While environmental stewardship has become better understood and more widely accepted, many manufacturers are still not taking the necessary steps to implement newer, proven production methods that foster sustainability. Metalworking operations in particular have an obligation to embrace sustainable manufacturing processes that protect workers and the environment. The good news: Such changes can generate substantial savings.
One such technique is Minimum Quantity Lubrication (MQL). In metalcutting operations, MQL eliminates large quantities of water and oil-based coolants and replaces them with small amounts of lubricant mixed with air. This airoil stream is precisely metered and delivered to the cutting tool’s edge, and it has no adverse affect on machining speed or quality. The philosophy behind MQL is simple: more is not always better. Use only what’s needed, because enough is as good as a feast.
MQL offers many benefits. Workers are safer, both in the short and long term, because operators, skilled tradesmen, and engineers are no longer exposed to the toxicity, bacteria, and fungi risks that come with traditional “wet” machining, nor to the coolant mists that foul plant air. The small amount of oil used for MQL is generally based on vegetables or esters, which are less harmful to humans.
The environment stays cleaner because there are no used cutting fluids that require costly disposal. And manufacturers don’t face the headaches of complying with strict EPA regulations. Metal chips produced during MQL machining are nearly dry, easier to recycle, and more valuable than chips generated with conventional approaches.
MQL even helps change the “dirty” perception of manufacturing.
Most manufacturers still associate sustainability with higher costs. However, when we break down the investment in “wet” manufacturing systems, it’s clear they are expensive to build and operate. A machine that uses conventional coolants requires costly supply, filtration, and mist-collection equipment to transfer, pressurize, and recycle coolant. It demands more-costly plant infrastructure, has higher installation costs, and is more difficult and expensive to relocate. And on-going expenses include energy consumption, chemical maintenance, fluid replenishment, and disposal of used cutting fluids.
The metalworking industry consumes several hundred million gallons of fluids each year. MQL produces an operating savings of approximately 15% over wet systems, not counting savings on plant infrastructure, installation, and the like. There’s a cascade of cost savings when you take flood coolant out of machining.
So with all of these benefits, one might wonder why more manufacturers aren’t implementing MQL and other sustainable-manufacturing processes. Perhaps it’s fear of new technology or the associated cultural change? In most cases, we hide behind the myth that sustainability adds cost. In the case of MQL, sustainability pays for itself.
These questions pose a real challenge for our industry. If we don’t have the courage to change our behavior and embrace a new idea like sustainability, we may miss the next real technology opportunity to restore American manufacturing leadership — and no one can afford that.
MAG is a leading manufacturer of machine tools and manufacturing systems for the aerospace, transportation, heavy equipment, oil and gas, and alternativeenergy markets.
Edited by Kenneth J. Korane