Aerospace applications consumed 63% of titanium mill product produced in 2016, with civilian airframes and engines (for passenger and cargo planes) accounting for almost 75% of the market. A sharp rise in civilian aero-space build rates since 2011 has reduced the share of military and space titanium use, but these still remain significant and high-value sectors for titanium. Boeing’s 787comprises 15% of titanium in fly-weight, and Airbus’s A320/350 12-14%, compared to 4-8% in the majority of older models. The remainder of titanium is used in industrial and commercial applications, and it is the former which has seen a steep drop-off in consumption as industrial plant, desalination and nuclear build rates fell sharply from 2012.
The civilian airline industry will remain cyclical to overall global economic conditions, but growing passenger numbers in Asian and Middle Eastern countries and upgrade of the US fleet are near-term drivers, and Africa/India present longer-term opportunity. The outlook for titanium use in aerospace is, therefore, positive but hickups cannot be discounted, potentially even as soon as 2018. The industrial market for titanium could return to growth, but will be dependent on emerging economy industrialisation as nuclear power has fallen out of favour to renewables outside China, and is unlikely to see the same sharp increase in demand of the mid-2000s to early 2010s.
Capacity for titanium sponge production peaked in 2013 at almost 335,000tpy, following significant investment in Chinese capacity alongside a boom in titanium demand for industrial applications. Output subsided from 2012 due to weakening demand and low prices, with production in 2014 down 32% on the 2012 peak. VSMPO of Russia remains the largest producer, with Toho and Osaka of Japan, and Timet of the USA also significant contributors to global supply, ahead of Luoyang Wanji in China—the largest Chinese supplier in 2016 at around 10,000t.
In contrast, titanium melt capacity has continued growing to peak in 2016 at almost 447,000tpy, the large difference between it and sponge output at around one-third this level reflecting the typical double or triple melting undertaken to meet aerospace/rotor-grade. Chinese melting capacity growth has lagged sponge, but may now rationalise/consolidate with utilisation rates at only 40%. Outside China, investment has mainly been in electron beam melting capacity, favoured for scrap recycling. Melted product output fell post-2012 but not as deeply as sponge and more closely reflecting market demand, it showed the first signs of a recovery in 2016 and should improve alongside airliner build rates.
China is unlikely to significantly muscle into the existing aerospace titanium raw material and airliner market held by Europe, Japan, the CIS and the USA in the near-term, despite having flight tested its first aircraft in 2016, the Comac ARJ-21, as titanium is not a market dictated solely by cost. With scrap production increasing on higher build rates, older but more titanium-intensive planes being dismantled, limited outlets for FeTi in a maturing steel industry, and consumers mandating higher scrap use on sustainability grounds, the titanium industry may soon reach peak sponge use unless demand accelerates or alternative outlets are found. The competition between sponge and scrap is likely to keep raw material prices low, benefiting participants downstream.