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Coming Clean: The Inside Dirt About Cleaning Systems and Their Impact On Shop Profitability
By Jenna Bates
Cleanliness may be next to Godliness, but can it be profitable? Cleaning engine components is a vital part of the operation of any machine shop, but to make it profitable or at least ensure it doesn’t end up costing the shop money, owners need to investigate the time and expense that go into it.
Cleaning can account for up to one- third of all overhead expenses, and if shop owners aren’t careful, the enterprise can end up costing them. After talking with several machine shop owners, we found that often — perhaps too often — either owners don’t charge for cleaning at all or they don’t charge enough. It’s a problem that can cost some shops a few bucks but can cost others valuable business.
Look at it this way: If a customer is comparing the pricing of two machine shops, and shop #1 doesn’t charge for cleaning, the customer is likely to take his business there. This may bring business to shop #1, but the shop could actually be losing money on the deal. In the meantime, shop #2, which charges for its cleaning, is getting no business at all and will probably lower its prices to stay competitive. This trend could continue until both shops lose both money and business. In the end, not charging for cleaning engine components can hurt the industry as a whole.
So, how do you determine when and what to charge for cleaning? It’s a question not as easily answered as you might think.
Scott Dooley, owner of Scott’s Auto Machine in Fayettesville, GA, offers customers fixed pricing for cleaning certain components based on an hourly rate. A fixed rate works for Dooley, but he acknowledges that it might not work for everyone. Some parts may take longer to clean than expected, and a shop can lose money on the venture. On the other hand, some jobs may take less time than anticipated, and a profit can actually be made.
However, Dooley says most shops find it difficult to make a profit on the cleaning aspect of their businesses, and most of them just break even. But, paying attention to and keeping track of the cleaning aspect of the machine shop can reveal some valuable information.
"Using time studies to keep track of how much labor goes into cleaning can be a real eye opener," says Dooley, who has performed such studies in his shop.
However, labor costs don’t tell the whole story. There’s also the cost of the equipment to take under consideration. Even if shops purchase timesaving equipment compared to what they previously used, it doesn’t let them off the hook entirely. Such equipment may save money in labor hours, but the shop will still have to cover the expense of the equipment, which can cost anywhere from $8,000 to $150,000 and beyond, depending on the size of the cleaning operation.
And, of course, most shops implement more than one type of cleaning system. Although there may be some cleaning systems out there that can handle all a shop’s cleaning needs, most of the shops we talked to use a variety of methods.
About 90% of Dooley’s cleaning is done using a thermal baker with a blaster; however, he also uses spray cabinets primarily for a final clean, and on large diesel engines. He also employs the use of tumblers for small parts.
Dave Deegan, owner of Engine Lab of Tampa, in Tampa, FL, finds his shop in a similar situation.
He primarily uses a bake, blast and tumble system for all cast iron, jet spray for aluminum and accessory parts, a glass bead machine and a new ultrasonic cleaner for small or specialty items.
"Cleaning is a necessary evil," Deegan says. "Everyone has to clean; the trick is to take as much labor intensity out of it as you can and find a system that can be as cost-effective as possible."
Deegan does charge for a lot of the cleaning work his shop performs, but not all of it. He charges for the cleaning of general machine work and accessories, but not for long blocks that have come in for installation.
"Basically, you have to view the part and understand what it’s going to take to clean it," Deegan says.
On the other end of the spectrum are the large production engine remanufacturers (PERs). While they have the same basic needs as a custom engine rebuilder, they are on a much larger scale.
Ray Fink, president and COO of AER Manufacturing Inc. in Carrollton, TX, a PER which is an OEM contract supplier rebuilding approximately 450-500 engines a day, says cleaning is an essential part of the remanufacturing process and should figure into the price of an engine. Although AER doesn’t figure in a specific cleaning charge for each engine rebuilt, the cost is calculated into the final charge for the engine.
"There’s profit on the final engine, so there’s a profit margin on the cleaning," Fink says. "You have to charge for the cleaning or you’ll go broke."
Like smaller machine shops, AER uses a number of different cleaning systems depending on the job at hand. They primarily use baking for cast iron, then a shot blasting system using either steel shot or plastic shot depending on the engine. AER also employs a shake and blow process to clean the shot from the components. Vibrating shakers with a media in them are used for small component parts, and a tunnel wash with high pressure and blast cabinets are used for aluminum parts. Aluminum also requires some hand detailing — the most labor intensive portion of the cleaning process. The final step in the cleaning process for AER is painting, a step most custom engine rebuilders don’t have to perform. However, the aesthetics of the engine are important to AER, since its engines will eventually end up at OEM dealerships.
What to know before purchasing a cleaning system
Before purchasing a cleaning system, there are a number of questions shop owners should ask themselves. First, what type of work will they be doing? What type of material will they be cleaning? What is the cost to run a particular cleaning system, the labor required by the machine, and its maintenance costs? Don’t forget to also take into account the cost of disposing of hazardous materials.
