Interview Tool steel rides high, but other materials are gaining ground
Regardless of rapid developments in materials technologies, die and mould makers still rely heavily on tool steel. Rolf Krusenbaum, sales director for plastic mould steels at Deutsche Edelstahlwerke, notes that another type of steel has been expanding its market footprint.
ETMM: The technologies for metal additive manufacturing continue to advance at a breathtaking pace. Are you worried that you could lose market share to these production methods? Do you have any areas in this sector about which you are already concerned?
Rolf Krusenbaum: We have been monitoring these trends; however, this development has not affected us so far. From our point of view, additive manufacturing is primarily suitable for single-part and one-off production, as well as small production runs. Tool steel is still the first choice for complex high-tech applications produced on a large scale. Therefore, we do not regard additive manufacturing as competition, but consider it a supplement.
ETMM: How mature is the market for die and mould steels?
Krusenbaum: Things are not at a standstill, but the constant development of revolutionary materials is not a top priority, either. Instead, we try to orient ourselves towards trends, e.g. the trend towards moulds and tools made of corrosion-resistant tool steel or hot-work steel for press- hardening tools. In these areas, it is not possible to completely re-invent the wheel but the goal is to try and refine existing materials so that they meet the changing and increasing requirements of toolmakers and their customers.
ETMM: Have there been any recent breakthroughs in metal technologies for the die and mould sector?
Krusenbaum: We think the most important development in tool and mould design is the trend towards moulds that are completely made of stainless steel. This is true especially for the plastics industry, which increasingly uses corrosive plastics in production. A very long tool service life is especially important to this industry. We have completely adapted ourselves to this requirement with our all-stainless material package, which consists of four tool steels – Formadur 2083 Superclean, Formadur PH X Superclean, Corroplast and Corroplast FM. All four have one thing in common – they achieve a fine balance between essential corrosion resistance, required hardness and machinability. Which of the four materials a toolmaker selects is determined by the customer's individual application. Important selection factors are the degree of machining, polishability, operational environment and wear resistance requirements.
ETMM: What are your most popular alloys for dies and moulds? How has this changed over the years?
Krusenbaum: Depending on the production quantity, the classic P20 materials (1.2311, 1.2312, 1.2738) are the most popular. However, we frequently observe a trend towards corrosion-resistant tool steel qualities, which must also have excellent machining properties in the interest of economic efficiency. We are convinced that this trend will continue – particularly because of the worldwide boom in the PET sector.
ETMM: What kind of demands have die and mould shops been placing on their steel suppliers? What have you been doing to meet these demands?
Krusenbaum: Apart from the customarily high demands on the quality of our products, our customers attach increasing importance to consulting and other services. We meet these demands, for example, with technical customer service that focuses on finding a suitable material for every individual application and also includes adapting, developing and trying out materials on-site together with our customers. In addition, our customers appreciate the fact that at Deutsche Edelstahlwerke, they can purchase steel as well as receive services such as heat treatment and in-depth product processing with state-of-the-art technology from a single source. Of course, punctual delivery and personal on-site support are also important to our customers. Here, we benefit also from our integration in the worldwide distribution network of the Schmolz + Bickenbach Group.
ETMM: Has the push for completely integrated digital production – Industry 4.0 – affected your production or delivery systems? Do you expect this trend to impact your logistics, or is this something that may not affect the die and mould maker?
Krusenbaum: As mentioned at the beginning, we continuously monitor these trends and will include them in our strategic considerations and plans in the future.
ETMM: A recent report suggested steel prices in general could decline over the next few years. How will this impact tool and mould steel prices?
Krusenbaum: The steel industry is subject to strong cyclical fluctuations. Since it is hardly possible to foresee the development of prices for raw materials and alloys years in advance, we generally refrain from making any price forecasts.
ETMM: How has the use of other materials such as aluminium and even 3D-printed plastics been affecting your sales to the die and mould sector?
Krusenbaum: In mould design, aluminium is mainly used for the production of prototypes and hardly affects Deutsche Edelstahlwerke's production. We can imagine that additive manufacturing will have an impact on manufacturers and dealers of aluminium for tool design. We produce, however, tool steel that is processed into rough-machined plastic moulds in our plants.
ETMM: What kind of advantages does European steel have over metals manufactured in other areas of the world? Is it worth the mark-up?
Krusenbaum: Customers who purchase tool steel from European steel producers receive products that have been manufactured with the know-how and experience of centuries and in state-of-the-art facilities. That enables reliable quality that can be reproduced at any time. This combination is what makes the European steel industry strong in a worldwide comparison.
ETMM: Are you seeing more demand for your tool steel in the developing world, and if so, in what regions?
Krusenbaum: We see additional potentials for our tool steel particularly in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and in Turkey, because the demand for mobility and vehicle manufacturing continues to grow, and the packaging and food industry is also striking new paths. With our tool steel, we are in a good starting position to follow these developments.
ETMM: Is more tool steel from the developing world showing up in its raw form in Europe? What are some of the top regions from where is it being shipped?
Krusenbaum: The main exporters are China and Russia, whose steel industries have been growing strongly at a terrific speed. However, we regard this development as a challenge to extend our technical lead and continuously develop our products further.