The Cost of Clean
By Doug Kaufman
When we asked the simple question "What are your cleaning costs?" we uncovered a complex answer. For many Engine Builder readers, getting and keeping parts clean is a difficult, expensive proposition – but a necessary part of successfully managing a machine shop operation.
Anyone who deals with engine components also must determine the proper way to clean parts. But the question that begs to be answered is "how clean is clean?" What one shop considers to be clean and ready for the customer might be just a starting point for another shop, like Protech Engines of Mokena, IL. Bob Sweeney says his definition of clean – and therefore his pursuit of it – may be different than many shops.
"If the parts aren’t clean, you and your employees will be getting dirty handling the stuff," says Sweeney. "Shop equipment will take the toll if clean product isn’t put into it; even the floor of the shop will suffer. It all stays cleaner when you’re dealing with a truly clean product.
To reach his cleaning ideal, Sweeney uses a combination of agitated hot tank, jet washer, ultrasonic, thermal, and solvent washing cleaning equipment. As much of it as possible is automated, but Sweeney says there’s still some labor costs involved, and for most shops, that’s the biggest hidden cost of cleaning.
"If I have $80,000 invested in cleaning equipment, I probably have a minimum of man hours invested in cleaning. A guy who has $20,000 in cleaning equipment probably has huge labor costs."
According to Part One of our 2002 Machine Shop Market Profile (June Engine Builder, page 38), disassembly and cleaning take considerable production time in the engine build operation. AERA members responding to our survey say 15.8 percent of their production time is spent in this department, the highest rate in at least the past six years.
With so much time spent cleaning, is it just a cost of doing business or is it an opportunity to be explored?
"Cleaning is a necessary evil," explains Russell Rogers, Harry’s Machine Works, Dodge City, KS. "You’ve got to have your parts clean or your customers won’t come back. It’s sort of the first step to everything."
Until recently, Rogers says he never really paid attention to his cleaning costs. "It was such a headache and a tremendous loss of time that we weren’t billing for," explains Rogers. "I just had a huge increase in my cleaning charges and I’ve discovered that my customers don’t care. They’re willing to pay the cost to get the parts back clean."
How shops clean their products can make as big a difference to the overall cost as any other machine shop operation. Aluminum engine components offer a particular opportunity for shops to examine their costs associated with cleaning methods.
Frank Bencivenga, of Cylinder Head Exchange in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, does an average of 75-80 aluminum cylinder heads per week. A lot of that work, he says, is late model import work and much of it is warranty work from OEM dealers.
"The appearance of my heads is a major consideration," says Bencivenga. "Depending on the head, its age, its condition and its application, it may be cleaned several ways."
Bencivenga explains that he uses a variety of cleaning methods – "ultrasonic cleaning machine, spray washers, different types of chemicals, solvent bath, thermal cleaning, glass beading" – in an attempt to remove sludge, grease and age from the heads, but he has found no one method that does it all. "My biggest expense in the shop is cleaning the product," Bencivenga admits.
Bencivenga also notes that you really have to do your homework before purchasing cleaning equipment or risk being disappointed with the final results. "I just spent a lot of money with a company for a piece of equipment. I was told it would do a good job cleaning the product – it doesn’t."
Call on your supplier to help determine what is best for your type of operation based on many factors including location, size of your shop, type and quantities of products cleaned, as well as your budget and available manpower. It may take a lot of research. Most suppliers want to solve your problem, but as both Rogers and Sweeney point out, you’re in the business to clean the parts...the vendor is in the business to sell cleaning equipment. Make sure you find one who wants to solve your problem in addition to sell you their equipment.
"Cleaning can – and should – be a profit center, but it’s probably a shop’s most frequently overlooked one," says Sweeney. "The equipment can cost a lot of money, but you have to know what it can and can’t do. You can’t just buy something and dump in the parts figuring it will do the job. You have to do your homework."
The challenge of cleaning is the same, whether you’re a large shop or small, and whether you’re new to the business or, like Bob Terrill, Terrill’s Aluminum Cylinder Heads, Chico, CA, you’ve been in business about as long as aluminum has been in the engine compartment.
"The majority of my business is aluminum. I started in ’64 as "Bob Terrill VW-Porsche Repair," so I’ve been doing aluminum heads a long time."
With 37 years of experience working with aluminum, Terrill, too, says the challenges of cleaning can be dramatic. The small-volume shop ("two employees, mainly custom shop work from all around the country," says Terrill) does the hard work necessary to keep the customer happy.
"We’re definitely not the lowest price shop," Terrill says, "and I don’t try to be. I don’t even attempt to compete with some of these low cost shops." In fact, Terrill says he often has to clean up the work done by other shops.
"We do all the hand-work necessary," says Terrill. "I’ve seen some engines come in here after so many miles – we’ll pull a valve out and realize the last shop never ground any of the oiling out from between the seats. The engine has 50 percent plugged ports…it’s often the hand cleaning that isn’t done that gets the engine there."
Unlike many shops that specialize in aluminum rebuilding, Terrill doesn’t use a thermal bake oven for cleaning his heads. But not, he’s quick to point out, because of a concern over heat stress.