What about add-on accessories that are necessary for the efficient operation of the machine? How much will it cost in electricity to operate the machine or keep it at the appropriate temperature? As you can see, there’s far more to take under consideration than simply the initial cost of the machine.
Overall, the rebuilder has to clearly define his goals, Engine Lab’s Deegan advises. Will the shop be handling automotive, medium or heavy duty parts? Rebuilders need to first know what they’re going to work on, which will then determine the type and size of cleaning system they need.
And, there are a lot of them out there from which to choose. We’ve listed just a few of the most popular types here.
Aqueous cleaning systems
Jet spray washers are one option for the rebuilder. They’ve been around since the 1970s and are still gaining favor in the industry. These aqueous cleaning systems are in many cases as good as or better than solvent-based cleaning, according to some engine rebuilders. Developed under the idea that spray washers would require less labor, they can increase employee productivity — sometimes by up to two hours per engine.
Generally speaking, aqueous cleaning is based on water or water-based formulas, which remove contaminants. Most aqueous cleaning agents consist of water and one or a combination of the following: builders, surfactants, corrosion inhibitors, dispersants, sequestering or chelating agents and defoamers.
The operating times for aqueous cleaning systems vary depending on the type and level of soils being cleaned.
According to recent data, aqueous cleaning systems have been shown effective for the removal of a wide range of contaminants. However, the same data shows that some manufactured parts may not be compatible with water-based systems. Drying is also required when rebuilders implement the use of aqueous systems, so it is important they choose a drying technique that complements the application.
Organic solvent cleaning systems
Solvents are most effective in dissolving and removing organic materials, such as oils and grease.
According to one online source, solvent usage in the cleaning industry has changed since the early 1990s due to the Montreal Protocol limiting production of CFC-113 and 1,1,1-trichloroethane. Because of this restriction, solvent users, for the most part, use chemicals like 1,1,2-trichloroethylene, methylene chloride, isopropanol and petroleum distillates. Many alternative solvents have also been introduced. In general, these solvents have shown improvements in environmental and worker safety; however, they still need additional testing for efficiency, and prices can be higher.
An alternative to chemical cleaning, blast cleaning employs mechanical forces to do the cleaning. To do this, a type of material is directed onto the surface of the engine component.
Blast cleaning can be used for a variety of applications such as removing oil and grease to paints and rust. Methods include carbon dioxide or ice blasting, which can create a brief chemical effect; however, most of the work is performed by the "blasting" effect itself.
Like most cleaning systems, blasting can be delivered in various methods and can come in many different packages, depending on the application. Blast cabinets are one option; but, some rebuilders may require an entire blast room.
As effective as blasting can be, only those surfaces that can be seen can be cleaned. Therefore, blast cleaning is often used in addition to some form of liquid cleaning.
Ultrasonic cleaning systems
Ultrasonics work by emitting high frequency sound waves that create a bubble (known as cavitation). When the bubbles implode, vacuum pressure is released, and dirt is pulled from the engine component to the bubble. The energy created by these cavitations can loosen and discharge many contaminants thousands of times per second.
Ultrasonic cleaning is most effective when it is used with hard substrates, such as metals, glass and ceramics, and is not as effective in cleaning soft materials.
This cleaning process can be used with aqueous, semi-aqueous and solvent-based systems, and the technique is compatible with numerous solvents, including fluorocarbons, caustics, acids, acetone, alcohols, ether and other hydrocarbons. However, one supplier we talked to says water and a water-based soap are most commonly used. Cleaning can take anywhere from two minutes to an hour depending on the parts being cleaned.
Although ultrasonic technology has been around since the 1920s, it has only been widely employed by the rebuilding industry for about four years.
Bio-remediation is a process whereby micro-organisms digest oil and other products. The micro-organisms or microbes break down or degrade hazardous substances into less toxic or non-toxic substances. These organisms can digest fuels, oil, grease or solvents and break down the contaminants into harmless products, mainly carbon dioxide and water. Bio-remediation contributes to the industry’s move toward safer waste-minimization practices. The use of bio-remediation, in addition to being better for the environment, can provide additional savings in waste removal and treatment costs.
Ovens can be used to straighten aluminum heads, preheat heads for welding or to dry out parts before blasting.
But, ovens are, of course, primarily used for cleaning. Thermal cleaning ovens with afterburners burn away much of the contaminants released from this cleaning process and help to reduce the amount of dry wastes generated by a shop.
Parts to be cleaned can be baked at temperatures of 400°F to 700°F depending on the type of metal being cleaned. Afterburner temperatures can range from 1200°F to 1400°F and completely oxidize vapor/smoke before venting.
