Movements in the Parts Cleaning Industry
To accommodate new requirements, in addition to the traditional cleaning systems, we are starting to see increasing discussions and developments in equipment features:
For a long time, cleaning parts was a necessary evil and therefore an afterthought in the process chain. Fortunately, those days are gone, and companies have recognized the added value of delivering clean parts to their customers.
In the past 20 years, most of the changes in the field of industrial cleaning technology were driven by environmental issues. Therefore, we saw the transition from the traditional open top vapor degreasers to fully enclosed vacuum systems as well as from the efficient chlorinated solvents to environmentally friendly hydrocarbons and modified alcohols, through a range of different solvents. Water-based systems have always been an alternative to the use of different solvents, but water usage and waste management are also a concern.
Although requirements from environmental agencies around the world continue to play an important role in new developments in the cleaning industry, in the past couple of years many of the challenges we faced were a result of technological advances in different fields, which dictated changes necessary to the equipment and cleaning processes. Concepts such as IoT, Industry 4.0 and Big Data are pushing manufacturers to think about connectivity and how the information collected by a parts washer can be analyzed and used to increase productivity of production lines. Soon, it will be difficult to imagine a manufacturing facility without smart machines sending all different data to a cloud somewhere.
But when we talk about technology, we really must go beyond these concepts of connectivity and being able to collect data. Without diminishing the importance of advances in medical, electronic, aerospace and other applications, I would like to recognize how recent (and future) changes to the automotive industry are impacting the cleaning industry as we know it. We hear everywhere that e-mobility and electric vehicles will dominate the market in a not so distant future, thus increasing production of battery packs and other components such as rotors, stators, shafts and housings used in the manufacturing of electric motors. In addition to changes in the propulsion methods, autonomous vehicles will require cars to be equipped with many new components such as improved cameras with high precision lenses, lidar and radar systems, ultrasonic and other sensors, precise GPS systems, brake modules, and so on. All these changes are affecting not only the OEMs, but also their Tier 1, 2 and 3 suppliers.
For the cleaning equipment manufacturers, it all translates into tighter cleanliness specifications, handling of different materials, higher throughputs and different manufacturing processes. And to accommodate these new requirements, in addition to the traditional cleaning systems, we are starting to see increasing discussions and developments in equipment features: different ultrasonic frequencies and powers, blasting processes, high pressure water and steam cleaning, carbon dioxide and dry ice blasting, laser cleaning and plasma cleaning.
Visiting the last edition of Parts2Clean (Stuttgart, Germany, in October), I was impressed with the different technologies that filled two halls in the pavilion. Chemical companies are focusing on finding new solutions for different industries and their specific issues. To cope with more demanding cleaning specifications, we saw a lot of improvement in measurement and analytical equipment, which will allow end users to validate the results of their cleaning processes faster and more precisely. Cleaning equipment manufacturers displayed their latest developments to fulfill the more stringent demands from the market. Cleanliness levels that seemed to be impossible to achieve a few years back, suddenly are no longer a concern thanks to the advents of new technologies such as the combination of solvent-based wet processes and ultra-low-pressure plasma cleaning that will reach levels of surface tension in the range of 60 to 75 mN/m, almost doubling the results achieved in traditional machines. Regardless of the solutions developed by each manufacturer, we are all working toward the same goals: delivering cleaner parts in the most cost-efficient way.
It is difficult to imagine a world without cell phones, internet and powerful computers. Changes come in fast, and in the world of industrial cleaning it could not be different. We all need to be one step ahead and put on our visionary goggles to develop the cleaning processes and technologies that will solve tomorrow’s demands. These are exciting times, and we can count with new developments in short intervals of time. I can’t wait to read a similar article, 10 years from now, talking about plasma cleaning as a thing of the past.