overall, the demand and expectation for sustainable manufacturing solutions have indeed increased in recent years which has driven the need for associations like AMGTA. It is critical for us to come together and share and grow as an industry to ensure we are doing what we can to bring more sustainable processes to additive manufacturing.
The claims and views expressed in this Member Spotlight Interview are not necessarily those of the AMGTA, its staff, its Board of Directors, or member organizations. The AMGTA is not responsible for the content or accuracy of any information or claims provided as part of this Member Spotlight Interview and shall not be responsible for any decisions made based on such information.