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The Broken Tool


CALGARY, Canada – What is the top challenge facing metalworking fluid suppliers and users today? That was the question put to a panel of experts here last month at the annual meeting of the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers.

Is it the prospect of dry or near-dry machining? The disposal of spent fluids? The scary hype and psych over exposure to biocides and fluid mists? Or is it the daily frustration of working with mismatched equipment and fluids?

All of these issues were cited by panelists, but the hot button that drew the strongest reaction from the sessions speakers and listeners was the friction-laden relationship of Tier 1 and Tier 2 fluid suppliers in machining plants.

The discussion began with Mike Duncan, research and development manager for metalworking fluids at BP Castrol, who offered a rapid-fire review of the issues that metalworking fluid users and suppliers are dealing with today. The trends include a move to coolants that last longer and have less problems, he said, and a desire for improved part finishes and tool life measurements. Along with an increasing amount of nonferrous material being machined, his company is seeing efforts to minimize exposures to metalworking fluids and cut waste generation in plants. Most auto plants today have both minimum-quantity lubrication and dry machining, and I think youre going to see more of that in the future, too, he said.

On the plus side, Duncan said, more users are realizing that the cost of the coolant itself is only a tiny fraction of the money theyll spend on parts, tools, labor and maintenance. (What is it, 1 percent? 5 percent? Either way, its minimal.) But the fluid is crucial to making them all reach peak performance, especially as users embrace more extreme machining applications with tougher tolerances and higher pressures, loads and speeds. Fluid choices are improving, as is the housekeeping in many plants. Theres finally a realization that the coolant sump isnt a toilet, where you throw your trash, leftover lunch, cigarette butts and so on.

Likewise, biocide use is changing due to health and safety concerns, Duncan said. Some customers dont want to use any tankside additives now, others want to keep a truckload of it on hand. Overall, though, you may see less biocide because were designing fluids better to be resistant to microbial attack.

To say that a fluid has bioresistance built in is a super idea – unless youve mismanaged your tramp oil, added panelist John Pohlman, a microbiologist with Angus Chemical Co., part of Dow Chemical. But how long can we use that term? A bioresistant fluid is not registered as a biocide, and regulators at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are cracking down on such ill-defined terms, he said.

Pohlman said biocides are a red flag for workers, employers and regulators, who often misunderstand their function and risk. The industrys workhorse chemistries, such as phenolics and triazine, are under attack, he said, but organisms remain an abiding threat to workers. Organisms find food anywhere they can, whether its mineral oil, vegetable oil, soy methyl ester, whatever, he remarked.

Pohlman labeled current scares about biocides as hype and psych, and colorfully forecast the day when an avian-flu scare hits a metalworking plant: Imagine: Dead geese are found in the containment pond, and then a worker coughs. Is it bird flu? Who knows? But everyone will have to get tested at company expense.

The answer to this panic? We need to educate the government, he suggested. Its our industry and we have to keep it. We dont have an industry in order to hurt people.

View from the Floor

Another perspective came from Ron Button, a former mechanic and machinist at Caterpillar Inc. who is now the Chemtool fluid manager at the same plant. Button said he always calls metalworking fluid stuff – as in, Our purchasing people would decide to buy stuff, and said we in the shop just had to live with it. And stuff is not handled with kid gloves. In his 40 years at Caterpillar, he said, I have found in the fluid reservoirs dead birds, lunches and the like. They get used as a spittoon and an ashtray, and anything thats not nailed down in the shop will end up in the fluid.

More frustrating, though, was trying to get help from vendors when a fluid and machine clashed. I thought the main ingredient in stuff was metal-munching termites, Button said, pointing to photographs of equipment that had been severely corroded when fluid mists worked into crevices and under shields, then condensed.

Personally, I tended to hate formulators when things would go wrong like this. Mists underneath the shields would cause serious corrosion, and our equipment supplier said this corrosion was caused by the moisture and galvanic action between dissimilar metals. It took a lot of time listening, and not pointing fingers back and forth, to solve this.

The answer was to remove some shields (which meant battling plant safety personnel), adding spacers so that dissimilar metals on the equipment were not in contact with each other, and switching from a high-water-content synthetic fluid to a soluble oil. I stick now with emulsified oils exclusively, Button said. It may require more maintenance, but its less mess, and I dont want to fight corrosion.

