Wolfgang Hassa, the aeronautical engineer that helped develop the jaw-dropping cleanroom Sphairlab, describes it as a revolutionary design concept that takes build cost and functionality to a whole new level
What do airships and inflatables have to do with cleanrooms? Probably nothing until two years ago when Wolfgang Hassa, an aeronautical engineer who has been working with these devices for the last 20 years, applied them to fulfil a client's request. Company owner Jens Hutzenlaub asked him to build an inflatable cleanroom for Mecora, a solutions provider of plastic components for medical devices. “We called it Sphairlab and the cleanroom turned out so well that we made the decision to put it on the market to find out whether it would work for others or not. Well, it worked” Hassa enthuses.
Hassa spearheads Airwoxx, a company that specialises in textile architecture and aeronautic construction. His know-how in these fields was instrumental in developing the Sphairlab concept; a design based around the features of air domes.
Undoubtedly, the Sphairlab has the wow factor, yet the jaw-dropping design concept might be unthinkable for a cleanroom environment but it makes sense: for many years air domes have been used to contain a range of infrastructures, tennis courts for example. To satisfy Hutzenlaub's plan for an inflatable cleanroom, however, Hassa had to modify the concept to achieve the challenging, not to mention highly-regulated, features of a cleanroom.
“Overpressure is the fundamental element in a cleanroom environment, so we used it to build the shape of the Sphairlab and to put the fabric into position,” Hassa says. He explains that the clean air is distributed inside the Sphairlab through a tube connected to the ceiling, which is made of a hi-tech filament tissue.
The tech specs of the Sphairlab are simple and inexpensive. The envelope is made of an airtight 150 g/m2 polyester fabric, normally used for aviation purposes. The walls are made of a high-performance transparent film. Easy to clean, both fabrics are flame retardant according to DIN 4201 and EN ISO 9239-1 standards. “These materials are very light in relation to their strength; you can even print on it,” Hassa comments.
Mecora's Sphairlab might be a newcomer in the cleanroom sector, but the cutting-edge design has already made waves in the industry: it received the creative prize at Cleanzone 2017.
Headquartered in Aachen, Germany, Mecora is the first company to use the Sphairlab, but not the only one. Following positive feedback from players in the market, there are more under construction, including a GMP, grade B facility for RWTH Aachen University. A third Sphairlab, which is an ISO 7 cleanroom, is underway for a global solutions provider of technology for medical devices.
According to Hassa, a Sphairlab project takes four months to complete. The production of the bespoke HVAC system demands most of the time; the assembly on site is done in a week.
“Sphairlab was developed for use 24/7 as a standard cleanroom, the mobility is a bonus,” he says. “We can stitch the Sphairlab in a new shape according to the room where it needs to be assembled. The beauty of the Sphairlab is that it can be stored in a bag and erected again at a different location without problems, provided there is enough space, obviously.”
A lightweight, portable cleanroom built with inexpensive materials; it sounds unthinkable! So, what's the catch? The Sphairlab is only feasible for applications requiring up to ISO class 6. “We don't want to go higher than ISO class 6 because demand for facilities that require a cleanroom ISO class 6, 7 and 8 is growing and these cleanrooms are not as extremely regulated as the higher classes,” Hassa explains.
Is the dome shape just for the looks or does it play a role?
The shape is perfect to work with the airflow and makes it easy to push the exhaust air. The airflow inside follows the smooth, natural curves of the envelope. The tunnel is also a perfect Sphairlab shape. The form is further supported by an aluminium structure, which also serves as a backup in case of power failure.
Sphairlab claims to use an "intelligent" ventilation system, how so?
The filtered, clean air passes through the hi-tech filament tissue, built in the fabric, like a light rain. The exhaust air escapes through flaps located at the bottom of the envelope, pushed out by the overpressure. The ventilation system filters the air and brings it back in again. Cleanrooms normally work at an air pressure range between 20-30 Pa and this is the range we work too. At night, you can go down to 10 Pa to save energy.
Do you provide the HVAC system?
The HVAC system is produced by a skilled supplier and made in Germany. We order it exactly to customers' needs, so if you require special conditions for temperature or humidity, you will get a bespoke system delivered to your site.
What are the requirements and how much does it cost?
We need to know the ISO class that the facility must comply with and the measurement of the area where the Sphairlab will be installed. The floor and electricity are the responsibility of the client, but we can provide the power during assembly. Upon completion, the client receives a certificate “as build” and “at rest” regarding the ISO class. The charge is around €1,500 per square metre.
Apart from the shape, why do you think the Sphairlab has caused a stir in the market?
Normally, cleanrooms are bright white and boring; the Sphairlab looks sexy and not like a plain box. We can use the walls for advertising and marketing messages in the cleanroom, which help to increase the motivation of the employees working in a nice and good looking environment.
What is the main challenge for Sphairlab as a business?
The main challenge is that the idea behind Sphairlab is too revolutionary for this industry. The cost, shape and endless possibilities are on a whole new level and that is something people in the market are not familiar with; companies are out there trying to make money without taking risks by developing new ideas.
So, where do you see business opportunities?
Besides the pharma and medical device sectors, cleanrooms are used for a range of applications. Potential markets are the automotive and packaging sectors but also start-ups with few financial resources that need a cleanroom. Other companies may want a Sphairlab as a showroom to impress their customers. We believe there are many opportunities!
Sphairlab started as a product of Mecora, but today is an established business with the ambition to grow in Germany, its local marketplace. “If someone wants a Sphairlab outside Germany we can deliver, but for now, our marketing activities are national,” he concludes. The Sphairlab is still a brand new concept and Hassa knows it will take time to convince the industry. Every unit sold brings his goal closer to realisation.
This article appeared in the September issue of Cleanroom Technology.