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October 14, 2015

Volume 17 Issue 52

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EU Rule on Leaded Alloys May Impact Cutting Fluids

Impending changes in European regulations may sharply reduce permissible levels of lead in steel, aluminum and copper alloys as soon as January 2017. As a result, manufacturers of precision machined parts worldwide would experience significant changes in their metal supply chains and their markets for machined parts, an industry expert warned recently. Because lead (Pb) is critical to the machinability of many metals, these regulations could reduce machining efficiency by 25 percent or more and necessitate reformulation of metal removal fluids.

Miles Free of the Precision Machined Products Association explained the current regulations on leaded metals and outlined impending regulatory changes and their potential consequences for lubricant blenders and additive suppliers, as well as machining operations, on Sept. 28 at the 5th International Conference on Metal Removal Fluids. Held in Rosemont (Chicago), Ill., the three-day symposium was sponsored by the Independent Lubricant Manufacturers Association.

Free explained to attendees that lead is used widely as an alloying element to improve the machining of metal parts. By reducing friction between machine tools and parts, Pb enables faster machining operations with lower thermal stresses on tools, shorter production times, and lower power consumption.

For example, Free estimated that it will be necessary to operate tools at 25 percent slower speeds to machine long bar steel after new regulations are implemented. Tool replacement and process adjustments will further decrease efficiency when shops begin machining new alloys, he added. Free, who is director of industry research and technology at the Cleveland-based PMPA, anticipated that it will be necessary to reformulate metal removal fluids for machining new alloys that are “less free cutting” and may be cut at higher temperatures than current leaded materials.

European regulations on lead affect both supply and demand sides of U.S. machine shops, he continued. Since European firms are dominant suppliers of leaded steels, aluminum alloys and brasses to U.S. markets, American machine shops will be obliged to adjust their operations to process reduced-lead alloys. Likewise, the new regulations will limit the composition of U.S. exports of machine parts – both as individual items and as components in assembled products – to European customers in the automotive, electronics and appliance industries.

At present, European regulations on levels of lead in metal alloys are specified by RoHS or Restriction of the use of certain Hazardous Substances, a Directive of the European Parliament. Effective July 1, 2006, lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chrome, etc. were declared to be hazardous substances and forbidden from use in certain electric and electronic equipment including appliances, certain consumer equipment, electric tools, etc.

However, European regulators recognized the substantial cost and energy savings that come from using leaded alloys, so RoHS included an exemption that permitted the use of lead at levels up to 0.35 percent by weight in steel, 0.4 percent in aluminum, and 4 percent in copper alloys.

In 2011, a “recast” Directive took effect that expanded the scope of RoHS. Called RoHS 2, it forbids the use of lead, cadmium, etc. in a larger list of electrical equipment including large and small household appliances, IT and communications equipment, medical devices, sports equipment, toys, and others. Meanwhile, the original RoHS exemptions for lead as an alloying element were scheduled to expire on July 21, 2016, and under the recast regulations lead would be limited to no more than 0.1 percent by weight in all metal alloys.

Fortunately, Free noted, an application was filed on Jan. 16, 2015, requesting an extension of the current limits for the use of lead in metals. That action kept the exemption limits in place while their renewal is considered.

The European Parliament is expected to announce their decision on the renewal request by Jan. 21, 2016. If the European Parliament accepts this application, then limits on lead levels in metal alloys will remain unchanged. If the renewal is denied, then new lower limits on lead will take effect 12 to 18 months later, sometime between Jan. 21 and July 21, 2017.

This pending decision on lead levels in metal alloys may affect lubricant blenders and additive suppliers that supply metal removal fluids to manufacturers of machined metal products, Free emphasized. If lead is limited to no more than 0.1 percent by weight in steel, aluminum and copper alloys, then it will be critical for machine shops and lube blenders to adapt their technologies to process alloys with significantly less lead, more friction at tool-part interfaces, and greater thermal stresses.

Fluid reformulation would have to be complete within the 12 to 18 month interval provided by the European Parliament, Free stated, and suppliers would need to ramp up production of new fluids by then, too.