Production of titanium increased in 2018 along the entire supply chain. China remains the world’s largest sponge producer, both in terms of capacity and output, and has made a strong start to 2019 with significant increases in production reported for the first quarter. However, the majority of premium grade sponge, for use in high-end aerospace applications, is still produced in Russia, Japan, Kazakhstan and the USA. Output of melted products such as ingots is also geographically concentrated and is dominated by the USA China, Russia and Japan. Major companies such as TIMET, VSMPO, ATI, Arconic, Kobe Steel, Toho Titanium and Baoji Titanium Industry hold a significant portion of global melting capacity between them and there is a high degree of downstream integration into the production of mill products.
Aerospace and industrial applications accounted for around 90% of titanium mill product consumption in 2018. These broad sectors require similar overall volumes, although the aerospace sector is the most important in terms of value. Within aerospace, the largest end market is in commercial aircraft where titanium finds extensive use in airliner frames and engines. Historically, commercial jet production has been highly cyclical but several recent market forecasts point to continuing growth driven by increasing demand for air travel, particularly in Asia. Large numbers of new aircraft deliveries are expected over the next decade, with production partially secured by the sizeable backlog of orders accumulated by OEMs.
There is also a trend towards increased intensity of titanium use in aircraft driven in part by its compatibility with the composite materials being used in airframes. Recent examples include Boeing’s 787 and Airbus’ A350, which each make extensive use of composites in their fuselages and have correspondingly high titanium loadings. The same is true of Boeing’s 777X, due for introduction in 2020, which features composite wings. In engines, titanium has faced some substitution with composites in fan blades and casings but retains a high level of use in compressor stages and there is potential for increased use of titanium-aluminides in low‑pressure turbines. In the longer term, increasing adoption of additive manufacturing (AM) techniques may have a moderating effect on aerospace titanium demand, by reducing the amount of waste material associated with component fabrication. The trend towards AM can be expected to result in significant growth in demand for titanium powders, although various hurdles remain which may hinder the widespread uptake of additive techniques.
Titanium serves a range of industrial markets, with the chemical sector consuming the most. Demand tends to be more variable, often linked to one-off projects, but growth is expected in the short term, particularly within the chlorine and terephthalic acid markets. The power generation market is also an important consumer of titanium and its share of total industrial demand is expected to increase through to 2029. Smaller end uses, such as in orthopaedic and dental implants, are also expected to show healthy growth
The price of Chinese sponge rose in 2018 and into the start of 2019, reaching its highest value since July 2017. The Chinese titanium plate price followed a similar trend, although spiked to US$17.4 / kg in October 2018. This has since fallen back but remained at five-year high levels throughout Q1 2019. This upward trend represents a reversal of generally falling Chinese prices between 2011 and 2016; however both sponge and plate prices remain far below 2011 peaks. Alloy plate is also currently enjoying elevated prices in the USA as a result of high demand from the aerospace sector. The unit value of imports of Japanese sponge to the USA remained reasonably stable last year averaging US$9,345/t and ranging between US$9,100/t and 9,650/t. Long-term contracts limit the ability for producers to pass on increased feedstock and production costs, and the price is also dependent to some degree on the price and availability of scrap which is also used as a melt feedstock, particularly extensively in the USA. Imports of Japanese sponge stood at approximately 22kt in 2018 accounting for almost two-thirds of the USA’s supply. This situation has come under renewed scrutiny in 2019, with the government launching an inquiry into the implications of imported sponge for national security—this serves to illustrate the strategic importance of titanium within key industries.