To optimize efficiency, ash should be removed weekly from the oven floor. The burners should be checked and blown off with clean, dry air monthly because any dust collected inside the burner reduces the oven’s efficiency. In many cases, thermal baking equipment can improve productivity and provide a quiet, cleaner work area, and the controlled temperature can produce clean, stress-free parts.
Newer, tougher regulations
The push for environmentally-safer core cleaning is a big one, spearheaded by organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). New EPA regulations have increased the overall cost of cleaning because they require safer methods of disposal than they have in the past. More stringent environmental regulations continue to phase out chlorinated solvents and ozone-depleting chemicals.
These regulations have made it even more important for rebuilders to keep track of their cleaning costs and to charge appropriately, either by including their cleaning costs in their overall charges or by charging separately.
Most waste in the rebuilding industry, products like grease and oil, can be burned off, skimmed or encapsulated and are generally not considered to be hazardous. However, the chemicals used to clean these petroleum products from the engine components can be extremely hazardous to the environment, not to mention the traces of metal that can also be removed and disposed of in the cleaning process. These metal substances, e.g., chromium, lead and mercury, particularly concern the EPA.
Most shops have contracts with environmental services companies that haul away the hazardous waste and dispose of it properly.
Safety-Kleen is one such company that offers a range of services depending on the size and needs of a shop. Safety-Kleen, which has done consulting work for the EPA, knows all too well the number and complexities of the regulations out there today. The company acknowledges that there is a growing concern by the EPA about the use of solvents and see California’s banning of solvent cleaning as a trend that could likely affect many more states.
But, Safety-Kleen representatives say the problem is not so much with stricter regulations but instead with regulations becoming increasingly complex.
To keep up with these complexities, AER has a full-time person on staff along with a chemical engineer, both of whom deal with the management of waste. AER’s Fink says that as regulations got tighter and tighter, it became more difficult to keep track of and to satisfy them.
As a result, AER totally filled in its sewers with concrete 17 years ago and now has no floor drains at the facility. However, cutting the company off from the city’s sewer system doesn’t solve every problem, and AER often calls on consultants to come in to help. It’s a trend that will more than likely trickle down at some point to machine shops and custom engine rebuilders.
According to Safety-Kleen, it’s not impossible for machine shops to handle their own waste disposal, but they’d more than likely have to hire another person to do it. Rebuilders should contact their local wastewater authority to find out what their local rules concerning spent chemicals are. Rebuilders can also contact the Coordinating Committee for Automotive Repair (CCAR), which offers a web site (www.ccar-greenlink.org) devoted to environmental information especially for the automotive industry. CCAR can also be reached by calling 913-498-2227 or faxing 913-498-1770.
Find out more
The National Center for Remanufacturing and Resource Recovery located at the Rochester Institute of Technology seeks to improve the remanufacturing industry’s efficiency and performance. As part of its mission, the center has recently undertaken a $450,000 project, funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. The project, which is partnered with the Automotive Parts Rebuilders Association (APRA), will include the testing of several different kinds of cleaning systems using a variety of media and encompassing a broad range of technology. For instance, the center will test baking soda blasting techniques against ultrasonics or aqueous systems. The results of the project will be published in fact sheets and reports.
The project will also feature two demonstration sites in New York. These demonstration sites will be actual machine shops that have agreed to pay for half of a cleaning system; the other half will be paid for by the project. In exchange for receiving cleaning equipment, the demonstration sites agree to conduct two public demonstrations showing how the new technology can improve the efficiency of cleaning operations for automotive parts rebuilders.
"Cleaning is a critical process," says Monica Becker, the center’s team leader for its clean technology program.
Because of the importance of the cleaning aspect of engine rebuilding, the National Center for Remanufacturing and Resource Recovery works one-on-one with companies to perform cleaning assessments and to evaluate innovative and more environmentally-friendly cleaning systems. The center’s next workshop will be conducted at APRA’s Big R Show in Las Vegas, NV, on Oct. 27 from 1 to 4 p.m. Rebuilders interested in finding out more about what the center has to offer can visit their Web site at www.reman.rit.edu.
To profit or not to profit
EPA and OSHA regulations, the type of cleaning system and the labor to support the cleaning process must be taken under consideration before a shop can create the potential to make a profit at cleaning. For some, it makes more sense to outsource at least some of the cleaning. This can not only benefit the shop that’s sending the cleaning out, so to speak, but also the machine shop that cleans the components. Dooley of Scott’s Auto Machine does all the cleaning for the engine components that come through his shop; however, he also does some cleaning for neighboring shops that can’t handle certain jobs — for a fee, of course. It’s a symbiotic relationship that benefits both parties. And, it’s just one of the many options rebuilders have when it comes to making cleaning engine parts a more profitable endeavor.
With so much time, effort and expense going into the cleaning portion of a machine shop’s business, it’s in every shop owner’s best interest to know as much about it as possible. Only then can owners determine whether it can be a money generator or a money pit.