Just around the corner from where Kellogg’s makes cornflakes in Manchester, men in white coats are defrosting locusts and grinding them up.
Thanks to their high goo to exoskeleton ratio, locusts are ideal for testing the effectiveness, stability and safety of car cleaning and detailing products in the laboratory at Holts.
In a macabre twist on the Nerf toy gun concept, the locusts used to be fired at windscreens with compressed air, but these days the process is more controlled and scientific.
Freezing the insects gently puts them to sleep (it’s not like dunking lobsters in boiling water) and then even amounts are carefully applied to surface samples.
The seven scientists that work in the lab will probably groan that we’ve seized on this aspect of their work, but it’s a quick, eye-catching demonstration of the lengths they go to in order to get a product right.
Their UK lab does a little work on products for the US market, but it’s mostly concerned with maintaining the portfolio of 1500 products for the UK, Europe, Middle East and Africa and developing new formulas.
As well as cleaning and detailing, the lab also caters for treatments like Redex, repair products like Gun Gum and coolant.
Because of its wide geographic reach means the products that are developed and signed off by the lab have to be able to cope with extremes, from dry, freezing conditions in Finland as well as the moist heat of Madagascar.
“We carry out low, room and high temperature tests up to about 40 degrees. The number of tests for each product depends on its complication and the number of claims on the pack. For a shampoo we would look at cleaning aspects, foaming tests, rinsing ability, not leaving streaks, improving polish and gloss…”
Generally there are between five and ten procedures for each product to test its effectiveness, and each is done in triplicate to ensure there have been no errors in how they’ve been conducted and are reproducible and repeatable.
“Then there are the no-harm tests that we carry out on everything. It’s not only important to make sure a cleaner actually cleans off the surface that you apply it to, but also that it doesn’t damage or attack surfaces that you get it on if you overspray.”
That’s why consumers don’t have to mask off tyres when they use wheel cleaners.
After that compatibility and stability tests ensure the chemical properties, such as pH values and viscosity, are stable within given tolerances over time.
Overall it takes between three months and two years to sign off a new product, and with so many different properties to examine, Ellis and his team have a wide range of equipment and procedures to keep on top of.
Painted panels, panes of glass, rubber and plastic – either specially manufactured or taken from cars themselves – infra-red spectroscopy, contact angle sheets, and stereo microscopes. No Nerf guns, unfortunately.
Besides the bugs, the lab is also home to stores of tree sap and bat guano imported from South America.
“It’s indicative of the kind of lengths we’ll go to in matching those conditions and ensuring the lab analysis and tests are as replicable as possible in the field.”