Cleanroom systems need to be as adaptable as the spaces they serve

By David Reese

A generation ago, biotechnology, microelectronics, and other high-tech industries were all but unknown to the general public. Today, we literally can't live without them.

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Biotechnology holds with it the potential for a vast array of new products and services that will improve both the human condition and the environment. Microchips, with features invisible to the naked eye, form the nucleus of powerful supercomputers. Even children's toys boast more computing power than the spacecraft that ferried astronauts to the moon.

The facilities in which these products are developed, tested and manufactured have undergone a fast-paced evolution of their own, driven in large part by the need to take advantage of new product opportunities amid increasingly stringent quality regulations and standards. Even with a sluggish economy, the call to undergo extensive revalidation for cleanroom personnel, procedures, and equipment for any new regulated procedure or material remains a “must” for high-tech laboratories and production facilities.

The more inherent flexibility a building has, of course, the easier it will be for the owner to respond to sudden changes in technologies, expectations and markets. But such flexibility demands more than having sufficient room for new space configurations. Building systems, such as ventilation, air conditioning, water, electricity, specialty services, and communications networking, must be as easily adaptable as the spaces they serve—particularly since they are often integral parts of precision cleanroom processes and optimized for energy conservation.

In complex, multi-function labs, for example, research areas may need varying degrees of exhaust and make-up room air to achieve proper temperature, humidity and pressure conditions. Fine-tuning the amount of ambient air being exhausted to match ventilation requirements reduces outside air intake and conditioning needs, saving energy in the process.

The move toward “smart” systems

Thanks to the ever-increasing sophistication of control systems, biotechnical labs and high-tech clean production facilities can maintain any number of balanced, energy-efficient interior environments. Sensors tied into the various building systems automatically adjust temperature, humidity and air pressure to within fractional tolerances.

These monitoring and control technologies can also enhance a complex facility's preventive maintenance program. By tracking downstream air flow across a filter, for example, a control system can measure static pressure caused by dust accumulation. When the pressure reaches a certain level, the facility maintenance manager is alerted that the filter needs changing. Successful integration of these smart systems, needed to optimize flexibility, requires advanced planning and coordination.

The promise of facility flexibility can be realized only if biotechnology companies, for example, carefully address a number of key issues early in the planning process. A design that provides for adequate separation of activities is essential to prevent cross-contamination from different production and research operations both now and in the future.

Programming requirements should also consider flow of personnel and materials, provide appropriate space for such support operations as equipment cleaning and glass washing, and consider movement and installation of new equipment as new products or activities emerge.

Because production process and assembly operations are the heart of the complex high-tech facility, all other systems should be designed to optimize production. Most planning and programming decisions involving a space's “functional and operational” requirements must reflect the importance of the processes they contain.

Equipment and tools, for example, often require special low-vibration and seismic-resistant foundations, high floor-to-ceiling clearances, and support systems located outside the cleanroom. The control of environmental conditions in many of these spaces may be critical to successful processing or experimentation.

In some cases, there may be a need to integrate a buffer or dampening effect into the settings that will minimize the possibility of overly zealous control response without compromising any production or safety requirements. As with other aspects of the design, the building system controls require careful study and collaboration with the facility owner and users, as well as familiarity with the various control technology alternatives that are available.

To keep pace with the increasingly complex, fast-paced requirements for these state-of-the-art facilities, it's only natural that design teams apply state-of-the-art software to enhance their expertise. A typical A/E (architectural/engineering) toolbox for high-tech facility design should include 3-D CAD that features virtual plant tours to validate operability and facilitate permitting.

In addition, today's A/Es for complex facilities must possess simulation software to create computational fluid dynamic models (CFMs) for airflow and certain processes. Other currently applicable software offers process chemical reaction, mass and energy modeling as well as workflow optimizations. In certain instances, designers must be familiar with automated pipe stress analysis and design software.

The A/E team must also augment its technical expertise with a willingness to gain a full understanding of how the facility's systems, operations and people interact. As with the ideas, products and technologies that laboratories produce, collaboration is the key to optimizing both their operational aspects and potential to sustain the cycle of innovation. Human-centric design issues are an aspect of complex facility programming that should never be overlooked.

If the design effort for laboratories and other high-tech facilities sound out of the ordinary, it's because they are highly complex and unusual facilities. Each one requires an infrastructure solution that will serve not only its human occupants and their current needs, but also the unique course they will follow in the future.

DAVID REESE is a principal and vice president of Carter & Burgess, an architectural, engineering and construction management firm. He can be reached at: [email protected]


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