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Emerging trends threaten the future of the metalworking fluids industry

By Aaron Stone

In 2014, the metalworking fluids (MWF) market had an estimated value of USD8.3 billion. A report published in February 2016 by marketsandmarkets.com projected the market to expand to USD9.74 billion by 2020, a compounded annual growth rate of 3.2%. Central to this growth forecast is a rapidly growing automotive sector and increasing global industrialisation. Automotive manufacturers use metalworking fluids extensively for manufacturing vehicle parts and other equipment.

Speaking at F+L Week 2017, John Burke, STLE Fellow and global director of engineering at Houghton International, presented five emerging trends in the MWF sector, some of which could significantly impact the market and projections of growth. This article reviews these key trends and evaluates their influence on the future of the MWF industry.

A Shift towards MQL and Dry Machining

Metalworking lubricants, coolants and fluids play a vital role in machining. Typically, a substantial flow of fluids is used in the metal removal process, usually between 4 and 20 litres per minute. This ‘flood application’ is of primary importance in cooling, protection of tools, flushing chips off parts, and interim corrosive protection.

Burke, a global expert in MWF, says movement towards minimum quantity lubrication (MQL) and, even further, to dry machining, is “a trend you should pay close attention to.”

Increasing concerns over the environmental impact of lubricants, coupled with success in dry machining at temperatures up to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, are driving this trend. The emergence of advanced ceramic and diamond, and cubic boron nitride tooling, has enabled high temperature machining with limited or zero lubrication, without generating excessive wear.

Dry machining provides a cleaner, hassle free working environment. Manufacturers use vacuum to remove chips and air to clean fixtures, leaving no coolant mist or waste to dispose of. Even when utilising MQL, cleaning and maintenance of equipment can be substantial.

On March 3, 2017, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) adopted Rule 1430, Control of Emissions from Metal Grinding Operations at Metal Forging Facilities. The purpose of Rule 1430 is to reduce toxic emissions, particulate matter emissions, and odors from metal grinding and metal cutting operations at metal forging facilities. This rule requires the following:

  • Total Enclosures: Owner/operator shall conduct all metal grinding and metal cutting operations in a total enclosure that minimises the release of fugitive metal dust emission from passages, doorway, etc. Owners/operators are to vent these enclosures to an emission control device.
  • Housekeeping Requirements and Maintenance and Repair Activities Requirements: Type of cleaning, cleaning equipment, conditions and frequency
  • Sources Tests, Monitoring and Recordkeeping

Since this rule applies to dry machining and MQL but does not apply to metal forging facilities where metal grinding or metal cutting are conducted under continuous flood of metal removal fluid or grinding activities conducted to maintain or repair equipment at the facility, Burke believes we will see a reversal in the shift toward dry machining and MQL, at least for certain applications.

The Growth of Bio-Based Lubricants

Non-additive bio-based lubricants outperform equivalent petroleum-based lubricants in most standard lubricity tests, confirms Burke. Excellent lubricity, alongside renewability, and the absence of volatile organic compounds (VOC) emissions is encouraging enhanced uptake of bio-based alternatives.

Bio-based lubricants are mainly synthesised from vegetable oils and seed oils, the ester and fatty acids are extracted to produce excellent lubricants.

While Burke admits, he is “fully supportive” of bio-based lubricants, he also cautions anyone transitioning to this renewable alternative. Before embarking on any conversion, he says, it is imperative that a full lifecycle analysis is completed to assess the suitability of bio-based alternatives. Of importance is identifying reliable options for disposal.

Simple esters become unstable in water environments, breaking down into gummy sticky residue, and can still appear as oils and greases on standard environmental tests. Isolation from petroleum-based oil is also critical, as re-refiners do not want esters. Some major re-refiners are now restricting ester content to less than 2%.

Fuel Economy Demands on Automobile

Contrary to some industry experts who have perhaps downplayed the influence of electric vehicles, or the demise of the internal combustion engine, Burke believes the internal combustion engine (ICE) is ‘going to die, and die quickly.’ Strict EPA targets for fuel economy, an average new car miles per gallon requirement of 54.5 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2025, are aggressive and, he says, not easily achieved with gasoline-fuelled vehicles.

The market for metalworking fluids is going to drop markedly, hypothesises Burke, as the need for ICE engine parts such as pistons, piston engine blocks, valves and more, will be no longer be necessary. This will result in the lower consumption of metalworking fluids, but the usage of drawing and stamping fluids, cleaners and rust preventives will remain the same. Increased usage of electric wire drawing fluids will likely occur with the shift to electric vehicles.
Five years ago no one would have predicted the meteoric rise of Tesla, or a car with more than 200 miles to a charge, available at affordable prices. The evolution of new battery technology that extends the range of these electrical vehicles could be a game changer, skyrocketing demand well above expectations.

Increased Recycling of Metalworking Fluids

The next trend, sure to challenge MWF suppliers, is an increase in the incidence of MWF recycling. Cost reductions from recycling fluids can be significant, a potential 8% volume reduction against a non-recycling system. Burke admits the “savings are fantastic,” with no necessity for a new product, waste reduction and a spin-off environmental benefit.

The question “how do I recycle metalworking fluids?” he says, is the number one enquiry during an estimated two to three times a week plant visits. Customers want to understand how to do it, the technology and chemistry involved, and the rate of return. Metalworking fluid suppliers, like Houghton International, are helping their customers implement technology to support their recycling initiatives.

An Increase in Visibility

The final trend outlined by Burke was one of “visibility.” The advent of REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals), GHS (Globally Harmonised System for the classification and labelling of chemicals), and social media have created a challenging operating environment for modern businesses, requiring them to adopt a standardised, safe, ethical and socially acceptable approach. Burke suggests the three are a “great equaliser.”
The REACH legislation, introduced to improve the protection of human health and the environment, has resulted in the elimination of specific chemicals, the revision of many others — likely to be eliminated.

The Globally Harmonised System (GHS) of Classification and Labelling for Chemicals is an initiative undertaken by the United Nations to establish a worldwide co-ordinated system for the classification and labelling of chemical products. It requires defined hazard categories and classifications, mandated hazard and precautionary statement, standardised pictograms reflecting hazard classifications and more. The pictogram insertion into SDS has driven significant changes in customer buying behaviour. Understandably, customers are shying away from products with severe health warnings. Companies that become complacent could find their products eliminated in a short space of time.

Perhaps the most compelling change has been the advent of social media, providing customers a voice like never before. It’s never been easier to hold companies accountable for lapses in ethical standards.