THE PROBLEM CHILD OF THE OPTICAL LAB…SWARF

By Julie Bos

Regardless of your laboratory’s size, geography or customer base, there’s a problem child lurking in the shadows—the issue of polycarbonate swarf (and what to do with it). This challenge impacts everything from your labor operations to your sustainability practices and, of course, your bottom-line disposal costs.

In this article, we recap the latest updates on this challenge presented during a panel discussion at the COLA 2016 meeting in Temecula, Calif. Presenters were Bart Foster, chairman of ReVision, Phil Bazell, president Emeritus, Bazell Technologies, Joe El-Hindi, vice president at Filtertech, and John Haigh, Western U.S. sales manager at Schneider Optical Machines.

As we all know, swarf has little or no valuable use today. Therefore, it’s simply being tossed and contributing to our overburdened landfills. According to Bart Foster, about 6,000 tons of swarf material go into landfills every year—the equivalent of 1,500 40-foot containers.

Fortunately, important progress is being made, which is giving optical labs new hope that a more eco-friendly (and cost-effective) solution may be on the horizon.

“Our vision is to significantly reduce or eliminate the polycarbonate swarf going into landfills each year, while making the exercise cost-neutral for optical labs,” said Foster. “Right now, thanks to an 18-month research grant, we have five material scientists at the University of Colorado in Boulder working exclusively on this problem, and we’re very optimistic about the possible outcomes.”

Inside the Challenge: What’s the Real Problem?

There’s a reason nobody has found a way to recycle swarf yet. In fact, there are many reasons. To date, the following factors have made repurposing swarf tremendously difficult, if not totally impossible.

Issue #1: Comingled materials. Today’s labs are processing lenses from a variety of plastic materials, including polycarbonate, CR-39 and Trivex in many different formulations. Each material has a different melting property, making a mixed waste product difficult to use. Even recyclers who have tried to use this material in the past have quickly given up after realizing the different melting properties (and subsequent damage to their machines). Segregation of lens generators by material type could be a workable option, but most labs can’t justify the cost.  

Issue #2: Continued evolution of plastic lenses. There is tremendous market growth of hi-index and Trivex lens production, which only solidifies the use of these materials.

Issue #3: Presence of new waste elements. Consumable lens tapes, adhesives and other alloy fractions that can’t be separated at the point of processing are introducing new waste elements into the swarf waste mixture.

Issue #4: Presence of residual coolants, oils and microbial contaminants. All but one defoamer on the market today is oil-based. And many laboratories have fungal or bacterial contamination that can add to the complexity of swarf waste.

Issue #5: Complications from plastic blocking. Current alloy-free technologies use a plastic block that is sacrificial along the lens diameter during cribbing. While the alloy-free technology is a good thing, the plastic block becomes a new contributor to the problem.

Issue #6: Relatively small total volume. Compared to other recyclable materials like glass, aluminum and plastic bottles, the relatively low volume of polycarbonate swarf makes it difficult to attract the attention of many recyclers. It’s simply not worth their time. And when some realize the difficulties of working with swarf, they quickly revert back to materials that are easier to use.

Issue #7: Cost restrictions. Even if the industry identifies a use for this material, they also need to figure out how to collect it all and do it cost-effectively. Otherwise, the idea will never catch on with today’s budget-conscious labs. Labs certainly want to do the right thing for the environment, but they also have shareholders, so if the new solution costs more than the current disposal costs, it will be hard sell.

Inside the Current Solution: What Can Be Done Today?

To help address the current swarf management challenge, several manufacturers offer equipment that provides a partial solution. These solutions are designed to filter and separate the swarf material components, enabling water to be reclaimed, generator coolant to be recycled, and the dry bulky swarf to be removed and compacted for less total volume.

“Whatever solution we may come up with in the near future, it’s highly likely that the swarf material will still need to be compacted first, because it’s cost-prohibitive to ship the swarf material while it’s still mixed with the liquid coolant,” said Foster. “Therefore, filtering and compaction equipment is still definitely needed.”

Here’s an overview of what’s available today.

From Bazell Technologies:

Founded in 1983, Bazell Technologies is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Essilor/Satisloh. The company’s sole focus is fluid management systems for a variety of industries. For the ophthalmic industry, the company offers the following solutions, all of which are available with chip compactors:

MicroGenerator: Designed for use with the Satisloh VFT-Micro Generator

HC1 Automated System: Designed for use with one generator, and includes a pump station, compactor and self-cleaning centrifuge

ICS-Pro: Attaches directly to a generator and resides in the surfacing room

Microseparator and HC3: Automated systems that include a self-cleaning centrifuge. Installed remotely, they represent a closed-loop system and support two to three generators

HC6: Large, industrial-grade solutions that are designed to support clusters of six generators

“Key elements of our high-capacity systems include redundancy (so components can be serviced without interrupting production), productivity (enabling hands-free material processing from end-to-end) and process control (automating fluid flow, operating temperature and additive management to optimize generator performance while reducing maintenance,” said Phil Bazell, president Emeritus, Bazell Technologies.

For more product information, visit www.bazell.com/ophthalmic.

From Filtertech:

Coolant Filtration Systems: Filtertech offers a variety of systems to filter generator coolant from the liquid/swarf mixture, based on the number of generators running in a lab.

• The LGEN-PS Series can handle the volume of up to two generators.

• The LGEN-P Series can accommodate the volume of two to five generators.

• The LGEN-VAC Series can handle the volume of four to 30 generators.