"We tried it at one point, but I felt it wasn’t fast enough for us. If we were a higher-volume shop, it wouldn’t be so bad, but at our volume level it’s quicker and more efficient to do it by hand. It works for us."
Wayne Sullivan of Aluminum Head Rebuilders in Portland, OR, says what works best today might be yesterday’s news tomorrow, and he wants to be prepared.
"Cleaning the head is the most expensive part of the process, says the company president. "We’ve tried everything they come out with to see if there’s something better."
Now, Sullivan’s shop washes the heads in a natural soap cleaning system before and after they are pressure-tested, then baked to dry them and remove any remaining residue. Then they are glass beaded. The shop rebuilds up to 10 cylinder heads per day.
Machining work is performed next, then heads are returned to the jet washer for a brief rinse to remove any remaining oil and residue.
"All that’s necessary," Sullivan believes, "because the soaps available commercially are typically sufficient in cleaning strength to work, but they can discolor the aluminum."
It is understanding the balancing act that is most difficult, Sullivan says. He wants to get the parts clean, but his customers expect pristine aluminum color – not painted. "They think if I paint them, I’m hiding something," he says.
Like Sullivan, Roger Deckard, general manager of Vege/ATK in Florence, KY, is constantly looking for the best way to meet the cleaning challenge. This large-volume shop does 80-90 heads per day, 70 percent of which are aluminum. A multi-step process involves carefully baking the heads.
"We carefully monitor the heat to make sure we don’t damage the aluminum," says Deckard. "We have chart recorders on the oven to measure the heat inside the oven and we use probes in the product to measure the heat in the aluminum part as it bakes.
Deckard says the interest is in maintaining the proper head hardness, so engines are measured for hardness when they come in as cores and after they come out of the baking oven. This method works, he says, but isn’t necessarily the best.
"In the Netherlands, another Vege engine rebuilding plant uses a cleaning method that involves a prewash, high pressure wash, a hot air blow dry and then blasting with a natural media – walnut shells or cherry pits. It’s a much better system for the surface of the parts, Deckard explains, but for the volume of parts his Kentucky plant produces, would be too inefficient.
Scott Fiscus, maintenance manager at Yamato Engine Specialists in Bellingham, WA, says heat used to be the preferred method of cleaning – but they had problems with it. Now, a combination of water impact cleaners and soda blasting machines are employed to clean the product before rebuilding.
"Still, the method we use is involved," says Fiscus. "We turn out about 50 engines a day and that takes a lot of steps – and people – to clean properly. There are a lot of ways to clean cast iron components properly," Fiscus says. "Aluminum takes a lot more effort to get it clean."
For Harry’s Machine Works’ Rogers, cleaning is an opportunity to get inexperienced help interested in his operation. But he admits, inexperience means the entry level employee is slower and may attempt to clean parts that should simply be replaced.
"Yes, the costs of cheaper labor exist," Rogers says. "The new guys won’t always pay attention to removing the plugs or including them in the replacement parts...but if it’s managed correctly, cleaning can be profitable."
Other hidden cleaning costs Rogers points to are operation costs (energy prices), waste disposal costs (variable by region), media costs (including shot, soaps, caustics, etc.), and ongoing machine maintenance (including replacement of expendable machine parts.
It seems to be universally accepted that cleaning aluminum is simply expensive, time consuming and difficult. But with an increasingly large number of imported and domestic vehicles carrying aluminum engine components, the need to do it safely and effectively is more important than ever.
Shop owners we interviewed looking for the one-stop cleaning method have so far been disappointed. But they continue looking.
"You have to evaluate the part, its condition and how well you want it to be cleaned," says Sweeney. "I wouldn’t have all of this stuff if I didn’t expect to use it, but a lot of shops don’t do so much to the part and still call it clean."
Sweeney says shops today shouldn’t have as many cleaning worries as shops in the past because "parts today don’t get nearly as dirty as the old carbureted engines did. A guy starting out today would typically never need to make the investment in cleaning that I’ve made because of the late model products they’re working on."
Still, the fact that more time than ever is being spent on cleaning indicates that shops are either struggling with their equipment, their processes or their people -- and possibly all three.
Sweeney believes that one of a shop’s biggest challenges is determining which cleaning process is best in which case. Although the chemicals and equipment are better than ever, there’s nothing that’s "best" for everything.
Like Sweeney, you may find that custom chemicals or other media are your best option. "I buy all of my chemistry from different suppliers, custom-made for my needs," he explains. "They are cutting my labor costs by 50 percent. Even if they were double the price, the labor savings would still be worth it."
Likewise, choosing the proper system for cleaning is important to the bottom line.
"Compare letting something soak for a couple of hours and having your employee take five minutes to set it in the tank, take it out and rinse it off," says Sweeney. "Or, the guy can take 15 minutes with a more labor-intensive process. He’s just cost you 10 of those 15 minutes as opposed to the other method.
"If you can triple your profit on the second job," Sweeney continues, "you’ll be okay – but we all know that’s not going to happen."
It’s only 10 minutes, he acknowledges, but Sweeney says that amounts to a 66 percent increase in the time involved to clean. "Take that time difference and multiply it 10 or 20 times a week over the course of a year and all of a sudden it adds up. You’re talking real money."