The wiping revolution

29th of July 2016
The wiping revolution
The wiping revolution

Industry is becoming less ‘dirty’ and issues such as health and safety are coming to the fore. Meanwhile increasing levels of automation mean that electronic equipment is replacing mechanical components. What impact has this had on the wipes and cloths that are used to clean the equipment, surfaces and hands of operatives?

The world has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. Technological advancements have been huge and today’s machines rely far less heavily on mechanics than they used to.
As a result, industrial practices have also altered. Factories and workshops used to be dirty places where oil, grease, paint and other industrial fluids were routinely used and sometimes spilled.

Wipes and cloths were therefore needed to mop up these spills as well as to wipe the hands of operatives and clean machine parts. But no-one was willing to invest too heavily in products for carrying out these tasks. So what were their options?

“Thirty years ago most people used cotton rags – sometimes even old underwear – for cleaning,” said Vileda business development director Joerg Dunkel. “Cotton has a high degree of absorbency but its cleaning performance was found to be less effective because rags were unable to remove greasy stains such as fingermarks from surfaces.”

But the story of cleaning wipes begins long before this, says Dunkel. In fact he claims it was Vileda’s parent company the Freudenberg Group that actually started the market for cleaning wipes more than 60 years ago.

“The Freudenberg Group had a tannery and after World War II the company wanted to develop a form of artificial leather from which to make shoes,” he said. “It produced a non-woven material with a latex coating and called it: ‘Wie Leder’ which means: ‘like leather’ in German.

Not durable enough

“However, the product was found to be insufficiently durable for use in shoes - but it was fantastic for streak-free cleaning. This is where the name ‘Vileda’ comes from.”

He says the next generation of non-woven products was made from a mixture of polyester and cotton. “Polyester added some level of mechanical cleaning action while the cotton was responsible for absorbency,” he said. “Cotton was later replaced by viscose or rayon fibres – and then in the early 1990s came the first splittable microfibre products.”

Vileda was one of the first companies to produce microfibres, says Dunkel. “This was a big new trend because the improved mechanical cleaning action of microfibre meant that less time and less detergent were required to fulfil the same tasks,” he said.

“Today the focus in industry is on higher productivity which means operatives have to work faster. Microfibre can clean shiny surfaces without the need for wringing and there is no need to dry the surface afterwards.”

He adds while low-cost disposable products are readily available today, cleaning efficiency in some sectors is considered to be more important than cost. “For example microfibres are particularly effective at removing grease from surfaces before applying a coating, and in removing dust from the bodywork of cars before painting,” said Dunkel.

He says cleanroom cleaning is another area where a more expensive, higher-performing product tends to be preferred to a lower cost, general-purpose alternative. “Cellulose-based non-wovens are highly absorbent - but they shed particles,” he said. “We offer semi-disposable products that are specially treated and pre-laundered to cleanroom conditions so that any contaminants are removed.  These cloths are then dried with filtered air and laser-cut to seal them.”

Among Vileda’s latest wiping products is MicronQuick which Dunkel believes to be the finest split microfibre product on the market. “Each microfibre has been split into 32 segments instead of the usual 16,” he said. “These extra fine fibres enable the cloths to clean more deeply while
also improving mechanical resistance by 40 per cent.”

He feels nanofibres could well be next big thing in terms of industrial wiping. “However these are very expensive and the technology used to make them is not very environmentally-friendly at present,” he adds.

Decitex managing director Nils Riancho says that 20-30 years ago, most wipers in industry tended to be either cotton textiles or non-woven products made from polypropylene or a polyester-viscose mix.

“Their main function was to absorb water because the cleaning efficiency of these products was expected to come from the chemicals that were used in conjunction with them,” said Riancho. “At that time no-one in the industry expected a cloth to be able to perform with the aid of water alone.

Efficiency in use

“Today’s textile and paper product manufacturers are seeking to make their products more efficient when in use - and not only for functions such as absorbing water or acting as a vehicle for a chemical solution.”

