1, 2, 3 - Testing, testing

16 March 2003

I remember during my degree course, we were asked to define graphically how we related to each member of management at BLC. If it was a short line the interaction was immediate, if the line was longer the relationship became more distant. It was to be done from one's own perception of how you thought management interacted with you - from the director down to my immediate line manager. At the time, Dr Sykes was the director at BLC and, on an A4 sheet, my line stretched the whole length of the page before I considered I could reach him. At my level - a senior technician - I had no interaction with the director. Charles Barnscone, from Infinite Possibilities, one of the keynote lecturers at the BLC seminar, held in Northampton last November, said: 'The culture of an organisation is created by a number of elements interacting together. To change the culture of the organisation, and to make that change long-term, all the main areas that impact the culture must be tackled and aligned.' Although Dr Sykes began BLC's metamorphosis, it was after he retired that the company really changed. I doubt now that 'management' is as far from the shop floor that it was when I was there 15 years ago. Barnscone writes that the understanding of business cultures can be synthesised from research carried out to explain typical human behaviour. Table 1 shows the hierarchy that can be applied to organisational cultures. With mission/vision and purpose being at the top, what it means is that the purpose of the organisation, or the perceived purpose in some cases, will dramatically affect the behaviour and environment of the people working within that organisation. 'While creating change at the lowest levels will not necessarily affect the highest levels, change at the highest levels will always affect the lower levels', he quipped. How many times have we seen that in our respective companies! He then went on to explain how each level interacted with its neighbours and said that, in practice, to create a new culture, all levels of hierarchy must be tackled and aligned with the goals of the company. To ensure that the change is retained long-term, the highest levels must be tackled first. Lice biting back Back on a firmer footing, Phil Hadley discussed BLC's active research programme for raw material quality. As Leather International has highlighted in a recent set of articles1-4, the quality of raw material is a problem - ectoparasites in particular. Hadley said that ticks are external parasites of domestic livestock which are capable of causing severe damage to the animals on which they live and feed. They are also carriers of bacterial, viral and parasitic disease, which can be transmitted to other stock and humans. Tick damage seen on hides and skins (Figure 1) can easily be characterised as a problem, but still causes a substantial loss of product value. He said that the main method of control is the use of acaricides, which are applied by dipping, injecting, pouring or spraying but, with certain tick species developing resistance, alternative methods need to be investigated, including prevention. With this in mind, a three-year project at BLC has been investigating bacterial contamination of cattle during the winter housing period and looking at ways of minimising the contamination and damage to the subsequent leather. Highlighting diet, transportation to the abattoir and bedding, the work showed that: * certain diets affected the levels of bacterial contamination while others could be beneficial in reducing contamination * although journey times to the abattoir didn't have much affect, conditions at the slaughterhouse, such as stock density, could have a negative impact, as could the time the animal was in lairage One finding of concern was that in the experiments, the quantity of straw used was effective in keeping cattle relatively clean and that 'no animal became excessively dirty'. This suggests that far less straw is being used commercially and is something that BLC intends to investigate. On the ovine side, Hadley said seasonal differences were noted with nearly twice as many over-wintered sheep considered 'dirty' compared with spring or summer sheep. He said that clipping improved cleanliness, while increasing the abattoir line speeds increased bacterial contamination on the carcase. Reduce losses Losing £7.3 million (US$12 million) a year is not an ideal way to run an industry such as ours but that is the loss suffered due to stock putrefaction causing downgrading and wastage. However, a solution may be at hand, or more accurately, a 'nose'. Work at BLC to produce a simple and rapid test to detect putrefaction has been developed using an electronic nose. Not only is Bloodhound Sensors's 'E-nose' capable of detecting off-odours and assigning an odour value, which can be used to downgrade stock before processing has gone too far, it can identify the sex of raw material and differences in crust leathers utilising differing tannages! Reducing waste is also part of a two year project for which BLC - Leathersellers Research Centre (BLCLRC) has recently received funding. 