This column summarizes my observations when I attended and spoke at PCX 20111.
PCX 2011, which is essentially the only current trade show in the U.S. that is completely focused on parts cleaning technology, was held in Columbus, Ohio, between April 19 and 21, and was co-located with the biennial Precision Machining Technology Show (PMTS).
Metaphorically speaking, PCX was like a remora attached to a whale. PCX 2011 had about 38 exhibitors and about 93 registered attendees, whereas PMTS 2011 had several hundred exhibitors and reportedly about 3,000 attendees.
Yet the disparity in size was actually beneficial to PCX 2011. Aisles in PCX were generally fairly full of attendees—far more than the number having paid to register for PCX 2011 alone.
After all, if precision machining doesn’t produce dirty parts to be cleaned, what other unit operation would?
Ask any supplier at any exhibition about the traffic to their booth, and they will report that although the number of attendees may have been conspicuously small, their combined level of interest in making a purchase was high. 2
My estimate of the number of visitors to booths at the PCX, their level of interest, and discussions with suppliers suggests that this will be an improved year for suppliers of goods and services to the industrial cleaning industry.
- Only one major supplier reported to me that they expect the PCX 2011 to produce less potential business for them than did the PCX 2010.
- Suppliers reported to me that their business in 2011 will be mostly replacement of existing equipment rather than acquisition of new equipment in anticipation of new opportunities. Replacement of existing equipment was cited as being 50 to 80% of total business in 2011.
In summary, health of the U.S. manufacturing sector is improving.
Uptick for Solvent Cleaning
I was surprised at the distribution of exhibitors by the type of business in which they are engaged. If the overall ratio between aqueous technology and solvent cleaning technology is thought to be about 85 to 90% in favor of aqueous technology, nothing like that ratio was observed at the PCX 2011.
By my count:
- 13 suppliers offered cleaning agents for aqueous technology.
- 12 suppliers offered cleaning agents for solvent technology.
- 15 suppliers offered equipment for various cleaning technologies.
- Six suppliers offered facilities or services for recovery and reuse of solvent cleaning agents.
- Only two suppliers offered equipment for blast cleaning with dry ice.
- Two firms offered equipment for analysis of surfaces before and after cleaning. (There was a time, not long ago, when visitors wouldn’t have seen any.) 3
The above distribution of exhibitors is surprising to me in two areas:
- The increased emphasis on solvent cleaning. If one sums those firms selling solvent cleaning agents with those firms selling distillation units for recycle of used solvents, one includes roughly half of the exhibitors.
- The decreased emphasis on blast cleaning with dry ice (CO2) despite the fact that this technology has become robust and highly tunable.
The markets for these two cleaning technologies are as alike as soccer and American football. Blasting with dry ice (CO2) is commonly used in Europe because it produces no waste as spent cleaning agent. Use in the U.S. is far less common. Yet entry into the U.S. industrial cleaning market by European suppliers is highly desired by them. In PCX 2011, eight or nine exhibitors were firms were based in Europe. That’s about twice the level of participation by European firms in PCX 2010.
At PCX 2011, I asked several European suppliers whose product lines are similar to those of U.S.-based suppliers what makes them believe they can capture business from domestic suppliers, given:
(1) the current currency exchange rate, which makes goods priced in Euros more expensive; (2) their inexperience in the U.S. market; and (3) a similar lack of recognition by U.S. customers.
The answer was simple: the U.S. market is huge, and the European market is relatively saturated.
A secondary reason offered was that they believed their reputation for high-quality, fully automated engineered systems would command adequate commercial attention in a market where low price was often recognized as the determining factor in a sale. One noted this reason as “the Mercedes effect.”
Solvent as a Service
This a pertinent example of the differences in the business model, and associated cleaning technology, used between the two continents.
Methylene chloride, trichloroethylene, and perchloroethylene are commonly used in for degreasing of metals in Europe (Germany). Users of these solvents are required by Federal regulations dating from the 1990s to contain emissions from both cleaning and transfer operations so they are nearly negligible.
