Elephants and Cleaning Agents

Elephant in forest

A veteran salesman  tells reps to avoid four utterances. The first is “problem;” the second is “contract;” the third is “selling/signing up.”  And the forth is (drum roll, please!) … chemical (1).  Is a chemical more negative than hurricane, famine, or war?

The chemical is the elephant in the room
Chemicals are essential in manufacturing everything from turbines to precision optics to medical devices.  But we replace the word chemical with a variety of euphemisms. The problem (or should we say “the issue”) is that euphemisms can mask the purpose of the chemical.  We don’t haul away hazardous waste; we have an “environmental solution.” We don’t use chemicals to shape metal; we apply  “metalworking fluids.”

The terms for chemicals used to remove soils from the surface of a part are even more creative. A mixture of water and other chemicals is a  “biodegradable fully-formulated aqueous blend.” An organic compound (a chemical that contains carbon) or mixture of organic compounds is not called a solvent; it becomes an “environmentally responsible performance fluid.”

Euphemisms are not necessarily bad. When we discuss cleaning chemicals, we use the term (or euphemism) “cleaning agents” rather than “cleaning chemicals.” It’s descriptive and unambiguous    the chemicals are cleaning the product surface, we’re not purifying chemicals.  Besides, I don’t want to repeatedly assault anyone’s delicate sensibilities.

Remove soil effectively
The goal of the cleaning agent is to remove soil from the surface. Inadequate removal of soil can compromise product performance. Regulations and even standards can make us lose sight of that goal; keep that goal in mind. Depending on the application, inadequate cleaning can pose threats to public safety, personal safety, and patient safety. 

We are critical cleaning process experts. The key concept is that we advise about cleaning “processes,” primarily for the surfaces of products. Think of any cleaning agent that you use holistically as part of a process that includes both chemical and physical forces.  Physical force alone is not the answer. Scrubbing soil off of parts with a dry toothbrush or carving away at soils with a knife is an exercise in futility. Chemical actions alone are not the answer.  Whether you are using purified water, water with acid or base or peroxide, a biobased cleaning blend, or a chlorinated solvent, immersion of the part at room temperature may not be effective. Successful cleaning processes integrate and control chemical and physical forces.

The balance
Considering the cleaning agent as part of a cleaning process is essential because manufacturers have to achieve a balance. The balance and the challenge (or problem) is to remove soil from the product surfaces without:

Harming people
Destroying the environment
Damaging the product
Becoming unprofitable

Considering the cleaning agent (the chemical) and cleaning process (the physical forces) holistically is essential in achieving this balance. When you convene your cleaning team – and you should have a cleaning team as part of process improvement – consider all the options. This means multitasking:  look at safety/environmental control costs, equipment costs, and chemical costs to truly optimize the cleaning process.  Costs includes not only the initial cost of the chemical, but also in-use and disposal.

Next time: We’ll tell you more about achieving balance (even if you don’t want to do yoga!).

(1) Lenny Gray, “Door-to-door Millionaire: Secrets of Making the Sale,” CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.

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