Part 2: Real Costs of Changing the Cleaning Process – Shortcuts and Consequences

Product manufacturers are likely to change the product cleaning process in the next two to five years. Regulatory happenings, notably from the U.S. EPA Amended TSCA and PFAS concerns may mean that well-established cleaning agents are not available. As a result, manufacturers may be drawn into a frenzied effort to push through process change – fast. Technical and economic reasons for improving the cleaning process include exacting customer requirements, the need for higher throughput, and new product lines. Moving to a new process cleaning process is expensive. In Part 1, we introduced the real, non-capital costs of changing a cleaning process, emphasizing the high costs of researching and developing the new process. Our analysis was exceedingly optimistic and are predicated on the presumption that the process of process change goes smoothly and without mistakes. Assume that your actual costs will be higher. Savvy manufacturers consider the impact of capital and non-capital costs. Read on for instructive examples of how the effort to change the cleaning process goes off the rails. 

Health, safety, and environmental roadblocks
Some engineers avoid talking to the safety/environmental people at all costs. They are seen as the “no-no” squad. Our advice: get the EHS folks involved right away. In one extreme example, we were conducting a site visit to teach cleaning and to minimize residue on the product. Because of the mix of organic and inorganic residue, we suggested a solvent system, one that met environmental safety requirements, one where the solvent had a favorable toxicity profile. The suggestion was met with groans, and expressions of discomfort – even despair. In a far corner of the facility, we were shown an uninstalled cleaning machine along with several drums of solvent. The safety/environmental group had vetoed the system. We repeatedly asked to talk with the safety folks and – idealists that we are! – suggested that they would likely respond to a rational discussion. The process development team would not hear of it. We were informed that the engineers, assemblers, and facilities group never talked to the safety/environmental department. The upshot was that the new cleaning system was not implemented. Costly, awkward, less reliable work-arounds were developed. Clearly there were problems beyond the technical considerations. If the safety/environmental group had been engaged early on in process development, many problems could have been unearthed and the differences hashed out prior to capital investment. If a team of 10 engineers, including E&H folks, spent 16 hours to justify the new machine, the total labor cost would have been approximately $20,000. A new mid-sized cleaning machine generally costs at least $250,000. The effort invested in getting buy-in from EHS would be less than 8% of the cost of a cleaning system. And the company could have ended up with a cleaning system that could be used rather than one that languished in a corner of the facility.

Mechanical Engineers versus Chemical Engineers
It’s an old story that MEs don’t talk with CEs. Stove piping costs money and results in processes that don’t work. In one example, the group evaluating cleaning agents and the people picking the cleaning equipment did not feel the need to communicate with each other. The cleaning equipment people designed a cleaning system with low frequency ultrasonics because low frequency is big, strong, powerful. The chemical people chose a cleaning agent that was very effective in removing the soil without damaging the parts being cleaned. Unfortunately, the complete system was never tested, the delicate, complex parts were damaged. In this instance, the ultrasonic transducers could not be swapped out for ones with a more appropriate frequency. 

In another case, an ME specified extra transducers to a new ultrasonic system on the grounds that more powerful cleaning could be achieved. This was done without consulting the team and without testing to see if such a custom system were required. As far as we could tell, it was not! While the product was not damaged, the money for capital equipment could have been better spent. 

“Let’s try this, it could work”
Particularly with the scramble to replace chlorinated and brominated solvents, people panic. An individual tasked with process change or even an entire team may be told to come up with something that works. They are told to do it fast and do it now. As a result, we see manufacturers decide on a new cleaning agent or cleaning system because it’s supposed to be a good idea, “everyone is doing it.” The assertion may come from a sales rep, an operations manager, or even a company president. This “let’s try it, it might work” philosophy could save time in meetings and process development. The problem is that it does not seem to be working. Drop-in substitutes are a myth. What we see actually happening is more along the following lines. A manufacturer changes the cleaning agent that is used an existing cleaning system. Or, they may invest in a new cleaning agent and a new cleaning system because it’s supposed to work. They don’t test before buying. The new process sort of works, kind of works. Maybe it takes twice as long as the original process to obtain sort of achieve acceptable cleaning. Instead of admitting defeat and mothballing the new cleaning system, they add more cleaning, more steps. Perhaps the company invests in additional cleaning systems – more capital investment, more time invested in cleaning. Or, the production department adds hand-cleaning to take care of the defects. We regularly see manufacturers add an aqueous cleaning step to a semi-effective solvent cleaning step – or vice versa. 

The result is that one established, an effective cleaning process ends up being replaced by three or more somewhat effective processes. This approach is not sustainable. It is not good for manufacturers; it is not good for workers, and it is not good for the environment, and it’s not good for profits. 

Can you cut corners?
Manufacturers try. In most instances, we observe that lack of holistic planning results in even higher capital costs, delays in implementing the new process, and the growth of multiple, semi-effective, and redundant cleaning processes. Avoiding key players, like the safety/environmental group, is a truly unwise and costly idea. Picking a cleaning agent based only on vendor assertions and advertising claims typically adds to costs. Selecting cleaning equipment based on perusing a catalogue and estimating tank size drives costs even higher. Panic is counterproductive – making decisions in haste may be expedient, but can result in failure. Even worse, a cleaning process that is a partial success can result in inefficient and ultimately less profitable manufacturing. Stay tuned for future articles with information about achieving rational, successful critical cleaning.

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