ICS Magazine

The Heart of the Company

April 26, 2000
I often refer the laboratory as the heart of the company. Without it, the company’s chemical sales artery would stop. Without innovation, the company reaches a plateau, allowing competitors to get closer without any impediments. Once a company lags behind, it takes a tremendous amount of R&D energy to get back into the lead. Just imagine how few computer companies would be around in today if they didn’t improve existing systems or develop new ones. It’s amazing how much information can be obtained on the chemical field from the computer. It makes me wonder when I will be obsolete!

Chemistry has come a long way since my college days. One thing that has not changed is that formulations are quite specific. Let me relate a very basic concept in the understanding of the process of cleaning.

The basic theory of aqueous cleaning is based on the ability of water to remove water-soluble particulates by suspension. The principle of picking up and removing soil becomes quite involved in that it is a formulation of the following constituents: builders, surfactants, corrosion inhibitors, dispersants, equesterants, defoamers, dyes and perfume. The optimum goal is performance.

I have a carpet cleaning friend, who qualifies himself as a specialist in maneuvering formulas to his own methodology: he looks at a formula’s performance by how long it takes to do a room. He’s got it down to minutes, with the exception that the faster and easier it is, then the more improved the product is. This blows the wind out of the laboratory’s sails because we take months (sometimes years) to develop a product’s performance.

What do we do in the lab to promote these breakthroughs and so-called advancements in science? The refrigerator, used extensively for product stability, validates a product’s stability as to separation or cloudiness. They may seem slight, but are important in detailing a product’s longevity, especially in the cold climate of Canada.

The freezer is used to check a product reaction for up to three cycles of freezing-thawing conditions. Liquid formulas also undergo extensive heat exposure: an oven is used for storing materials up to 128°F for as long as 31 days to establish product longevity. Obviously, the importance is connected to product storage in a semi-truck that broke down on a desert highway in the heat of summer. A product that is vulnerable to both extreme conditions is the fluorocarbon emulsion carpet/upholstery type fabric protector. If exposed to any of the above conditions, it would alter the base properties and render them useless.

Of course, solubility, dispersion and foaming characteristics are also defined in the formulation process. These are necessary to round out the formula’s capabilities. One test that a lab performs with unknown specifics is the soil removal test. On a lab scale, it seems to be a simple matter of taking a dirty test carpet and removing the soil. Relatively easy, but difficult to manage with many “real world” variables. To soil a carpet, questions should arise as to what method is best employed. Do you let a test carpet get soiled by just letting it lay on the floor or do you use a rotating machine that clacks with rubber cubes in the presence of soil? Or is it best to butter the soil on the test carpet to duplicate the extreme conditions of rain-soaked driveways with children wallowing in the mud and entering into a home full-speed, a condition that can occur everywhere.

Another factor that enters into our test program is the type of dirt, which can create havoc in the final conclusion of the formula. Products can perform very well on the West Coast but may deliver alternate results on the East Coast. Variables in use will always make a formulator stand on edge as to its final outcome in the market. Overall, the formulation chemist has job security because his work is not complete after developing the product, but continues into maintenance.

Once developed, a formula is not landlocked in its percentages; it may have to be tweaked to allow it to perform in the manner the carpet cleaner expects it to work. That’s about it. All the science applied in the formulation of a product is of no avail if it didn’t meet the expectations of the carpet cleaner using it. That’s why the product user should contact the product’s manufacturer if the product didn’t perform. If this information is not available, then the user should contact the chemical supplier that provides technical support. This assistance is built into the cost of the product.

Other facets involved in the perfecting of a formulation include dye and perfume stability, and most important, package acceptance.

Packaging stability is a whole new perspective that again requires the balancing act of formula performance coupled with cleaning acceptance. If the product does not fit the package, it means going back to square one as to formulation premises. However, if we achieve a certain timetable of stability with the package, it could project the product into a “go” situation.

Perfume can change in characteristic after a period of time but lab tests are targeted for one year as an attainable goal for stability, as well as dyes. They play an important part as to the quality of the product. I’ve often had phone calls commenting about perfume or color changes with regard to the product being different and not performing as before. A quick date analysis showed the product had been lost in the back section of a storage bin for four years. More than likely, the product’s performance would still be acceptable, but the psychology of a color/perfume change will prompt the majority of users to feel that either a formulation change was made or the product’s capabilities have diminished. However, pity the situation if a formulator ran out of a specified dye or perfume and used an alternative system. You can rest assured the phone will be ringing off the hook as to acceptance of that product.

If you have any questions, please contact me by sending a fax, letter or e-mail to the attention of ICS.