Question: "Mr. Koblenzer, before we move on to the trends and outlook for the cleaning industry in 2024, let's take a brief look back: How did the past year 2023 go and what were the highlights from your perspective?"

Gerhard Koblenzer: "The bottom line for this year is: two steps forward and one step back. Sounds exhausting. And it was in places. But still better than in reverse order. Of course, the general economic slowdown did not pass us by. So the first half of the year was a bit tough. However, thanks to a very good level of orders and stock, which is essential when implementing projects in a time of supply chain difficulties, our capacities were and continue to be well utilized. We have also made further significant technical advances. In addition to optimizations in process control and process monitoring, we have simplified and improved the CNp process in many respects and equipped it with additional user-defined functions. Furthermore, the drying process has been revised so that back and cross-contamination can be virtually eliminated. Last but not least, our standard PowerJet compact series for high-quality fine and ultra-fine cleaning applications has been given a high purity ultrapure water module. We are also fully operational again with our reopened and newly equipped test and service center for trials, development projects and contract cleaning."

Question: "In your opinion, what are the reasons for the cautious investment mood and generally latent uncertainty in the industry?"

Gerhard Koblenzer: "There are many reasons. For example, the upheaval in the automotive industry, the unpredictable development of global market regions such as Asia or Eastern Europe and political changes. At the same time, new tasks have arisen that also require new skills, some of which do not yet exist. In many respects, 2023 is therefore comparable to 2019: a difficult environment for traditional industry segments such as automotive and a high level of activity in new business areas. On a positive note, the availability of materials has improved significantly overall compared to previous years. Price increases can also currently be expected to be largely predictable and manageable. Nevertheless, we are unfortunately not yet at the level of 2019 in this area, so this gap must continue to be compensated for by significantly higher inventories."

Question: "High purity was a major topic in the industry this year. Also at parts2clean. Will it be one of the central topics again in the new year and how do you see the development here?"

Gerhard Koblenzer: "Well, the question is how to define high purity. You asked me about this in detail back in the fall. At this year's parts2clean, you got the impression that high purity was solely the result of the ASML and Zeiss SMT supply chain. Don't get me wrong, this is of course a very important business area with a large number of special tasks. However, from our more than 15 years of experience in this segment, high purity is not a specific industry. Rather, it is about all industrial sectors with new and constantly changing technological tasks and their high demands on technical cleanliness in the manufacturing process. It is therefore about reducing re-contamination and cross-contamination in the actual cleaning process and avoiding negative influences from the overall process chain, the media used and the general environmental conditions."

Question: "What other major and minor trends will we see in the cleaning industry in 2024?"

Gerhard Koblenzer: "We don't really expect any significant changes in the procedural implementation of cleaning technology. However, the task-oriented design of the systems, their components and their integration into the process chain will place greater demands on suppliers and customers in terms of time and analysis. Therefore, co-engineering at the highest level and significantly more cooperative behavior on both sides is required. Traditional customer-supplier boundaries, such as in previous projects in the automotive industry, are often detrimental to the result. Higher demands are also expected in terms of monitoring, employee training and validatable process management. And not only for the processes in the cleaning system, but also for the factors influencing quality in the overall process chain. This is one of our core competencies, which we have developed intensively over the past few years. In this respect, we are ideally equipped for the new year."

Question: "Sustainability is a big topic at the moment. This year's FiT2clean Award was won by a company that has developed innovative, environmentally friendly phase fluids that could replace traditional solvents in numerous cleaning applications. How will this change traditional aqueous parts cleaning, for example?"

Gerhard Koblenzer: "In principle, the FiT2clean Award winner intelligent fluids is a remarkable product. But initially, at least in our core area, it won't change anything. Particularly in the high-purity segments, we try to get by without chemicals wherever possible. This is because, in addition to its desired and required properties, it poses a challenge to the media treatment systems in the rinsing baths after the actual cleaning processes that should not be underestimated, and consequently to the feasibility of the high cleanliness parameters. The sustainability of an overall process cannot therefore be assessed by focusing on a single aspect, such as chemistry. The interaction of all variables creates sustainability."

Question: "If we look at the individual sectors, where do you think development will go? Where is there greater potential for development, where are declines to be expected?"

Gerhard Koblenzer: "The machining industry has declined in recent years, as has the procurement of capital goods in the traditional automotive industry, keyword powertrain. New segments, such as high-vacuum technology, place very high demands on technical cleanliness, but the quantities are comparatively low. Ultimately, there is development potential for industrial cleaning technology in almost all sectors. New products, new opportunities. Be it e-mobility, fuel cells or sensor technology in the automotive sector, electromechanical components or additively manufactured implants in medical technology as well as modified components in aerospace technology. Added to this is the increasing demand for defense technology products. A trend that is currently clearly noticeable in Europe and North America."

Question: "The economic development in Germany and Europe is currently challenging. To what extent will this affect the coming year and do you think a recovery is in sight?"

Gerhard Koblenzer: "We have been observing a certain number of positive trends and a comparable number of opposing trends for three to four years. For example, we had the structural change in the automotive industry, the US trade dispute with Europe and China in 2019, the coronavirus crisis in 2020, supply chain disruptions in 2021, inflation in the past two years and the significant rise in energy costs, to mention just the major issues. Consequently, the challenges are not only to be found in technological developments. Political and economic instability in particular often has a negative impact on the willingness of large and subsequently small companies to invest. A current example is the situation between Taiwan and China, which has direct consequences for the investment plans of important semiconductor companies. The unclear location decision for the expansion of capacities is hampering an entire supplier industry. A lack of political framework conditions is also blocking developments that have already been initiated. In addition, the Chinese market, which used to be very important, is no longer as strong as it once was. The demand for European imports has declined for several reasons. In addition, there are increasing uncertainties regarding market access and security. However, it is now worth taking a look at North America. We will see. The key question is: which trends are we focusing on - and are they the right ones? We'll be smarter in 2024 ..."

Question: "How are other foreign markets such as the USA developing, also in economic terms?"

Gerhard Koblenzer: "So far, the situation in North America is much better. This applies not only to the US economy itself, but also to that of its direct neighbors. For example, the Inflation Reduction Act is noticeably boosting US industry. On the one hand, this offers opportunities for European companies without equivalent local competition. On the other hand, it represents a barrier to market entry for everyone else. In any case, we cannot avoid this market at the moment. Even if the situation regarding the presidential elections next year is difficult to assess and uncertain."

Question: "Where will LPW's entrepreneurial focus be in 2024?"

Gerhard Koblenzer: "It goes without saying that we will continue to develop our systems and processes. Together with our Surface Alliance partners, we will also expand and strengthen our activities on the North American market. If only for the reasons just mentioned. In addition, we will continue to focus on expanding our range of services relating to the new requirements for the degree of technical cleanliness. This includes ultra-fine and ultra-fine cleaning in our service center, training on the topic in conjunction with solutions in industrial cleaning technology and consulting in the fields of process optimization and increasing resource efficiency."

Question: If you as an entrepreneur had three wishes for 2024, which would you choose?"

Gerhard Koblenzer: "As a company, you probably have to fulfill most wishes yourself. This requires a lucky hand and a certain forecasting ability. So the first two wishes have already been granted. Wish number three is stability. After these turbulent years, which have demanded a great deal from companies - and especially from their employees, both professionally and privately - we could all do with a good dose of that. And if I may add a fourth wish, it is: Merry Christmas to you and your readers and a little peace and quiet for all of us so that we are stronger for the challenges ahead."

Surface Technology Online: "Thank you very much for the interview, Mr. Koblenzer!

Source: Surface-Online December 2023