When the Chips are Down, This Tennessee Company Cleans Up

By Doug Barry

How do you clean a printed circuit card or semiconductor? Hint: It’s not with a simple green liquid and it doesn’t come in a spray bottle. But it is an environmentally “green” cleaning material, and Kyzen’s intellectual property. The Tennessee company used it to enter the China market where they’ve been for nearly 30 years, arriving first via Hong Kong, which back then was the gateway to the mainland. 

China manufactures electronic devices for the world, making and using a staggering number of electronic components and devices, including many semiconductors. Cleaning them changed dramatically in 1987 when the Montreal Protocol was signed to protect the earth’s ozone layer, which is damaged by substances such as CFCs. As demand dropped for CFCs in general, including those used as cleaning materials, the large companies that made those materials lost interest in the cleaning market. New cleaning materials for manufacturing, and electronics manufacturing specifically, were developed mostly by innovative small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) focused exclusively on more environmentally friendly electronics cleaning products.  

Enter Kyzen, named for a Japanese word (Kaizen) referring to continuous improvement, or in the industrial context, total quality control in manufacturing processes. Kyzen aims to improve the reliability and extend the useful life of electronics through proper, environmentally sound cleaning during the manufacturing process. 

Tariffs have been a major headache. “It’s like playing roulette. It’s torture."

Tom Forsythe, Executive Vice President of Kyzen, says a lot of top-notch chemistry goes into making their cleaning materials, which vary by recipe or formulae according to what’s being cleaned and how it is being cleaned. Electronics technology has changed dramatically in recent years and drives changes in manufacturing materials and processes, which include cleaning. New technology presents risk as well as opportunity. “These cleaning materials are complicated to manufacture, so while we always worry about the potential for intellectual property theft, stealing our technology is more difficult than most people would think. Patents tell the thief what to steal. We haven’t had any problems in China or elsewhere, knock on wood.” 

Electronics manufacturers use flux, a liquid agent that removes oxidation from metal surfaces before bonding two metals together (known as soldering) to enable an efficient electrical connection between the two surfaces. Since the flux can remove those oxides, for many products it is important to remove any residual flux from the surface to prevent undesirable corrosion after soldering is complete, otherwise the integrity of the components may be damaged. Kyzen makes the cleaning materials that remove flux residues and any other contaminants so the electronics device can do its job and any protective coatings applied will actually stick. It’s like washing a baseboard before painting. Warning: a degree in metallurgy is useful to understanding this stuff. 


A car wash for chips 

Other companies make the cleaning equipment, which Forsythe compares to a car wash, complete with conveyors and lots of nozzles for spraying. Kyzen works with these companies wherever they go in the world following their global manufacturing customers. Sometimes, Kyzen then sets up shop locally, far from Tennessee. Over the years, the electronics industry has grown remarkably since Kyzen first started exporting and traveling abroad back in 1994. Kyzen opened a complete manufacturing operation in Malaysia in late 2008 to support its growing business in the region. A logistics and repackaging operation followed in China in 2015 to support the growing domestic market. A lot of production is done in the United States for the export market, none in China.  

"But if we can’t do business somewhere, no one wins."

COVID-19 has made visiting customers and working on new products more challenging, but constant engagement (other than travel) and the caliber of their staff around the world has made the difference, according to Forsythe. “This is a very competitive business. Take a nap and the world passes you by.”  


A world of change 

Since naps are out, Kyzen has entered the blossoming electric vehicle market, not making them but helping keep their electronics optimally operating. Said Forsythe: “The electronics have to perform for years in harsh, hot environments. China policymakers are very strong supporters of the migration to EV; it is a very competitive and rapidly expanding market. Kyzen’s commitment to technology development and participation in the China market is long term.” 

When Kyzen began selling into China back in 1994, the market was focused on high-volume, modest-technology consumer products, what Forsythe calls the “easy stuff.” They mainly sold their products through distributors because most of the electronics manufacturing was consumer-oriented, short-lived products that cleaning did not add value to. “Each customer’s needs were modest because they were not cleaning all their production. China’s electronics industry now produces world-class, high-reliability devices, and cleaning is essential.” Kyzen’s business in China has improved in tandem with the industry’s growth. China sales have been as high as 20 percent of the worldwide total, significant but not over-exposed. 

Trump-Biden tariffs have been a major headache. “It’s like playing roulette. It’s torture. Bureaucracies everywhere are good at gumming up the works when that is their intention. They are good at it regardless, but especially when that is their intention,” Forsythe said. Luckily, timing was on their side. “About a year before the trade war, we started evolving our global supply chains and leveraging our global manufacturing footprint. That allowed us to adjust supply sources and manufacturing location to try and minimize the impact of the new tariffs that were popping up all over the world.”  

The nature of Kyzen’s business means Kyzen maintains a low profile worldwide. “Our customers in the manufacturing arena know us well, but their customers have most likely never heard of us in China or anywhere else. The environmentally friendly aspect of our product helps us. Environmental issues are becoming more front and center globally, and in China particularly these days, and that is good for us. But it is not just about being green, because our products are good and get the job done.”  

Any advice on improving bilateral relations? “I’m not so full of myself to give governments advice. They are smarter than me and know it, so they won’t listen. But if we can’t do business somewhere, no one wins. Our customers don’t have access to green, high-performing technology, and the local government doesn’t have another company to pay taxes. Eventually the policymakers will sort out their differences, and we look forward to that happening soon.”