Consumables` quality up, cost down
BY Sheila Galatowitsch
Ten years ago, the cleanest fabs in the world were using unlaundered, raw-edged wipers, garments with loose threads, and gloves of questionable quality. “There were no specifications, no test protocols for any of the products. There was no way for a customer to evaluate things,” says Jack McBride, president of wiper manufacturer Contec Inc. (Spartanburg, SC).
Today, however, cleanroom users demand an extremely high level of quality for a product that is really a commodity. The cleanliness level of consumables is orders of magnitude greater than it was 10 years ago, while the cost of most products has remained flat. Higher quality and lower costs are due to technology innovations, manufacturing efficiencies, competition, and user demand.
“There is a demand for a low cost, high-quality product with a low risk of failure,” says Ed Gallaher, president and CEO of glove manufacturer Phoenix Medical Technology (Andrews, SC). “Users are asking a lot for something that is made by the millions and millions and is commodity-priced.”
The differences between cleanroom gloves a decade ago and today are length, durability and cleanliness, says Gallaher, a 22-year industry veteran. “Our top-line gloves are packaged in a Class 10 cleanroom. We didn`t even think of having a Class 10 cleanroom 10 years ago,” he says. “That`s an innovation that has taken place just in the last two years, and it`s all driven by the requirement to have a product that is compatible with the environment in which it is used.”
Garment materials, construction, design and quality have also significantly improved in the past 10 years. Early garments had loose threads, unbound seams and raw-cut sleeves. Nonwoven Tyvek was the primary material available for both disposable and reusable coveralls, according to industry consultant Chuck Berndt of C.W. Berndt Associates Ltd. (Highland Park, IL).
Today, high-density polyester woven fabrics are replacing reusable Tyvek as the material of choice for cleanroom garments, Berndt says. Advances in woven technology make the high-density polyesters more comfortable to wear and cheaper to use over the long-term.
Leading innovations in wipers include the introduction of knits, sealed-edge and presaturated products. Edward Paley introduced the first cotton twill wiper for cleanroom use in 1963. “The big breakthrough came in the early 1980s with the development of continuous filament knit wipers,” says his son, Steven Paley, president of The Texwipe Co. (Upper Saddle River, NJ).
The knit wiper`s one drawback was that its raw, square-cut edges shed fibers and particles. “The next major development was the sealed-edge wiper,” Paley says. Technology changes since then include improvements in laundering techniques, contamination measurements, and absorbency.
Presaturated wipers were introduced in the early 1990s. “Users were looking for better control of their solvent and more efficient wiping operations,” says Contec`s McBride. “People didn`t want to bring squeeze bottles into the cleanroom with their dry wipers.”
Ten years ago, cleanroom swabs were “identical to those you would find in a cosmetic kit,” says Rob Linke, Texwipe`s marketing director. “Today they are engineered specifically for cleanroom applications, and the materials that are used are fine-tuned to the requirements of cleanroom manufacturing.”
Disposable mats today are sold for half the price of a decade ago, says John Goodwin, director of sales and marketing at Connecticut Clean Room Corp. (Bristol, CT). Advancements in films and adhesives are part of the reason for the cost cuts. “Over the past 10 to 20 years, film has become thinner and less expensive. And as we go to lower-mil, higher-density films, we use half as much film as we used previously. That cuts down on shipping and storage costs,” Goodwin says. Competition has also played a role in holding prices down, he adds.
Choices in cleaning supplies have also exploded in the past decade. There is a myriad of new cleaning supplies and solutions specifically developed for cleanroom use.
New innovations will likely succeed today`s advancements. For garments, the next 10 years promise improved materials, construction and comfort; less inherent contamination; and more consistent quality than what is available today, Berndt predicts.
Phoenix`s Gallaher foresees that nitrile will replace latex as the glove material of choice in the next few years. There will also be a trend toward application-specific products over general use products, says Texwipe`s Paley.
Some people believe that the demand for consumables will diminish as mini environments, isolators and robotics lessen the need for personnel in the cleanroom. The industry will still purchase some products, “but we will be seeing less and less of these consumables,” says Jeff Smith, president of distributor Ultrapure Technology (Suwanee, GA).
Dollars spent on consumables are going to decline, agrees Goodwin. “People are looking at recycling, reusing and reclaiming a lot of materials.” For the products they continue to use, there will be a much greater need for information on cleanliness. “Each year puts additional requirements on the ability to accurately depict contamination burden,” says Paley.