Fast forward for modern cleanrooms

Cleanrooms are undergoing the fastest rate of change in their 50-year history. M+W Products’ Chief Sales Officer Michael Rodd looks into the future of the sector and examines how practice can be improved to meet financial and ergonomic developments

Cleanroom providers are faced with increasingly varying briefs from facilities that break records in terms of space to those that need modularity and flexibility

Today’s cleanroom seems to be a lifetime away from Willis Whitfield’s original air filter, developed approximately 50 years ago. Since then, the requirement for a room that is clean has stemmed from the need for contamination control. Fast forward to the modern day cleanroom and we discover a permutation of both science and engineering – assessing scientific processes that have worked and engineering them to deliver better results.

The exponential growth of the cleanroom market that followed Whitfield’s concept in the 1960s was not because he was the first person to invent a clean, air-conditioned environment but because his design structure was 100 times more effective than any controlled enclosure that had been trialled before.The trick was that Whitfield applied technology to create an environment that could revive itself. Much of the future technology since then, and even today, pays respect to the development of this laminar flow cleanroom.

The global cleanroom technology market is expected to grow by more than 30% over the next five years to reach a value of around US$4.3bn by 2020, according to a report from Persistence Market Research1. This is down to two main factors: increased demand due to adoption across a wider range of industries and a greater need for more efficient operations.

Over the next five years, further advances in cleanroom technology are a given: there will be more streamlined and advanced, energy-efficient air handling solutions than ever before. However, it is the cost-effective application of cleanrooms for increasingly varied uses in diverse markets that will take the industry to new heights. The cleanroom is becoming the go-to environment, from the development of new biologics and the wider application of medical devices through to the requirement of automotive manufacturers for cleanrooms due to the growing demand for intelligent electronics in today’s modern motor vehicles.

It is an exciting time; the industry is opening its doors to more customers than ever before as product quality and safety create the need for more cleanrooms and more technology to cater for multiple business needs.

Wider use of electronics in medical and automotive applications is driving demand for cleanrooms

A cleanroom is designed to serve one key purpose – to prevent contamination. Therefore, the best cleanrooms are the ones that are most effective in containing themselves from external air. This effectiveness can be classified from turbulent to linear laminated airflow, which is a part of the ISO and good manufacturing practice (GMP) standards (Grades A–D) that industry has become accustomed to.

One of the continuing developments is that of the ‘clean not classified’ (CNC) area, which is still cleaner than any standard room but aims to get as close as possible to grade D in a cost-effective and efficient manner, mainly within pharmaceutical manufacturing operations. Essentially, an area that is CNC is ‘clean’, but it is not classified because it works under tailored GMP conditions.

Access to the cleanroom by personnel, as well as the transfer of goods, has long offered a challenge to designers to provide solutions that maintain the lowest possible contamination risk during the entry and exit processes. The pioneering development of special pods in the microelectronics industry was the beginning of looking at contained devices to provide safe transport solutions. Nowadays, special wagons or trolleys provided with independent air handling equipment pave the way for more advanced solutions using automated guided vehicles (AGVs) which are able to pass through tunnel air shower vessels which perform de-dusting. Therefore, while the premium grade of classified cleanrooms will continue to dominate the market, the industry is embracing the efficiency of extended controlled areas and environments to deliver reliable and effective processes throughout, by using a broader level of cleanroom technologies and solutions, beyond the main manufacturing facilities.

The modular cleanroom

For the cleanroom market, however, technology is only half the battle. Progress is heavily dependent upon the economic and efficient operations of services. Over the past year alone, cleanroom providers have been tasked with economically challenging briefs to design and engineer laboratories that can withstand the development of time. For example, future cleanrooms could well be designed and built from modular components. The idea behind this is to create cleanroom environments in specific segments that allow future adaptations and removal of entire parts. With filtered vessels that can be both transported and remodelled, the future cleanroom is becoming both flexible and modular.

A cleanroom must not only be futuristic, it must also meet financial and ergonomic demands. Consider a filter fan unit that is designed to do more for less; that can reduce the rate of changes required but still maintain the constant airflow demanded. For instance, cleanroom experts are testing the use of filter fan units that maintain airflow as well as they do now, but with a reduced requirement for change, making them both increasingly cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

Automation and energy consumption are two trends driving change in cleanrooms

Eliminating contaminants

As predicted centuries ago, it is human personnel that carry the most contamination. Even advanced technology cannot always measure the total particulate count within an enclosed container and detect the continuous generation of organisms by individuals. It is claimed that the outer layer of human skin can host up to one million micro-organisms per cm2 and human saliva up to one billion micro-organisms per ml.

Micro-organisms attach themselves to apparel, therefore future processes that can differentiate microbiological components of an operation will be most effective in eliminating contaminants. For instance, technology is being developed that can measure the numbers of viable organisms or bioburden in real time and thus help to prevent contamination during the process stream.

However, the future of cleanroom technology will never eradicate basic negligence. Using the correct clothing and ensuring the use of effective disinfection agents and air shower units goes a long way towards the maintenance of contamination control for any cleanroom operative. With that in mind, experts are investigating the possibility of offering ‘photodynamic disinfection’ provided as a laser treatment upon personnel garments to eradicate any particles and lingering emissions produced.

Change is the constant

The only constant that has remained with us over the past 50 years is the continued development of the cleanroom. Financial departments have been kept busy delivering cost-effective solutions; engineers have been tasked to meet specifications that surpass best practice; and cleanroom experts have been challenged to apply techniques that provide tighter control and yet are more flexible. These demands are constantly adapting the methodology and purpose of future cleanroom projects.

1. www.medgadget.com/2015/12/global-cleanroom-technology-market-gains-momentum-from-rising-application-in-construction-and-pharmaceutical-industries.html

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