The Standard of Clean: How Companies Decide When a Product is Ready for Market

April 17, 2003
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What is clean? For professional cleaners, the answer can come from a variety of sources, including customer expectations, common sense, training and years of experience in the field

What is clean?

For professional cleaners, the answer can come from a variety of sources, including customer expectations, common sense, training and years of experience in the field. The answer will be subjective, based upon observation, such as the degree that a floor shines, or how much grime is gone from the baseboard, or whether or not a customer can see his reflection in the tile.

For manufacturers, the answer is decidedly more objective, measured by chemistry and industry standards. The equipment and products they sell go through rigorous testing protocols before moving from the laboratory to the showroom floor.

All of the manufacturers that Commercial Floor Care spoke with benchmarked their products against similar products in the testing stages, and used standards from ASTM International Inc., a non-profit organization that provides standards for materials, products, systems and services.

Advance, a company which manufactures a broad line of vacuums, scrubbers, sweepers, burnishers and other floor care machines, purchases competitive brands of equipment and brings them in for testing, developing a list of the pros and cons for each product. This list, called a functional spec, is used as criteria to measure how Advance machines might be able to exceed the pros and reduce the cons in its own models.

“The focus is not just cleaning the floor, but making the machine easier for the operator to use and clean out,” says Dave Ditty, director of product management. “We want our machines to be easier to clean, easier to maintain, and easier to service.”

The company primarily runs pole and life tests on their machines. On pole tests, a machine is attached to a pole and run in circles until its power is depleted. With life tests, a machine is used in real-world applications day in and day out. From these tests, Advance engineers measure the life and wear of the different components of the machine, from motors and electrical wiring to vacuum power and brush drives.

“These tests give us a flavor of the machine’s life expectancy,” says Ditty. “We can find out if the machine is in it for the long run.”

The company also performs drop tests and wheel tests. In drop tests, a component is dropped to see if it becomes damaged or breaks. In wheel tests, a machine is rolled over bumps and rough surfaces to measure wheel resistance and wear. Advance cleans with every product that comes off the line before it goes to market, as well.

“Every machine coming off the line is driven or walked around the building, scrubbed with, to make sure it’s working properly,” Ditty says. “We’ll fill it with water, test the brushes, clean it out and wipe it down. We’ll run it through its operations, not just to see if all the functions turn on, but to make sure it works as a unit.”

Depending on the product, the company can have a machine delivered from the laboratory to the showroom floor in as little as nine months, with up to 14 months for a larger, industrial product.

Scot Laboratories, a manufacturer of finishes, cleaners, treatments, shampoos and spot removers, utilizes a series of in-house tests and industry standards to formulate its products.

“Once we chemically get a formula that we believe will work, we put it through functional testing,” says Ted Bojanowski, general manager of Scot Laboratories. “If, for example, we believe our product ought to stay in a solution and dissolve a type of stain, we then put it through a host of standardized, clinical and real life tests to see if functionally it will really operate.

“We test our cleaning product against leading brands, and really put them through their paces,” he adds. “We want to measure our standard compared to our competitors’.” Scot Laboratories utilizes many industry-approved instruments for testing, according to Bojanowski, including a device that measures different shades of gray, including shades that might be imperceptible to the human eye. After laboratory testing is done, a product will be brought to a customer or company location in order to test it in a real-world application.

“You never know how a product is going to perform until it’s given the test of time,” Bojanowski says.

New products are overseen by a service council made up of the company’s top service centers. Service managers are brought in on a quarterly basis to look at prototypes and offer input. Every few years, a new group is rotated in to keep perspectives fresh.

“If it’s a very fast testing period, a product might be on the shelves in three months,” says Bonjanowski. “On average, it takes six to nine months, though some products might go over a year, if they’re more chemically complex and offer more demanding results.”

Spartan Chemical, a manufacturer of cleaners, sealers, disinfectants, deodorants and floor care products, utilizes a broad mix of laboratory testing to obtain preliminary data on experimental formulas, according to William J. Schalitz, vice president of research and development for the company.

Standard levels for any product are established through input from all segments of the proposed product supply chain, including supplier, marketing, sales, customer service and end-user information, he says.

“In many cases, development work is the result of direct interaction with end-user accounts and based on the needs analysis of a specific issue they have,” Schalitz says. “Customer service data can also provide wonderful insight into end-user needs based on repetitive questions or request trends.”

Once the number of possible formulas has been narrowed down, the company initiates limited field testing controlled by the research personnel. The tests ultimately expand into field trials and selective product commercialization, according to Schalitz.

“The reality is that no matter how many laboratory test you run, actual product performance is never determined until it is placed into the hands of multiple users,” he says.

The time required to develop a specific product can vary greatly. A new air freshener, for example, may only take a matter of months to release, whereas more involved products, such as coatings or disinfectants, can easily take years to fully commercialize. In the end, a product is only as dependable as the tests utilized on it. The importance of good testing is crucial in this regard.

“The trick to running a successful test is to be able to revisit something that correlates in a prior test,” says Scot’s Bojanowski. “A test has to be repeatable, and have some way to quantify the different levels a test may result.

“If you’re just trying to recreate a cleaning formula, it’s right there. But if you’re trying to push the envelope to outperform or to chase a specific application, it’s a little more challenging,” he adds.

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