Lab Tales – Prologue

I will be the first person to advocate cleaning trials in the laboratory as an important step in the development of a cleaning process. I will also be the first to admit that in over fifty years of lab testing I have made (and hopefully learned from) more than a few mistakes made in the course of lab testing. These are not mistakes like adding water to acid instead of acid to water, but rather mistakes of ignorance stemming from either a lack of information or a lack of experience. Over the next weeks I will share with you a few of those mistakes and the lessons learned from time to time under the above heading.

One thing I have never understood is why it is often the “new guy” who gets tapped to do the cleaning trials. I assume it is probably because the physical part of the work is simple and relatively boring. After all, how exciting is it to fill a cleaning tank with water, add some chemistry and wait one or two hours for it to heat up before running one or two cleaning trials and then empty the tank and start all over again? I can assure you it is deadly boring!  The “new guy” is seldom prepared for the complexities of the task so he/she simply goes through the motions. Lab reports are often “cut and paste” of results taken from previous reports. As a result, a lot of information that could be gleaned by a knowledgeable observer is lost. It’s often not all about going from dirty to clean but how the process proceeded what were the milestones along the way.

You can’t blame the “new guy.” Who would ever expect that it was important to note that there were little bubbles in the cleaning solution or that there were flakes of black stuff floating around? Who would ever guess that moving the parts around or not moving them around during cleaning would have a significant impact on the effectiveness of cleaning? Who would ever expect that a temperature increase (or decrease) of as little as 5 degrees would make or break the process? And, another killer, who would ever expect that rinsing parts in dirty water rather than clean water would protect them from rusting? Not the “new guy.”

It is not that the “new guy” is not willing to learn. I have had lab techs sincerely beg me to tell them all that I know about cleaning. The problem is that there is just so much to know and what might be important in once circumstance may not have relevance in another.

Now, in defense of the “new guy,” parts often arrive at the lab with little or no documentation or documentation that is full of assumptions or misunderstandings. Again, not necessarily because anyone (the customer or sales personnel) is holding anything back or intentionally misrepresenting the facts, but simply because getting all the details is difficult, time consuming and, frankly, deadly boring. Little details are often not considered important or are missed completely. In this case, even the most knowledgeable person is still dealing with only half a deck and will make mistakes.

Hopefully the anecdotes I intend to present here over time will serve to amuse, sometimes alarm and always enlighten those of you who are tasked with carrying on the important work of cleaning for years to come. They will also serve to expose the vulnerability of a guy who has been doing this for a long time.

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