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Powering the powder: Cat Pumps provides greater flexibility and improved throughput in metal powders production.

The West Midlands has long been recognised as a region of manufacturing excellence in the metals industry and it is here that ECKA Granules, one of the leading international producers of metal powders, operates the most modern facility in its market. The atomisation lines at their Wednesbury plant have the capacity to produce in excess of 3,000 tonnes per annum of Nickel, Cobalt and Stainless Steel powders for the thermal spray, surface coating and welding industries.

In order to keep its competitive edge and to be at the forefront of developments, the company is constantly looking for ways to improve production. For example, at the end of 2011 it invested in a new pumping system in order to achieve greater flexibility in its water atomisation line and this investment included the installation of three Cat Pumps model 3545 triplex plunger pumps.

The batch production process takes over three hours and the ECKA plant operates 24 hours a day. Their process for making metal granules and powders is an established technology that involves melting metals in 500 kg induction furnaces. The liquid metal alloy is then poured from its crucible into a water-cooled chamber to produce the required size of liquid droplets. Inside the chamber the metal droplets are quenched to solid granules by water and air, or they fall onto a water-cooled metal plate and by controlling the process parameters the shape of the granules can be varied from needle, irregular to spherical. The constant availability of water, at predetermined pressures to the spray nozzles which quench the molten metal, is essential to the whole process. The higher the water pressure used in the atomisation process, the finer the granules or powders. This places a high level of importance on the water supply system and the pumps involved. It is also a hostile, unforgiving working environment.

ECKA uses a closed loop recycling system in order to optimise the use of water, which contains biocides and inhibitors. The water is pumped into the atomisation process at temperatures between 10[degrees]C and 16[degrees]C. However, when it returns into the closed loop the temperature has risen considerably so is has to be chilled before it can be re-used.

In late 2011 ECKA introduced three Cat Pumps to augment their existing high pressure pumping system, which relied upon two pumps operating in tandem to generate the required water volume and pressures up to 190 bar. Whereas these pumps were effective in generating the high pressures required for producing fine powders, when it came to the lower pressures required for larger granules, typically around 70 bar, the pumps were inefficient. In order to achieve higher levels of product throughput, it was decided to introduce Cat Pumps triplex plunger pumps as these would give the pressure and flowrates required. The smooth pulse-free performance of the Cat Pumps' model 3545 pumps ensures that the pressure through the spray nozzles in the atomising chamber is constant, as any variation would impact on the size of the granules.

The three pumps provide a combined flow rate of 405 L/m at pressures up to 70 bar. A forged brass model, the model 3545 includes secondary low pressure seals with internal fluid recirculation, which provide double protection against external leakage. Whilst the triplex plunger design does give a smooth product flow, Cat Pumps fitted all three pumps with pulsation dampeners to ensure the exact flow required for the granule size would be provided constantly.

This was the first time that ECKA have used triplex pumps and to date, their experience has more than measured up to expectations. ECKA purchased the Cat Pumps model 3545 because it has a reputation for operating in harsh conditions and providing the high levels of performance that the powder manufacturing process requires.

"We needed a solution that would give us greater efficiency and improved productivity without compromising on product quality," says Andrew Baker of ECKA Granules. "Cat Pumps impressed us with their recommendations and produced a cost-effective package that met our brief. After more than six months of operation, we have seen the improvement in productivity that we wanted to achieve, and the pumps have provided the service and reliability that we required."
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Title Annotation:POWDER COATING
Date:May 1, 2013
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