Upcoming bans on hexavalent chromium (chrome VI) in the European Union are leaving some parts manufacturers wondering how these regulations will impact their businesses. While many are holding out to see how other companies address the ban, some leading manufacturers are looking for solutions now to get ahead of the ban deadlines. Saab Aeronautics in Sweden is one company leading that charge. Chrome VI has been the coating of choice for many industries such as automotive and aerospace because it’s relatively easy to produce and has corrosion-resistant properties. However, due to its toxicity and carcinogenic properties, all chrome VI plating will be banned in the European Union in 2024. Unfortunately, choosing an alternative is not as easy as switching to a different chrome coating because they don’t have all the same properties. Parts makers currently using chrome VI will need to research substitutions that work for their requirements. While this may seem daunting, manufacturers may have opportunities to improve the quality and longevity of their products, giving them competitive advantages. The chrome VI ban will bring short-term challenges during initial conversion, but in the long term, this ban will drive innovations in better materials, better coatings, and better part designs. The costs for those changes will increase at first, but the market will stabilize eventually, like it always does. Materials Innovator Lends a Hand Saab Aeronautics is currently working with NewSoTech to find an alternative to chrome VI to make parts for its commercial and defense aerospace customers. NewSoTech is a materials innovator specializing in the development of efficient solutions in surface treatments and material technology. Mats Vikström, CTO at NewSoTech, has been working with Saab since the 1980s to develop composite airframe structures for new military fighter jets. Today, he’s helping Saab choose a suitable alternative to chrome VI. Currently, there is no substitute coating for steel components that has all the same functional attributes and price as chrome VI. To address this challenge, NewSoTech has developed a ceramic/titanium nitride hybrid material. While it costs more, the hybrid material is three times harder while offering lighter weight, lower friction, better wear-endurance, and improved corrosion resistance. These are the features ideal for airframe parts. Saab is currently in the research process to certify whether the new ceramic/titanium material will work the way it’s intended. Anticipating chrome regulations in the future, Saab began investigating the possibility of changing substrates years before the bans were established. It’s the company’s policy to avoid substantial extra costs later by looking ahead to see what's coming and then navigating quickly. The company is at the forefront of this research at a time when there are a limited number of suppliers and alternative substances with high TRL (technology readiness level) available. Hans Erlandsson, project manager in charge of phasing out chrome VI in Saab Aeronautics’ surface treatment production line, is getting ahead of the ban deadline because he expects it to take a while to do all the appropriate testing, part production scale-up, and production line changeover. “It takes time to extensively test alternatives to make sure that they live up to the same requirements that chromium does today, especially for load carrying structures deep inside the aircraft. If that part starts to corrode in a couple of years, it will be almost impossible to change it, resulting in substantial costs to the customer and removing the aircraft from service,” Erlandsson says. According to Vikström, the biggest challenge for manufacturers to transition away from chrome VI will be the mindset. “The industry is so used to steel and chrome that it’s difficult for them to see outside that format,” Vikström says. “People are just now starting to realize that there are more options out there than just replacing the surface finish. There are great opportunities to redesign parts and produce them in other metals, such as titanium, which also offers positive weight and environmental benefits.” Total cost comparison The immediate objection to titanium is often the higher cost. Titanium can cost several times more than standard steel. However, looking at the life cycle of a titanium part creates a new picture in total cost because it is harder and lasts much longer. NewSoTech has tested its titanium nitride on piston rods used on an offshore mining platform. Compared to the previous chrome-coated steel pistons, which corroded and needed to be replaced every 18 months, the new pistons have lasted for 20 years. That has significantly reduced the total cost for the pistons over time. “The price of inexpensive, lower-quality parts looks good on a spreadsheet, but if you factor in the downtime and manpower to replace those components and the potential revenue losses during that downtime, the total cost for that part adds up quickly,” says Gene Skiba, CEO at NewSoTech. Redesigned parts and higher-priced materials may not be necessary for all applications. For each part, manufacturers need to consider the advantages of beneficial properties to determine whether it’s worth the increased investment. If there are few special requirements for a part, a chromium trivalent or chromium dioxide plating may be sufficient. For parts with more extreme service environments, new hybrid material technology may offer superior results. Resources The International Trade Administration references EU WEEE and RoHS chemical restrictions; including hexavalent chromium (Chrome VI): EU WEEE_RoHS (trade.gov)OSHA provides information about hexavalent chromium; however, it does not mention the EU ban. Hexavalent Chromium - Overview | Occupational Safety and Health Administration (osha.gov)Chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) | US EPA Regulation of Chemicals under Section 6(a) of the Toxic Substances Control Act | US EPA
The ban on chrome VI in the European Union is giving parts manufacturers the opportunity to improve their products. Saab Aeronautics and NewSoTech are two companies leading that charge.