Wipes - staying ahead of the rag trade

17th of July 2018
Wipes - staying ahead of the rag trade

Rags are the go-to wiping solution in industry for tasks such as wiping greasy hands, cleaning dirty components and mopping up spills from the floor. So how do wipes and cloths manufacturers persuade industrial customers to ditch their rags in favour of their own products?

The traditional ragbag filled with mixed old clothing is still a common sight in industrial environments. Textile rags have long been the first port of call when an operative wants to clean components, hands or surfaces or mop up a spill from the floor.

Manufacturers of wipes and cloths are always quick to point out the many disadvantages of rags. They are not designed for wiping which means that some may not be fit for purpose, for example. They come in different sizes and some might be too small for practical wiping purposes. And since they are basically pieces of old clothing, some rags incorporate zips and other fasteners which could cause damage to the wiping surface.

Switching to a purpose-designed product therefore seems to be a no-brainer. But persuading industrial customers to lose their rag is not as easy as one might think, says European assortment director of Essity Lotta Sköld.

“Old habits are hard to break,” she says. “Customers like rags because they are seen as inexpensive, disposable and ‘good enough’ for the job. And the fact that they consist of recycled clothing makes people feel that they are acting in a sustainable manner by using rags.”

She claims that many rags users are unaware of the impact that a wiping product can have on their production and service quality. “When a customer makes a complaint it is not always evident when that complaint has arisen from poor cleaning systems,” she said.

“Also, it is not easy for rag users to fully evaluate the real cost of a rag which includes storage, waste handling, over-consumption of chemicals plus time spent seeking the right product. So
they tend to assume that rags are cheap and as a result, continue to use this outdated solution.”

Time, money and efficiency are the main arguments against using rags according to Sköld. “There are also performance and even sustainability arguments for using wipers in place of rags,” she said. “Studies have shown that customers can save 32-35 per cent of their cleaning time when using purpose-made products compared to rags - and time is money.

Less solvent used

“Solvent consumption decreases by 40 per cent when using non-woven cloths instead of cotton rags, too, and costs associated with warehousing, transport and waste management are also reduced. And tests indicate that cleaning a surface with purpose-made cloths requires 20-30 per cent less effort while also producing better results.”

Essity’s Tork Exelclean products use foam-spun technology to ease the task of industrial cleaning, according to Sköld. They are said to be able to complete wiping and cleaning tasks more quickly while using less solvent and requiring less effort on the part of the operator when compared to rags.

But while cloths and wipes are becoming more sophisticated, rags themselves are evolving, she concedes. “While the old-fashioned ragbag is still present in markets such as heavy manufacturing and on shop floors, you can now buy rags in different colours and qualities or cut to specific sizes and supplied in easy-to-carry boxes,” she says.

Kimberly-Clark Professional’s manufacturing marketing manager Simon Justice says such changes in the rag market are fairly minor. “Rags are still essentially various pieces of textiles cut up and packed into boxes or bales,” he said.

However, he agrees with Sköld that old habits are the main driver behind the continued use of rags by many industrial customers. “Rag users have generally worked in the industry for years and may not be aware that there are alternatives on offer,” he said. “Companies don’t always realise that cloths or wipes provide an opportunity to improve efficiency and quality within their production environment.”

He claims that purpose-designed wipers deliver superior oil and grease removal; are more absorbent than rags and occupy up to 68 per cent less storage space. “They also reduce the waste disposal burden by up to 78 per cent and provide a clean and consistent cloth every time,” he said.

However, rags remain popular across all sectors, according to Justice. “This is particularly the case in the more traditional, ‘dirty’ industries such as heavy manufacturing,” he said. “But sectors such as aerospace and other process-critical environments where it is essential to protect the wiping surface are moving away from rags.”

Not a viable alternative

Kimberly-Clark offers a range of engineered cloths under the WypAll brand. The WypAll X80 Cloth is designed for heavy-duty rough surface wiping while WypAll* X60 cloths are said to suit a variety of light-duty tasks.