It isn’t that enclosed cleaning machines, closed-loop sealed connections for fluid transfer (see Figures 1 and 2 4), and continuous internal recycling facilities are unavailable in the U.S. They are available, and are used to an extent.
What’s apparently common in Europe (Germany) and quite uncommon in the U.S. is SAFECHEM’s business model, which is similar to that of Salesforce.com—solvent as service, not as a product.
SAFECHEM announced in November 2010 that it would provide to its North American customers the ability to lease5 state-of-the-art sealed solvent degreasing equipment combined with customized chemical services.
As this business model is new and applications are certain to be custom, specific prices were not mentioned at PCX 2011. But they are certain not to be near the commodity prices of the solvents.
But what would in-house safety (and compliance with most regulatory limits) be worth when cleaning with very effective and hazardous solvents?
The EPA Moves Slowly
The most anticipated speaker was Margaret Sheppard, team lead for the U.S. EPA’s Significant New Alternatives Policy Program (SNAP). It was expected that she would speak “quantitatively” or “finally” about n-propyl bromide (n-PB). She didn’t. But it’s clear she will in one to three years.
The latest developments are:
- EPA is drafting its final rule for aerosols and adhesives. It probably will find both applications unacceptable.
- EPA is considering a petition requesting that nPB be added to list of Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs)!
- The draft report on carcinogenicity from National Toxicology Program is not yet finalized. (Conclusion: “...clear evidence of carcinogenic action due to nPB in both rats and mice...”.) 6
- The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) is reviewing the nPB Threshold Limit Value (TLV). EPA is taking comments on draft document concerning a revised value.
- EPA can revisit past SNAP decisions, such as the one involving n-PB upon receipt of a petition from anyone.
About Aqueous Technology
Aqueous technology is the dominant choice for cleaning the precision machining equipment on exhibit at PMTS 2011, as well as the parts produced by that equipment.
But display of aqueous cleaning machines at PCX 2011 was sparse. Well-known firms who supply aqueous cleaning agents did have prominent booths and staff available for discussion. But surprisingly, this was not an aqueous show!
This author noted nothing touted as being newly developed.
EPA, however, is about to announce VOC exemption of a new solvent, as HFE-347pcf2 (See Figure 3). The petitioner is AGC Chemicals Americas, Inc., of Charlotte, N.C. Based on its structure, it is likely to have some use. Expected pricing will mandate use in an enclosed machine.
Actual prices of transactions involving cleaning agents or cleaning equipment are difficult to identify. But there was significant discussion about an increase in current prices of n-PB because of a shortage of Bromine produced in China. Apparently domestic suppliers have absorbed additional business and raised the retail price to around $3.50 to $4.
Cleaning with superheated dry steam using a hand-held wand drew significant interest with demonstrations. I have long believed this technology can add value in the finishing industries.
I was pleasantly surprised at the level of experience and interest of those who chose to attend my four 30-minute training sessions.
There will be a PCX in 2013 using the same co-location arrangement as for PCX 2011.
John Durkee is the author of the book Management of Industrial Cleaning Technology and Processes, published by Elsevier (ISBN 0-0804-48887). He is an independent consultant specializing in metal and critical cleaning. You can contact him at PO Box 847, Hunt, TX 78024 or 122 Ridge Road West, Hunt, TX 78024; 830-238-7610; Fax 612-677-3170; or email@example.com.
- Information about PCX 2011 can be found online
- “There were few leads, but they were of high quality.”
- The numerical values represented above are of the number of suppliers offering the product or service described. They may also offer other products and be counted in the totals for that product or service. For example, one supplier may sell cleaning agents for both aqueous and solvent cleaning, and cleaning machines.
- Images of Figures 1 and 2 are courtesy of Brenntag.
- It was not clear to this author who would hold title to the solvent for the purpose of liability.
- See http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/go34797.
- Cleaning Times: "Different Ideas: Cleaning with Steam as an Alternative to Chemistry," Metal Finishing, Volume 107, Issue #9, September 2009, pages 54-56.