This week it has been reported that research has found tiny fibres made by the nanotechnology industry are similar in size and shape to the carbon fibres of asbestos and, as a result could cause similar health problems. The challenge with this type of discovery is that it could be devastating if your manufacturing process is centred on nanotechnology materials designed to a specific size that is now deemed to be a health hazard. Fortunately, the potential danger to people involved in the manufacture of products containing nanofibres can be minimised, once scientists identify an appropriate length that these fibres can be safe to work with. The scenario is not uncommon when working with any new material or production process – new challenges must be overcome prior to launching new products and the manufacturing systems supporting production must be sufficiently dynamic to accommodate this level of change.
Ensuring the Safety of Nanofibres
Just like asbestos, nanofibres have a potential use in a wide range of materials used in a number of goods, ranging from aeroplane wings to tennis rackets and other products, each containing materials with at least one dimension measuring 1 to 100 nanometres. As new types of nanofibres are developed there are concerns that if, as this research suggests, they behave in the same way to asbestos fibres, that the damage to people’s health could be great. Asbestos is known to cause mesothelioma, a form of cancer.
The research from the University of Edinburgh involved silver nanofibres of varying lengths, created using minute casts, being injected into the lungs of mice. Those larger than five micrometres (that’s five thousandths of a millimetre) were likely to become lodged in the lung and cause inflammation. This is similar to the problem of asbestos fibres getting trapped in a person’s lungs; with asbestos fibres being small enough that single cells try to absorb them, but large enough that they fail, triggering an indefinite inflammatory response.
Although mouse and human lungs are different, it is anticipated that the research will help establish the safer lengths of nanofibres to work with. Professor Donaldson of respiratory toxicology at the University of Edinburgh, has said “we knew that long fibres, compared with shorter fibres, could cause tumours, but until now we did not know the cut-off length at which this happened. Knowing the length beyond which the tiny fibres can cause disease is important in ensuring that safe fibres are made in the future as well as helping to understand the current risk from asbestos and other fibres.” This hope is shared by Professor Stephen Spiro from the British Lung Foundation, who has said “if confirmed by subsequent studies, this minimum fibre length can be cited in industry guidelines to help ensure people are not exposed to the sorts of fibres that may lead to such deadly diseases.”
The Impact on Manufacturing
As a manufacturer, why does this matter? Well, the first point is the fact that a raw material specification is currently in a process of modification. Those aerospace and defence and consumer goods manufacturers that are utilizing nanofibres had better have a dynamic production process easily capable of adjusting to what the final acceptable length is for a nanofibre. Secondly, with length being of such a paramount importance, the need for quality checks has now been heightened. These quality assurance processes will most likely have to be adapted too as new research is obtained and new best practices are identified. Each of these impacts point to the need for flexible manufacturing processes to support continuous improvement, especially when working with new materials that are still evolving.