The Next 25 Years of Critical Cleaning, Part 2

Twenty-five years for BFK Solutions LLC. Neither “The Cleaning Lady” nor “The Rocket Scientist” have run away from home. We continue to fantasize about that remote beach with the refreshing beverage adorned with tiny umbrellas. That won’t help you. What will help you is to discuss trends, problems, and opportunities we think you as a manufacturer are likely to encounter over the next quarter of a century. One thing we can be sure of is that a “one-size fits all approach” is not optimal, now and in the future.

In Part 1 we discussed
• Cleaning – and manufacturing – move out of the hands of the manufacturer

• Abundant options: design, manufacturing methods, materials
• Decline of the skilled workforce

In this article, we cover:
• Critical Cleaning Specialists
• Isolation and secrecy
• The good old days
• Cleaning techniques – back to the future
• Can we stop cleaning?

Critical Cleaning Specialists – Right Away!
To progress, manufacturers require an understanding of surface chemistry and surface properties. Manufacturers need workers at all levels who are skilled and educated. Expertise in critical cleaning is largely based on “on the job” experience. People ask how they can become a cleaning lady; they ask about formal education in the field. The cleanliness of product surfaces has largely not been a topic of formal education. At most institutions of higher learning, you would have to look long and hard to find courses encompassing critical cleaning, precision cleaning, surface preparation, contamination control, and residue removal. That is changing, albeit slowly; in part, in response to industry demands.

What if you’re not a cleaning lady? You still need to produce reliable product. Industry needs to understand critical cleaning issues; and we need that understanding immediately! We are pleased to collaborate with Professor Darren Williams, Cleaning Research Group Leader and Professor of Physical Chemistry at Sam Houston State University (SHSU) to present the Product Quality Cleaning Workshops (PQCW). The two-day interactive workshop is a must for those who want to stay at the top of their game in achieving quality product. The next PQCW is scheduled for May, 2020.

Isolation and secrecy
We live in a world of instant communication; but too often we don’t communicate. We have quick access to information; but the quality and utility of that information is too often problematic. Secrecy is growing. Companies that manufacture components and assemblies crave information about effective approaches to cleaning and contamination control, but they may be secretive about their own findings. Of course there are competition-sensitive issues. However, based on our own experience, successful companies share and collaborate. As products become more complex, as materials of construction grow more diverse, the world of manufacturing will need more collaboration, not less.

Coordination (not to mention collaboration) in product production will continue to be a challenge. Supply chains will continue to increase in complexity. There are at least two factors. One is the growth of specialized techniques in cleaning, surface preparation, as well as coating and assembly. A second is the need for small to medium sized companies to produce specialized product rapidly; it’s not always practical to do everything in-house. Among supply chain members or within a given company, designers, engineers, operations, and assemblers can’t afford to work in isolation, although the tendency to do so is likely to grow.

There’s a related issue: we see an increased, undesirable trend toward secrecy on the part of some providers of cleaning agents, cleaning equipment, and process monitoring equipment. Process monitoring equipment that’s a “black box” or that is sold to be used only with one product is very limited. Similarly, a cleaning agent where the ingredients are described only as “proprietary blend” appeals only to gullible manufacturers. You cannot have reliable controlled cleaning process if you don’t know what you are using.

The good old days
We take change and communication for granted. Back in 1994, when Barbara, first started BFK Solutions, we used land-line phones and faxes. The internet and email were young. We certainly didn’t have smart phones that instantly connect us. The rate of change has only been increasing.

In 1994, many manufacturers, particularly aerospace and military, were suffering the pangs of withdrawal from ODCs, ozone depleting chemicals like CFCs and trichlorethane. Some moved to aqueous. Others continued to use open-top degreasers but switched back to classic chlorinated solvents like perchloroethylene or methylene chloride Others, moved over to cleaning chemicals that were meant to be at best interim substitutes for “the real thing” (ozone depleting chemicals) – HCFC 141b or 225. In electronics, assemblers joyously switched from RMA fluxes that would be cleaned with solvents to organic acid fluxes that are cleaned water-based chemicals. Or, they moved to “no clean fluxes” – which didn’t need cleaning at all. For medical applications, the emphasis was on sterilization. There was little acknowledgment of the need to actually remove the dirt from the part being manufactured.

Cleaning Techniques – Back to the Future
In critical cleaning, manufacturers are revisiting older technologies; and developers continue to refine those technologies. Why? One reason is that effective cleaning agents and processes may come under intense safety/regulatory scrutiny. Another related reason is that changes in product design may mean that current cleaning processes do not work well. For example, there has been a resurgence in co-solvent cleaning for electronics assemblies, metals, and components/products with a mixture of materials. The technique goes back to the 1980s (maybe earlier). Co-solvent cleaning has a number of configurations. In one iteration, the product is cleaned in a relatively high boiling, high solvency cleaning agent which is then displaced using a more inert, higher wetting low boiling rinsing and drying agent.

Can we stop cleaning?
In some instances, we won’t have to clean anymore. Yes, that dream of walking along a beach while sipping a festive refreshing beverage could become a reality. The first edition of our “Handbook for Critical Cleaning (Kanegsberg and Kanegsberg, ed., 2001) discussed challenges of cleaning motion picture film. Movie film was typically cleaned with ozone-depleting chemicals or perchloroethylene in reel-to-reel or web machines. The transition from film to digital media eliminated most of the need for cleaning. Other industries may see cleaning requirements that diminish or disappear. Hydrophobic and other engineered coatings may prevent soils from accumulating during use. However, during manufacturing, the underlying surfaces to be coated may still need scrupulous cleaning and surface preparation.

Will we need to clean electronics assemblies? In the 1990s, “no clean” fluxes eliminated cleaning for many electronics assemblers. We now realize that “no clean” is a euphemism that is not applicable for many current assemblies. 3D printing could revolutionize the electronics world and could eliminate the need to clean. Embedded structure could replace layered circuit boards and pack more functions into a smaller and smaller surface area. Just as 3D printing enables customized “one-off” designs for medical devices, customized electronics with 3D printing may be adapted to wearables and flexible circuits that can be easily modified for individual users. We can imagine the additive assembly of complete electronic circuits; this would eliminate soldering, eliminate solder fluxes, and eliminate cleaning.

What about meta-materials? Meta-materials is a general term for materials that are not found in nature. They may have previously unobtainable properties. One application makes the fictional ‘invisibility cloak’ a reality. No one knows what the cleaning requirements or techniques for these new alloys and materials will be.

Could coatings or adhesives be redesigned to eliminate cleaning? We are periodically asked if such materials could be designed like “barnacles.” In other words, such materials would have molecular hooks that would go right through oil and grease and burrow into the underlying surface. If it adheres to the basic laws of physics, maybe it can be produced. Maybe it can even be produced economically. Who know?

Productivity, prosperity in a changing world
What are the likely changes over the next quarter of a century? Or maybe 10 years. Or 5 years. Ok, how will you meet today’s production schedule? The future has a way of creeping up on us. Nimble, profitable companies consider both the present and the future. Great manufacturers are also informed by experience; that is, by an understanding and appreciation of the past. Let’s think forward; and move forward.

[Part 1 of this article is at ]

Back To Newsletter Archive