'The aim is to assess how a tannery could operate a beamhouse operation with as little waste as possible; the dream being a zero waste tannery for the beamhouse operation with the sum of the processes utilised being commercially neutral', Barry Wood said. A case of 'BATNEEC' (best available technology not entailing excessive costs) with the 'NEEC' for a change? The challenge, he suggested, was to create savings that could be used to reinvest in new technologies - a sort of iterative processing leading to zero pollution. This could be achieved in a number of ways, with many of the usual ideas re-emerging, including the potential use of fresh hides rather than salted, the application of enzymes to unhair - more of which later - the replacement of ammoniacal salts in deliming by carbon dioxide, elimination of pickle salt etc, etc. The problem, as ever, is that although individually each change has its merits, putting the whole lot together often leaves the tanner out of pocket, either through poorer quality leathers or extra costs through necessary upgrading of hardware. Wood said that this time: 'The technologies listed would be put together to build a process capable of commercial exploitation by tanners. 'Once this process has been established and demonstrates a commercially acceptable quality, BLCLRC will run a sequence of processes where the chemicals and water from the process are recycled.' I wait for fruition with interest. Elastin loss/area gain The use of enzymes in the industry has been an enigma since the days of Wood and Turney at the beginning of the last century. They seem to offer cleaner production routes but then there are always problems of maintaining control of the reaction, temperature, pH, cost, etc, or when they are used, eg during bating, there is debate as to what they do or, indeed, whether they are needed at all. However, Dr Victoria Addy spoke about an enzymatic preparation, NovoCor AX, which seems to do 'exactly as it says on the packet', to misquote an advert. The AX increases area yield - after the skin has been tanned. Dr Addy said that leather area is primarily controlled by the structural proteins in the skin and their distribution and alignment within the grain, the corium and the flesh. It is the grain layer that has the most area to gain because it is composed of finer fibres, which are arranged in a convoluted manner. The reversibility of the stretching mechanism is controlled by the presence, or otherwise, of elastin. Now, the concept of elastin degradation to increase area yield is not new - but the problem is to control the reaction so as not to degrade the collagen, causing grain damage and looseness. The NovoCor AX works by attacking the structural proteins after the hide has been tanned and it exploits the fact that the acidic proteins have already been fixed with metal tannages. Thus, the collagen is resistant to the effects of proteolytic enzymes - unless the conditions are extreme (before anyone writes in!) But, because elastin has few acidic amino acids (Table 2) it is not crosslinked by chromium, leaving it vulnerable to hydrolysis by elastin-specific enzymes. The result is a product that can degrade the elastin under reasonable conditions - it can be added during the normal neutralisation process - leading to area yield gains. Constant change One area that is under constant change is testing - leather buyers are demanding more and more tests on the leather before they will agree to use it in their products. As part of a project under the Industrial Materials Initiative, BLC is working with the supply chain to assess the current performance of leather as a material in the retail sector. The results of a survey of retailers indicate that the supply chain does seem to be satisfied with the current performance of leather. Barry Wood said that there were very few comments from retailers questioned concerning leather failures. 'In fact the opposite was reported - that leather is not the cause for concern regarding consumer complaint. The main concerns and technical issues relate not to leather but to design, construction, stitching, fasteners and buttons', he said. However, one concern highlighted by Wood was the plethora of testing demanded by the customer - and not just the usual oil, chrome and moisture content. Over the past year, BLC has received requests to test compounds such as nickel and organo-tin. Taking nickel as an example, he said that an amendment to the EU directive, 76/769/EEC, had added a restriction on nickel in metal jewellery and components 'which are inserted into.... pierced parts of the human body' or are 'intended to come into direct and prolonged contact with the skin.' There is a standard method involving artificial perspiration - itself a bone of contention with many