Debunking the Myth: More Than Rocket Science

Myth: There is no black box magic in cleanrooms.


Reality: Yes, there is.


I asked an industry friend for a suggestion on cleanroom myths. He suggested I explain that, contrary to popular belief, there really is no black box magic to designing, building, and operating cleanrooms. He went on to say, “Just tell people it is all based on common sense.” I thought, well, he is probably right. So I started putting together his premise.

For example, have you ever seen a rocket up close? On display for tourists in Houston at the Johnson Space Center, there are a number of rockets, including a large Saturn rocket. Up close it is just a big tube with piping and wiring. What is so special about that? A rocket scientist would say, “Are you crazy? Look how long it took us to perfect this science. The magic is in the control of what happens in the plumbing and wiring, how reactions are sequenced, proper pipe size, valve actuators, switches, raw fluids and gases, igniters….” The amazing complexity of his work is what a rocket scientist calls magic.

Isn&#39t it really just his intelligence and experience capitalizing on solid engineering and science? Rockets work because of acute attention to detail by all parties involved, which requires constant training and hands-on management. Rockets work because a definitive goal is established. Each step of the process of achieving this goal is thoroughly analyzed. Process needs are defined. Quality is built into each step. Documentation is carefully ascribed. Does this sound a lot like what we call GMP and validation?

Cleanrooms are not necessarily rocket science, but they have certainly contributed significantly to the success of these engineering marvels. Rockets fail because of inattention to detail, as in the Challenger accident, or because of flaws in the man-made software, as in the recent demise of the Mars Climate Orbiter in September. Not just anybody can build and fly a totally reliable rocket.

This same analogy is true for cleanrooms. Sure, anybody can build a cleanroom, but what about total reliability? What factors have to be built in to assure a high level of reliability? Only experienced cleanroom personnel can contribute to defining the criteria for this level of reliability.

Some people call this the experience factor, but experience teaches us that certain hard-to-define criteria control the creation of a high-level reliable cleanroom. I call that our “black box magic.” This magic is born of experience–the experience of creating quality by very specific process steps learned over time. Such black box magic experience can be taught to others. Then it becomes a part of the mundane way of doing things.

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The cleanroom business presents us with a constant challenge to modify, upgrade, and design/build smarter, while at the same time reducing costs and processing in more confining space.

One of our newest challenges is that as of November 1, 1999, the European community mandated that all classes of air cleanliness be based on the new ISO metric criteria.

Are you familiar with the new ISO global cleanroom standards? Are you metrically challenged or metrically astute? Can you equate to ISO Class 5 or ISO Class 7 and know what it is?

While cleanroom science is not rocket science, the same disciplines that dictate rocket success also dictate cleanroom success: well-defined goals, careful engineering, attention to detail, constant training, constant learning, constant management attention, and constant accountability for decisions and actions.

When all is said and done, the experience factor still exists. It is the constantly changing and mind-expanding black box magic factor. The cleanroom professional who recognizes this factor wins. Ignore this factor and suffer the consequences.

We recently had an experience that demonstrates the value of dealing with knowledgeable people. Our client asked us to price up a design/build Class 10,000 (ISO Class 7) turnkey cleanroom. The project was a small one in a new building that we quoted at $120,000. The client said the general building contractor of his new facility could do it for $40,000. What was wrong with us? We thanked him for the opportunity to quote and strongly suggested that he get from his general contractor a written performance guarantee for the temperature, relative humidity, and air cleanliness class he wanted.

Four months later we heard from the general contractor. He had serious problems. He could not satisfy the owner&#39s criteria. He did not have enough air volume to attain the air cleanliness class his customer asked for. Also, he had difficulty maintaining the relative humidity tolerance. His client, the owner, was very upset that the new facility could not go into production and as a result was losing thousands of dollars per week.

Well, back to my friend&#39s original premise that a good quality cleanroom just comes from common sense, not black box magic. I would temper that premise by strongly suggesting he use his common sense to select the quality team necessary to give him the best cleanroom performance for his money, recognizing that the best team members all possess the ever-changing, ever-expanding experience criteria produced by black box magic.

Richard A. Matthews is founder of Filtration Technology, Inc. in Greensboro, NC and president of Micron Video International. He is chairman of the International Organization for Standardization Technical Committee ISO/TC 209 “Cleanrooms and associated clean environments,” and past president of the Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technology. He is on the CleanRooms Editorial Advisory Board.


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