Science Amok?

John Burke, who spent a long career at Eaton Corp. and now is with Houghton International, expressed concerns that new fluid chemistries – seemingly benign – are actually playing havoc with older plant systems. For example, he said, traditional wastewater treatment systems are not equipped to handle the effluent from vegetable oil based metalworking fluids. Together, the treatment systems cationic polymers and the vegetable oils create an unmovable sludge – like cottage cheese – that my pumps wont move.

Burke also sees longer-life fluids leading to a greater build-up of metals such as zinc, copper and lead – to the point where they may exceed the disposal limits for plant effluents. The chemists have won! declared Burke. Theyve finally made fluids I cannot waste-treat. Like Pogo, we have met the enemy and they are us.

Our industry does not seem to be heading off these challenges with enough planning, he stated.

John Howell, safety, health and environmental advisor at D.A. Stuart Co., pointed to another rising concern: The American Council of Governmental and Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) again has proposed a reduction in the exposures level for mineral oil mist, from the current 5 milligrams per cubic meter to just 0.2 mg/m3 as a time-weighted average. But its proposal does not clearly define mineral oil – which muddies the issue considerably, Howell indicated. Is mineral oil from tramp oil meant to be part of the calculation, or only any mineral oil in the original formulation? ACGIH recommendations are usually referenced automatically by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in its hazard notification standard, which means at minimum all suppliers would have to put this on their Material Safety Data Sheets.

Is the science for this proposal credible? Howell does not believe so. ACGIH limited its research to studies where workers were exposed only to straight oils, he said, and did not include or apparently consider studies that indicated that most problems were associated with significant cross-contamination and other components. Howell suggested that examining the full spectrum of available studies would show that health issues associated with metalworking fluid mists are most likely due to overall microbial activity, the fluids pH, the presence of sulfur components, and other controllable factors.

Although the ACGIH recommendation is on hold, it remains listed in the groups Notice of Intended Changes, he warned, so this proposal needs close attention.

Love, Hate and Tiers

Finally, the panel spent considerable time exploring the tensions between Tier 1 and Tier 2 fluid suppliers. Tier 1 suppliers hold the contract to supply all metalworking fluids, and often other lubricants and chemicals, to a manufacturing plant. They in turn may use Tier 2 partners to provide specialty oils or products that are not in the Tier 1 suppliers own portfolio. This follows a model started over 20 years ago at General Motors.

Since then, the trick has been to get these partners to work cooperatively, the panelists agreed – especially since the Tier 1 suppliers pointed goal is often to replace the Tier 2 products with its own. (Theres such cost pressure that its the only way to make any money, explained Howell.) Meanwhile, customer service and cost-cutting measures fall largely on the Tier 1 suppliers shoulders, adding to the strain.

The discussion became most animated after BP Castrols Duncan suggested that the future would hold fewer Tier 2 suppliers because they are not beneficial in the long run. The Tier 1 wants to displace Tier 2, and so theres no value going to the customer, Duncan said. To get the best-performing product, the customer needs to look at the total package.

Howell concurred. The Tier 1/Tier 2 relationship is the best example of a love-hate relationship I can think of, he said. The Tier 1 suppliers are in the position that, while holding the contract, they can find it impossible to make money. The Tier 2 supplier gets beaten up on price issues, but doesnt have the same level of communication with the customer. We have to rethink how this serves the customer, because satisfying the customer is everyones job.

I agree 100 percent, Houghtons Burke declared. The model is broken, its bankrupt. The costs have been cut to the point where no ones making any money. We need a different cost structure and set of rules. Any evolved system will lead to its own destruction, and thats whats happened here.

Originally, the model was to be a partnership, continued Howell. The expectation was that both companies need to make a profit or they wont be around for long. The simple goals were to add value, to make it easy to do, and to provide stewardship. That was 23 years ago – where did that all go? Its up to us to take the lessons and not make the mistakes again.

The emphasis on cost-cutting has been particularly brutal, all the panelists agreed. Howell suggested that its up to the end users to set or reset the ground rules. In order to fix the model, the demand needs to come from the end user, who needs to say its not just price thats important to us, but health and safety, productivity, and other things.

The way things stand, nobody wins, Howell stated. We all need to go back to a partnership approach.

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