researchers - and an extraction limit of 0.5mg/cm/week. Given that something like a sixth of the population have an allergic reaction to nickel, the test and directive are a perfectly reasonable attempt to control this problem. But as Wood said: 'Why transpose the requirement to leather? Leather is not used as jewellery; leather is not 'inserted' into the body, eg as ear-rings; leather does not use nickel in its manufacture.' Although I do remember a quirky Indian paper which used something like 3% nickel sulfide in liming and claimed the nickel, not the sulfide, was acting as the unhairing moiety, he has a point. Investigating the presence of nickel in leathers (Table 3), BLC showed that even if the leather under a nickel containing stud - which incidentally doesn't have to comply with the regulations because it is not considered an item of jewellery - is not contaminated with nickel. Therefore, what does a tanner do? Well, Wood suggested there are two broad categories of response, (Table 4). For category one, the tanner should, and does, comply with the request. For the second category, the tanner should resist the pressure to comply and put forward the argument that the issue is not relevant for leather and that the current methods are highly unreliable. JIT for conditioning Reducing conditioning time from 48 hours to something more realistic in today's Just-In-Time world, has been the aim of a project headed up by Dr Amanda Long. Some work was reported in Leather International last year5. At the seminar, she reported on the latest developments, which included evaluating 15 leathers using a variety of physical test methods after a rapid conditioning. A full range of leather types were included in the tests and the conclusion was that it may be possible to condition leather by invoking a four hour pre-drying step at 40°C, followed by a 16 hour conditioning overnight at 20°C, 65% RH. She said that further work is planned to investigate this new conditioning regime, and that BLC hopes to offer a rapid conditioning service for certain test methods for non-UKAS testing. An area that BLC always excels in is managing Europe wide projects. The latest is RESTORM - radical environmentally sustainable tannery operations by resource management. This four year targeted research programme involves 20 partners and three subcontracted partners from eight European Countries. It is worth e100 million and supports over 100 man-years of work. Dr Victoria Addy gave an overview of the project. She said that the aim was to conduct research directed at resource management. 'It will assist the tanning industry to change production methods and ensure a sustainable manufacturing industry for the future. 'The strategy in Restorm is to address the problems with short-term solutions, to generate cost savings that will support more long-term solutions and the development of new industry.' As with all industry, the legislation keeps coming thick and fast. Paul Pearson gave the latest update concerning environmental regulations. Table 5 lists some of the current interests but an area that will impact on tanners is the New European Chemicals Policy. The Commission's White Paper on a future chemical policy has caused much concern within the chemical industry6. The core elements of the proposals are: * the Reach system (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of CHemicals) * a graduated obligation to provide data (eg production quantity, exposure) * responsibility of industry throughout the supply chain * no marketing of chemicals without their registration. Pearson said that this would involve an estimated 850 products for leather * formulations cannot contain substances that are not registered for the specified intended use Pearson said that the risks to the EU industry included: * loss of competitive advantage by the EU leather industry since the regulations don't apply to imported consumer goods * specific chemicals with low production quantities will still require registration, perhaps making them unsustainable and leading to a loss in innovation in special effects, or even in products that could reduce the environmental burden, but are too expensive to register * an almost inevitable loss in the variety of chemicals and formulations available to tanners Industry generally in Europe has major concerns about the costs and practicality of the proposals and is lobbying to try and ensure that any system is practical, fair and not damaging to European industry. For more information about the areas covered in the report contact: Rawstock/E-nose: Phil Hadley Tel: +44 1604 679964; Fax: +44 1604 679998 [email protected] Testing/Wet-blue - no waste/Novocor: Barry Wood Tel: +44 1604 679973; Fax: +44 1604 679998 [email protected] RESTORM: Vikki Addy Tel: +44 1604 679953; Fax: +44 1604 679998 [email protected] Legislation: Paul Pearson Tel: +44 1604 679917; Fax: +44 1604 679998 [email protected]

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