Manual cleaning or automated cleaning – Which is better?

As the cleaning expert, I’m asking you. Which is better, manual or automated cleaning?

An automated process may allow the manufacturer to demonstrate consistency or precision, but the process may not be the correct one for the application. If the manufacturer does not have a defined cleaning goal, it is possible to end up with an irrational, albeit automated cleaning process that is precise but terrible. What does terrible mean? 

The cleaning process may be overkill, wasting time and resources. Excessive cleaning can damage the product. The automated cleaning process may work for some product, but not all. The automated process may be almost effective enough but there may be enough residue to result in intermittent defects. In these cases, automation will not save money and time.

Manual cleaning, technical skills
A manual cleaning process depends directly on the skill, experience and knowledge of the technicians performing the process. In some instances, instructions for cleaning loosely specify a few cleaning agents and cleaning tools; and the assemblers are instructed, sometimes in writing, to clean the part until it is “clean enough.” This results in having assemblers clean the heck out of a product or component. They may scrub away with assorted wipes and brushes, using the allowed cleaning agents over and over while staring intently at the part or component. Finally, they decree that it is “clean enough.” Sometimes, if the technicians are highly experienced, they truly do develop a sense of what clean enough means. I have experienced situations where techs spot flaws or potential defects that have been missed by sophisticated analytical testing. In other instances, manual cleaning becomes a mysterious, cult-like activity, an activity designed to provide job security for select technicians. 

So which is better?
It depends. Either manual or automated cleaning can be successful. However, the cleaning process must be defined and well-documented. The cleaning process has to be based on a sense of what is “good enough.” Good enough or cleaning enough may be based on research, method validation, and analytical testing. As we’ve often said, “clean enough” is in the eye of the beholder; how clean is clean enough depends on customer or regulatory requirements. We may use analysis to bolster claims of cleanliness, but the ultimate test of cleanliness is that the product performs reliably. 

One effective way of achieving a consistent manual cleaning method is to capture and document the techniques of the best technicians. This means capturing the knowledge of the people who have a knack for cleaning. These folks are typically not chemists or engineers. They may not know about Hansen solubility parameters or micelles; they may even have unauthorized cleaners around for emergencies. Some may see their knowledge as a valuable commodity, one that provides job security and that therefore has to be hidden. Get out to the production line; talk to them; set up a “blame-free” zone where the techs get to tell you exactly how they achieve great product cleanliness. – including “magic potions.” The magic potion purchased on-line may not be acceptable to the customer; there is probably a more acceptable option. The magic potion may not even do the best job. A house-made blend may have reactivity or worker safety issues. Your job is to be aware of the problems, so you can deal with them. 

Transparency and communication
Transparency and communication work wonders. The techs may not always be correct; they are educating you. Get the lines of communication open. You’re the cleaning expert; and that means having ongoing two-way education. 

Understanding how manual cleaning actually works yields benefits when you document the process. If you ever consider automating the manual process, understanding what the techs actually do to make the process works will help define the tasks that will be automated. In the long run, understanding the best way to make the process work assures that your company cleans critically. 

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