What’s in your cleaning bath?

It’s a continual source of amazement, or at least amusement. A manufacturer expends considerable time, engineering effort, and expense in designing a product. The marketing folks tout the product’s advanced superiority in trade publications, conferences, and web sites. Then, the assemblers have to actually build the product. Yield problems arise. We are asked to troubleshoot the problem. We ask: how are you cleaning the product? What cleaning chemistries and systems do you use to remove the metalworking fluids, polishing compounds, whatever? Given the sophistication of many of the products, the answers are surprising.

Typical responses run along the following lines:

“I have no idea what’s in the cleaning tank.”

“Our cleaning agent supplier takes care of all of that. They changeout the tank regularly; we use whatever they say is best.”

“I used to know; the SDS is around here someplace.”

“Oh, I don’t worry about that; I’m management.”

“The reps who sell us the cleaning agents make sure what we use conforms to all the safety and environmental regs.”

“We buy what’s on sale at the Big Box Store.”

“Engineering tested cleaning agents picked one, but then Purchasing found something that costs one-third the price, so we switched.”

“The assemblers found some sort of product on-line. They say they like it.”

These are at best shortsighted attitudes. The incorrect cleaning process can result in high failure rates, lost profits, loss of competitive advantage, injuries to workers (or, unfortunately, worse), and environmental regulatory woes. If you want to build it right, coat it right, plate it right, or rebuild it right, you have to clean it right. To get good cleaning, you have to understand the process.

In our presentations we suggest that attendees ask the cleaning agent supplier something along the lines of the following pointed question:

I know you have told me that your cleaning product is safe, that it has no harmful ingredients, that it is environmental, biodegradable, that no regulators will come after me, that it remove all kinds of soils, from all sorts of products, but what exactly is in this cleaning agent?

First, ask for a new SDS (Safety Data Sheet) and a Technical Data Sheet.

If all you ascertain is that the product is a proprietary blend with no hazardous ingredients, more benign than chicken soup, and able to remove even the heaviest soils within nanoseconds, dig a bit further. It’s time to play the old game of animal, vegetable, or mineral. Ask:

Is it aqueous (or water-based)?

Is it a solvent?

Is it a blend of solvents?

Is it bio-based?

Is it a semi-aqueous (water rinseable) product?

What’s the flashpoint?

Will it meet my current environmental regulations?

Have you changed the cleaning agent you supply me? Has there been a formulation change from when I first chose it? Are you supplying me with a different product from the one we first decided on?

What’s the percent VOC’s in the concentrate? How do you calculate it?

Are there any HAP’s?

Our facility is located in ______ (your company location). Will your cleaning agent meet the environmental regulations?

Mom and Dad were right. Knowledge is power. You can trust, but you have to verify. You don’t have to become a formulator; but asking a few pointed questions about the cleaning agent yields benefits in terms of high quality, profitable manufacturing – a better product with a lower failure rate.

This article adapted from one that first appeared in the April 2006 issue of Clean Source (Volume III, Issue 2.)

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