Swarf Briquetter Systems: Filtertech also offers two swarf briquetter systems that compact and reduce swarf volume by 20:1, while also reducing the weight by about 50 percent. The result is a dry, compacted polycarbonate puck that is easier to discard and takes up less space in landfills.

• The LGEN-BR2.5-1000 processes swarf from up to six generators (running up to 70% polycarbonate).

• The LGEN-BR4-2000 processes swarf from up to 16 generators (running up to 70% polycarbonate).

“Let’s assume a lab starts with 40 pounds of swarf and 60 pounds of coolant,” said Joe El-Hindi, vice president of Filtertech. “Using our LGEN-BR briquetter, the lab would get a 20:1 reduction in swarf, ending up with .3 cubic feet of volume after compaction and six gallons of coolant that can be captured and returned to the coolant system. This saves up to 100 gallons per day of coolant per generator and up to 95 percent reduction in labor for emptying swarf hoppers.”

For more product information, visit www.filtertech.com.

From Schneider Optical Machines:

CT 130C Coolant Supply Tank and Compactor: Designed for small- to medium-volume labs, each of these scalable solutions is capable of handling swarf waste from up to two generators and includes an integrated cooling unit. It provides small particle filtering, enabling only completely cleaned and filtered coolant to return to the generator.

CT 130C Chip Compactor: This integrated chip compactor dries the swarf and reduces the swarf volume at a ratio of 6:1, making it easier to handle, reducing labor and minimizing the waste going to landfills. This scalable system can work for small labs all the way up to large labs.

Customized Systems: For larger labs, Schneider swarf management systems are customized and built to the individual needs, volume, space, production schedule and specific municipality requirements.

“Some small-to-midsize labs think swarf management is out of reach, but that’s absolutely not true,” said John Haigh, Schneider’s sales manager for the Western U.S. “Equipment is available for all sizes, including very small producers. This is important because if Prop 65 does what it’s intending to do, it won’t matter what size lab you are. You’re still going to need to manage polycarbonate in a lab—so even small labs will need to deal with this.”

For more product information, visit www.schneider-om.com.

Looking to the Future: What Might Be Possible Tomorrow?

In order to keep swarf out of our landfills, there needs to be another use for it. Today, ReVision is spearheading an exciting, 18-month sponsored research project at Colorado University at Boulder, where five PhD-level scientists are seeking to reveal new uses for swarf.

This initiative is currently being supported by a number of large equipment manufacturers, as well as Vision-Ease, Essilor, Zeiss, National Vision, Walmart, University of Colorado Boulder, FilterTech and The Vision Council. ReVision welcomes the support of additional companies who may want to get involved.

“These are some of the best chemical scientists in the country—all committed to discovering what we can possibly do with swarf, including the possibility of creating a new compound from it,” said Foster. “It’s very exciting. We see this is as an industry-wide initiative, and something everyone should be supporting. If we can figure out a solution, it will benefit everyone.”

The team already knows that in its current form, swarf can be used as a filler in building materials, flooring and insulation. It could potentially be used in outdoor clothing and gear, like jackets, tents and ropes. Other possibilities may include automobile parts, replacement to wood (for benches, decking, etc.) and safety equipment (helmets, shoulder/knee/elbow pads).

However, research scientists hope to create something even more valuable. Since beginning the research project in December 2015, scientists have already identified and analyzed what’s in the material, including the various melting properties. The research is now in phase two, where scientists are trying to determine the best use for it.

This expert team is asking important questions, such as, “Can we extract the contaminants and end up with something valuable that will keep this material out of landfills?” Or “Can we add something to this mixture and create a new compound that can be used to manufacture new products?

“If we can, and if we can do it cost-effectively, we now have the sustainable solution that the industry has been seeking,” said Foster. “If we could create a new compound and create an alternative to ABS, one of the dominant plastics used in 3-D printing, we would have an opportunity to create something fairly valuable. We’re not there yet, but we’re very optimistic that in the next few years, we’ll have a workable and sustainable solution.”

[Sidebar]

Why Is Recycling Swarf Important?

• Swarf material does not biodegrade.

• Contaminants in the material may leach into the water table and harm the ecosystem.

• Today’s EPA guidelines in the U.S. are much less stringent than in other countries. This will likely change, putting new burdens on labs seeking to dispose of this waste.

• Sustainability, conservation and recycling are strong consumer trends, which are projected to increase in the coming years. The optical industry has a big opportunity to discover a solution, while doing the right thing for the environment.

• Doing nothing is not an option. Consumer demands and anticipated government regulations will necessitate change. The time for action is now.

[Sidebar]

Dollars and Sense: The Real Benefits of Swarf Management

• Cost savings from reclaimed coolant: One of the only financial benefits of swarf management is the ability to reclaim expensive generator coolant. When reclaimed and purified, this coolant can be reused for a very long time—often up to a year—which positively impacts the profit equation.

• Minimized breakage from stabilized coolant temperature: Most swarf management solutions also stabilize the coolant temperature, which is important for attaining precise tolerances for cutting and fining lens surfaces. Stabilizing the coolant temperature can reduce breakage.

• Cost savings from extended tool lifespan: Using adequate coolant and stabilizing the coolant temperature can also extend the life of the diamond cutting and milling tools. Extending the life of these expensive tools by 20-30 percent can represent significant cost savings over time.

• Cost savings from reduced labor: Fully-automated swarf management systems reduce manual steps associated with swarf handling, enabling labor resources to be used for more strategic, value-added tasks.

 


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Labtalk May/June 2018