Rags are no longer a viable alternative to purpose-designed cloths and wipers according to Greenspeed’s product and logistics manager Bert Lagarde. “The only places you will still see these used is in environments such as print shops and car repair shops,” he said. “And even here an increasing number of customers are switching to disposables since they offer a higher performance and better quality.”

Microfibre cloths are becoming increasingly common across all sectors, he says. “These offer a higher performance and provide a more satisfying alternative to old-fashioned ways of cleaning,” he said.

According to Lagarde it is a misconception that many customers are still using rags because of their short-term cost advantages. “The cleaning market is concerned about long-term savings and environmental impact and is increasingly looking towards a total concept,” he said. “Companies are now choosing suppliers that they can rely on to advise them on all products and materials.”

Greenspeed manufactures non-woven and disposable cloths for use in environments such
as offices, kitchens, schools, factories and hospitals.

Vileda’s business development director Joerg Dunkel claims to have perceived a decline in the use of rags over recent years. ”Nowadays cotton rags are becoming a little old-fashioned,” he said. “They used to be sold by the kilogram and were charged by weight. They would also come in a range of sizes.

“Today’s rag suppliers are working to improve this and you can now specify the size and thickness you want. But they still offer a lower performance than purpose-designed products and may leave fibres behind on the wiping surface.”

Demand for microfibre products has been growing steadily in industry, according to Dunkel. “Microfibre products can do anything a cotton rag can do in terms of mechanical cleaning but they provide a much better performance,” he said.

He adds that an increasing focus on performance and cost in use is driving industry today. “Tests we have carried out reveal that microfibre products remove the need for a second wiping step, and this saves time and improves cleaning efficiency,” he said.

Vileda’s latest product – Micron Solo – incorporates microfibres that have been split into 32 segments for higher absorbency and more effective cleaning results. Micron Solo is said to pick up and retain 40 per cent more water than standard microfibre wipes and is aimed at hygiene-critical healthcare facilities plus areas that have a high level of shiny surfaces such as chrome.

Rag use will reduce

According to Dunkel, the move away from rags over the past 10 or 20 years has been a major trend in the market. However, he adds that some companies are reluctant to discard them altogether.
“This could be because they are focusing on the price per kilogram rather than on cost on use,” he said. “In manufacturing and in other dirty environments where lint is not an issue, rags are still being used for absorbing spills and mopping up oil and grease.”

However, he believes the changing face of industry will reduce the use of rags in future. “They will still be found in areas where cost per product is the focus, but they will become less appropriate in specialist industries such as healthcare, body shops and in micro-electronics,” he said. “There will also be a growing demand for products that are heat-resistant, chemical-resistant and that can be used for disinfection purposes.

“I feel that in 10 years time the rags market will decline and there will be more focus on the use of microfibre, tissue, paper and non-woven wipes.”

Greenspeed’s Bert Lagarde’s agrees that rags will become less relevant in future as people become more concerned about the desired cleaning result. “It is a question of educating customers about the advantages of using cloths and wipers,” he said. “It will take some time and probably more innovation on the part of the manufacturers before they replace rags completely. Maybe rags will never be completely replaced but there will certainly be a large decline in their usage.”

Kimberly-Clark’s Simon Justice holds a similar view. “Manufacturers are introducing more technology into their processes which means it is becoming essential to use an engineered cloth for cleaning critical parts,” he said. “Rags may contain contaminants from their previous use and introducing those contaminants into a critical manufacturing process can be costly.

“There will always be a demand for traditional rags in parts of the manufacturing sector. But the demand for rags will continue to decline as companies become aware that there are better alternatives that will help them to improve their process efficiency.”

And Essity’s Lotta Sköld concurs. “From a global perspective there will always be a place for cheaper, lower quality products – and this means a certain market for rags will remain,” she said. ”But manufacturers and suppliers need to develop their offer to meet the needs of a more technology-focused industry and the development of robotics and Industry 4.0.”


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