Learning on tour
George D. Miller
One of the perks of the position of Editor is the invitations to tour existing, new, and even still-under-construction cleanrooms. Each tour presents a learning experience, whether the object lesson has to do with best practices, leading-edge design and construction techniques, or simple marketing.
On a recent tour I got one of the latter. The facility being built is to be a Class 10,000 cleanroom for the manufacture of computer subsystems. The cleanroom isn`t really required for this manufacturing process, but the supplier`s competitor has one, and so the need. At the time of our tour, the facility was about a month away from completion and turnover to the client.
At this advanced stage of construction, explained our guide, an upper-level manager of a mid-size construction concern, workers were trained in and observed Class 10,000 protocol. The floor of the cleanroom was mostly in place. Some air filters were installed; other filters stood ready in cardboard boxes wrapped in plastic. Ducting was visible in the few areas where ceiling tiles were still to be installed.
“Whose filters are you using?” our guide was asked.
“I`m not sure,” he answered. “Whatever was spec`d and approved by the purchasing department.”
As the same brand preference question was asked several more times during the tour — regarding ceiling tiles, lights, etc. — the answer frequently came back the same.
The make of the filters and the ceiling tiles represent but two of the thousands of details this construction manager had to oversee. And they were now well past the product specification stage on this job. He was very knowledgeable, in fact, and easily recited the top suppliers of each of the product types he`d been asked about. And as he knew, there were only certain suppliers whose products he could use — those whose products were certified for use at the cleanliness level at which the room would operate. He was well aware of this fact, and he was quite confident in his “system” — that the purchasing department had ordered what was specified and that the distributor had supplied it — a confidence no doubt developed as the result of long working relationships.
But the fact is that he couldn`t tell when asked, so in a sense this well-informed cleanroom construction manager expressed no brand preference. And the answer to the question, “whose is it?,” wasn`t always apparent unless we took pains to find out, examining the products up close.
I think this matters. Even when products must be certified, there is still a need to differentiate them from competitive products. In fact, the need might be greater in this case, lest the certification breed a market of products all perceived as “me-too.”
At the risk of advocating commercialism (something an Editor is loathe to do!), my experience of cleanroom suppliers suggests far greater innovation and product differentiation than you`re getting credit for, at least in this case. Great products aren`t great when the buyers and users don`t see them that way. And not all construction managers and users can afford to have such faith in their distributors.