Does Cleaning Experience Mean Inertia?

In a recent LinkedIn post, one of our colleagues, Randy Leighty, comments that “experience is a great teacher, but it can be an obstacle to innovation and continuous improvement.”  We ask: Is experience inherently an obstacle to improvement?

Let’s start with a round of applause for inertia! Critical cleaning involves removing unwanted or undesirable soils from the surface of a product and also achieving specific surface qualities or attributes. There is something to be said for sticking with the tried and true, because in cleaning, we really don’t know how clean is clean enough. The “acid test” is that the product performs acceptably. Even in well-specified cleaning protocols that are based on dozens of qualification tests, even where multiple analytical tests are used to document limits on specific types of surface residue, I would venture to say that those protocols do not disclose everything that is important about the surface.

Experience can be a source of inertia. A manufacturer may have an effective cleaning process.  The process produces a product that performs well in the short run and for the long haul – decades, perhaps. Why would anyone want to change the process?

Experienced manufacturers who are survivors and grow in the world of business proactively look at newer, alternative technologies. Experience teaches us that change is inevitable.  There are times to consider changing the cleaning process.

Changes in the cleaning process may be desirable and/or necessary. Here are some reasons:

Low yield
Multiple cleaning steps
Labor-intensive process
Increased costs in cleaning process
Excessive costs in chemical management
Changes in the product (size, shape, materials of construction)
More exacting product performance requirements
Company or customer policies about use of chemicals
Safety/environmental regulatory hurdles

If you consider changing the cleaning process, it is important to consider all of the variables involved. Do a little research; and then do a little testing. For example, you need to coordinate any change in the cleaning agent with a change in the process. In general, you cannot change the chemistry alone and you cannot depend on purchasing new cleaning equipment. Attempting to use a new cleaning chemistry in existing equipment may not be successful.

In solvent vapor degreasing, consider the boiling point of the proposed versus the existing solvent.  A relatively low-boiling solvent may be difficult to contain. A very high-boiler may not form a vapor phase in your current system.  There can be materials compatibility problems with polymeric materials in the cleaning system, not to mention compatibility problems with materials of construction of the product. 

For aqueous cleaning agents, you can’t blindly switch from the red bottle to the blue or purple one. For example, switching cleaning chemistries in an existing spray system may result in excessive foam formation – sometimes REALLY excessive foam formation. Aqueous cleaners also differ in the way they cavitate in ultrasonic cleaning systems. Some show relatively little cavitation activity. It may be necessary to adjust the amplitude or the temperature. 

We also suggest that you not feel pressured into switching cleaning agents. We hear stories about cleaning agents or solvents being banned.  Historically, very few cleaning products have been banned, not even in the challenging regulatory environment of California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District.  Instead, permitting, recordkeeping and containment may be mandated.

Some chemicals have been phased out of production. One recent production phaseout and sales ban was for HCFC 225. Formulators of blends, generally aqueous cleaners, may reformulate in response to EPA concerns. 

There may be banned cleaning agents as a result of TSCA  (Toxic Substances Control Act) reform.  For example, the U.S. EPA is proposing to ban trichloroethylene in many applications including vapor degreasing (see accompanying article in this issue). This is still a proposal; but it is something to keep an eye on. Perhaps a little contingency planning in the form of preliminary testing of other cleaning approaches would be a good idea.

Experienced engineers may not like the approach of  ‘if it ain’t broke, break it.’  At the same time, experience teaches us that it can be profitable to break the old cleaning processes, albeit on a controlled bases. I agree with Randy that we need rational process design, an objective evaluation and qualification approach. However, we also need to draw on experience and historical performance as well.  I like innovation; I like to try new approaches to cleaning. However, innovation has to have a purpose. For continuous improvement, it is important to know what we are trying to achieve improvement on and what the benefits will be.

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