According to Riancho, ergonomics and training have been two of the main drivers in industry over the past 30 years. “Today’s products need to be designed to make people happy to use them and proud of their jobs,” he said. “The industry is still low cost-driven, but price becomes less critical when you can show time-savings, real results and ease of use.

“People are also starting to realise that it is more cost-effective to maintain surfaces regularly instead of carrying out the occasional deep-clean. So they are looking for efficient products that can be used with only a limited amount of chemicals - and they expect their staff to be well trained.”

Decitex offers a range of disposable and semi-disposable microfibre products for surface cleaning. According to Riancho, cotton cloths are a thing of the past and smart textiles are the future. And he believes this will be partly due to more sweeping changes taking place in the world today.

“The industry has been highly dependent on chemical and water consumption in the past - and actually, it still is,” he said. “A global change has to take place because water is becoming a luxury resource while chemical products are giving rise to multi-resistant bacteria and allergies.

“When using smart textiles, water and chemicals are only employed when they are absolutely needed.  Many surfaces can now be cleaned using only a well-designed microfibre cloth and a limited amount of water.”

SCA manufactures paper wipes and non-woven disposables – a sector that has seen a less dramatic shift over the years according to wiping and cleaning assortment manager Anders Hellqvist. “The industry is evolving, but it isn’t evolving very fast,” he confirmed. “It is true that around 30 years ago most industrial companies traditionally used rags and rental cloths. But many of them are still doing so because this is what they have always used.

“However there are large numbers of end-users who don’t really know what products are out there for them. And when we demonstrate our disposables they are quite eager to try them.”

Industry changes

He feels any changes that have occurred in the wipers market tend to reflect changes in industry itself. “Twenty years ago the market was dominated by textiles, but due to the growth of technology industry is much cleaner than it used to be and there is now less dirt to remove,” he said. “In the print industry, for example, printing machines used to have to be cleaned by hand with the aid of rags or rental cloths whereas today’s machines are more or less self-cleaning.

“There are also more cleanrooms today and more screens to be cleaned.  This has led to a greater demand for low-linting products while the market for microfibre products is also growing because these provide a good finish on screens.”

However he adds that there is still a significant number of ‘dirty’ industries in which traditional products are required. “This is the case in mechanical workshops and the metalworking sector, for example,” said Hellqvist. “And also, while there is a much greater reliance on electronics in the automotive industry there is still a need for oil and grease – and this needs to be cleaned away.”

Wiping and cleaning products are evolving to fit today’s needs, according to Hellqvist. “Tork Low Lint Cleaning Cloths are an example of a product that has been designed to cater for a changing market,” he said. “These come in a plastic bucket in which you pour your own cleaning agent. The wipes can then be used on surfaces without leaving behind lint.

These wipes have proved popular in areas such as automotive bodyshops for pre-painting applications, and in the mechanical workshop for cleaning the optical sensors on lathes.”

He says there has been an increasing focus on Five S methodology which determines that there should be a place for everything in the production environment. He believes this focus will become more significant in years to come.

“However this is just part of the future,” said Hellqvist. “I don’t think rags or textiles will disappear completely: after all we will always have the need for clothes, and it makes sense to turn them into rags when we have finished with them.”

Rags evolving

Meanwhile the rag market has also been evolving.  “Over the past five to 10 years, an increasing numbers of firms have been offering rags that are cut to a uniform size,” he said. “These are then delivered in boxes in a similar format to the way in which disposables are packed. But these pre-cut rags come at a cost - and even if they are all the same size and shape, they will not necessarily all be of the same thickness or degree of absorbency.”

And he believes the market for non-wovens will grow over the next 20-30 years. “We will also see a growing use of more specialist products,” he said. “Non-wovens can solve everything as a category, but there is no one non-woven that can cover all your cleaning needs. So there will be an increasing market for more specialist products that may be particularly low-linting, anti-static, very strong or highly effective at absorbing oil, for example.”


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