A look at some of the biggest trends in plastic processing and their impact on environmental design
Cleanrooms can look very different depending on what industry they are being used for. Pharmaceutical cleanrooms stress about microbiological contaminants, whilst aeronautic cleanrooms lose sleep over dust and particulates.
A lesser discussed cleanroom is the environment used to create plastic products. The process involves injecting molten plastic into a mould tool and then ejecting it once it solidifies. Often these plastics need to be moulded in medical-grade conditions, and this is where the environmental control needs to take place.
Trends in the medical plastic processing industry can have huge impacts on manufacturing facility design. Two of the most influential trends of today are sustainability and Industry 4.0.
Sustainability: There is a big focus on sustainability in the production process and though obviously sustainable materials are a key goal, the engineering of the facility should not have its importance overlooked. This can come in the form of waste management and process optimisation.
The HVAC system efficiency can be improved as in most cleanrooms, but cooling with water is one of the more unique aspects of this sector. Due to its large role in plastic processing, this is a highly influential factor in this industry’s energy usage that can be improved for reduced environmental impact.
All of these aspects need the built environment around the process to be operating efficiently. This is something that companies selling these products often use as a unique selling point, so should not be overlooked by facility providers.
Sustainability is something that companies selling these products often use as a selling point
Industry 4.0: Time is continually pushing the innovation of this sector with machinery and other improvements. For example, in 2022 Spectrum Plastics Group, a global solutions provider for development through scaled manufacturing of critical polymer-based components and devices for medical and other demanding markets, completed a major renovation and cleanroom expansion at its Minneapolis, MN facility.
Outside of growth demands on the existing manufacturing capacity, the US-based company explained that there are increasing quality expectations in the manufacture and assembly of complex products and components that made a controlled environment a requirement. “Beyond implantables, there is a continued need for particulate-free products made from specialised materials for the medical device, life sciences, and aerospace industries, due to fluid path concerns, bodily contact, or optical clarity,” the company stated.
This is all to say, that the final products are required to be more and more sterile.
Another trend in the modernisation of the injection moulding industry seems to be smaller products that require precise and tight tolerance injection moulding and assembly. Paul Schmeling, Spectrum’s Senior VP of Specialty Molding, said that this requires more engineered resins and specialised processes, and in turn, these create design challenges for the engineering team.
So the trends in increasing innovation in production machinery and final product complexity, as well as demand for increasingly sustainable products, are pushing the industry into more controlled environments. But what exactly does this mean?
Special processes such as high-purity nitrogen and oil-free compressed air can be used to reduce risk of contamination
There are many unique aspects to a plastic processing facility. One of the major features in many injection moulding cleanrooms is cranes. These can be extremely tall and heavy, meaning these types of cleanrooms need to be designed with these features in mind.
Another project in 2022, saw BES carry out a $5.4m expansion to a medical device facility for Recipharm. Existing cleanrooms and fallow areas were stripped out, remodelled and refurbished to accommodate plastic injection moulding and assembly capabilities. The build was carried out with the existing production in mind, while also designing for awkward aspects like bulky cranes.
With the aim to futureproof the facility for further expansion, BES designed a plan that involved new chillers and new Air Source Heat Pumps, with standby capability incorporating the process systems, chilled water, compressed air and boiler systems to underpin operational continuity and minimise the risk of unscheduled downtime.
The plan utilised waste heat from the process systems for use in the HVAC plant. The cooling process system also included an innovative recovery system that collects and re-uses water from the moulding process. This all aims to improve the environmental impact of the facility.
This all illustrates how sustainability and innovation influence how a facility is designed.
Looking back at Spectrum’s new facility, Improvements to the 105,000 sqft facility included additional moulding machine capacity and additional updates that reflect modern state-of-the-art and highly technical moulding services.
Real-time data capture is part of the ultra-modern digital technology framework in a cleanroom
The ISO Class 8 cleanroom manufacturing space was expanded to a total of 10,000 sqft. The cleanroom is designed to manage the special challenges of cleanroom moulding and workflow, for example, the drying of materials occurs outside the cleanroom and can only enter the cleanroom at the press. Special processes such as high-purity nitrogen and oil-free compressed air can be used to reduce risk of contamination.
Real-time data capture, process quality monitoring, and in-cavity pressure monitoring are also all part of the ultra-modern digital technology framework in the cleanroom.
The technological age and climate crisis have hit the injection moulding cleanroom market, and if design and build firms are looking to win these projects, these are some of the challenges that they will need to address for the client.