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For Greener Manufacturing, Think IAQ

by Craig Widtfeldt, RoboVent

The next generation of cars will be cleaner and greener than ever—but a lot of the manufacturing processes that go into them are still pretty dirty. From the frame to the muffler, automotive manufacturing still involves welding, cutting, grinding and machining. These processes can create problems for indoor air quality (IAQ) and hurt your sustainability metrics.

The Problem with Particulates. Welding, cutting, grinding and machining all create particulates with varying levels of toxicity. These particulates have serious health impacts if not controlled in the factory environment. If they are vented to the outdoors, there are also environmental issues to consider. Controlling toxic particulates from manufacturing processes is one of the most important things auto manufacturers can do to improve their sustainability and protect their workers.

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Effective air quality control is an essential component of green manufacturing for the automotive industry. Click to enlarge.

Some of the problematic processes commonly used in the auto industry include:

  • Welding: Both manual and robotic welding produce microscopic particulates that can make their way deep into the lungs. Weld fumes contain toxic elements like zinc, manganese, hexavalent chromium and beryllium, which have both immediate and long-term impacts on worker health. Acute affects of exposure to weld fumes can include shortness of breath and respiratory irritation; eye, nose or throat irritation; or nausea. Long-term effects include cancer, kidney damage, emphysema and chronic nervous system effects, potentially leading to early disability or death. Overexposure to weld fumes can also cause a serious condition called “metal fume fever,” or welding sickness. Weld fumes have environmental impacts, too: venting weld fumes directly to the environment allows these toxic elements to make their way into air, water and soil.

    Stock Robotic Welding Spark Smoke copy
    Manual and robotic welding produce dangerous weld fumes that have serious human health and environmental impacts. Click to enlarge.
  • Cutting and grinding: Larger particulates from cutting and grinding don’t make their way as deeply into the lungs as tiny fumed particulates from welding, but they still present human health and environmental risks. Fiberglass, metal, glass and plastics all have their own exposure risks, which can include respiratory irritation and some types of cancer. Some types of dusts also present a combustion risk, making effective control essential.

  • Machining: Machining often requires lubricants, which create fine oil mists that can be invisible to the eye. As the mists settle on surfaces, they can create slip and fall hazards for personnel. They also have health impacts when inhaled: depending on the size of the particulates and the chemistry of the lubricant, extended exposure may lead to asthma, chronic bronchitis, chronically impaired lung function, fibrosis of the lung and cancer. Metalworking fluids can also become contaminated with disease-causing pathogens.

    Stock Image Oil Mist Clarion Machining Center Lubricant(1) copy
    Machining and stamping processes produce oil mists that can be difficult to control. Click to enlarge.

There are many other processes up and down the supply chain that can create significant IAQ challenges leading to human health risks. These include:

  • Glass production

  • Plastic molding

  • Muffler packing

  • Insulation foam production and application

  • Tire production and recycling

Failure to properly control fumes and particulates produced by automotive manufacturing processes can put companies out of compliance with worker safety and environmental regulations. Poor IAQ can have other negative consequences as well.

The Hidden Costs of Poor Air Quality. IAQ is more than just a regulatory nuisance. Poor IAQ also impacts productivity, retention and recruiting.

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Poor indoor air quality impacts employee health, productivity, retention and recruiting. Click to enlarge.

Indoor air quality has been shown to have significant impacts on both worker productivity and product quality in factory environments. A study by the University of San Diego Burnham-Morse Center for Real Estate estimates that worker productivity gains with improved indoor air quality average $5,204 per worker. On average, poor IAQ is estimated to cause six additional lost workdays per year for every ten employees.

IAQ also has a direct but often under-appreciated effect on employee recruitment and retention, increasing hiring and training costs for companies with poor air quality. According to research from Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, health and environmental factors play an increasingly important role in job decisions for skilled workers, especially with younger generations. These workers are likely to be in high demand in coming years as skilled workers from the baby boom generation retire.

A Path to Better IAQ. So what is a company to do? Fortunately, there are steps that you can take to ensure that your facility not only meets minimum regulatory requirements but is prepared for any changes that may come in the future. A well-designed air quality system can protect companies from legal liability and government fines and sanctions, while improving overall sustainability metrics.

Your air quality plan should include these important steps:

  • Evaluation: What processes are generating dust and fumes? What is the character of those fumes? How do they propagate through your facility? What are the airflow patterns in your building, and are they making air quality issues better or worse?

  • Goal Setting: What are the minimum regulations you must meet for your state or region? Do you want to plan to meet just those minimums, or follow stricter internal guidelines? What are your qualitative goals in terms of worker satisfaction, productivity, retention and recruiting?

  • System Design: What kind of system will best help you meet your air quality goals? Do you need source capture, ambient or a combination of both? What type of filtration is needed for your processes? How can you design your system to work with, instead of against, your existing airflow patterns? What are the cost and sustainability implications of venting air outside the building vs. returning it to the facility?

  • Validation: Once the system is in place, is it meeting your air quality goals? How do particulate levels compare after installation vs. before in different parts of your facility? Are you getting your money’s worth from your equipment and filters?

  • Monitoring: How will you know that your solution is continuing to work? What kind of maintenance is needed to keep it operating at peak performance?

A qualified air quality system designer can help automotive companies find a solution that balances costs, regulations and sustainability goals. Over the coming months, we are going to take a closer look at effective air quality strategies for some of the specific processes involved in automotive parts manufacturing, including robotic welding, manual welding, machining, cutting and grinding, glass manufacturing and more. Stay tuned!

About the Author

Craig Widtfeldt is the Executive Technical Director at RoboVent. Craig has been designing, installing and servicing fume extraction systems for more than 10 years. He brings extensive experience in designing large, custom systems for world-class manufacturers, with a particular focus on source capture solutions and high-risk applications such as stainless steel welding processes.

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