Whether it’s because of advances in science and technology, growing regulation, or increased competition, companies and organizations throughout the world continue to face greater needs for controlled environments in their facilities. Oftentimes these needs arise very quickly and require solutions that can be implemented in a very timely manner. Such situations have spurred growth and innovation in the development of new modular cleanroom systems. Today’s facility operators can now choose from numerous modular systems to match their particular needs.
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Regardless of which type of modular system one chooses, the benefits of these systems have remained relatively consistent over the years. They feature a quick and clean installation process, consistent product quality, reduced construction time, certain tax advantages, and “green” benefits resulting from a reduced material waste. As the market evolves, however, new systems are being designed for specific applications and industries. The variety of panels and interchangeable components to choose from grows as well.
In today’s market, modular cleanroom systems can typically be categorized into four main styles: softwall cleanrooms, structural post and panel systems, specialty systems which include framing or partitioning, and aseptic systems. Each of these systems were designed by modular cleanroom manufacturers in order to satisfy the particular needs of an industry or application.
Softwall cleanroom systems
Softwall cleanrooms provide an economical solution to applications requiring light environmental control. These cleanrooms are typically comprised of a metal framing system, flexible vinyl curtain walls, and a number of fan filter modules at the top of the structure to control particulate and air flow. Due to their basic design, softwall cleanrooms can be erected very quickly with minimized labor requirements, offering an ease of mobility that other structures do not provide.
Advances in mounting methods, closure, and fastening systems have made it easier to incorporate softwall cleanrooms into a variety of applications as well as within other cleanroom systems. They can be utilized within larger cleanroom environments as
partitions to separate areas or to create cleaner interior zones. As softwall systems continue to evolve, many manufacturers now offer transparent, tinted, opaque, and anti-static curtain options, furthering the list of applications for which these structures can be used.
Softwall cleanrooms offer a flexible and economical solution for lower level classifications and basic environmental control pertaining to GMP rooms, inspection rooms, manufacturing areas, and machinery enclosures.
Structural post and panel systems
The core product for many modular manufacturers and suppliers consists of an “all-purpose” system that can be utilized for a variety of applications from GMP rooms to specific ISO classes. These systems offer a high level of versatility and can be used to outfit existing facilities or to create larger freestanding envelope structures to house separate compartmentalized processes.
These cleanroom systems can offer further flexibility by incorporating a panel-post design. This type of configuration offers the integration of a variety of different wall panels and cores including aluminum honeycomb, polystyrene, stainless steel, fiberglass reinforced plastic (FRP), and other selections based on the intended application and needs of the cleanroom.
All-purpose cleanroom systems are used in a variety of applications and ISO classifications including quality control enclosures or inspection rooms, medical device packaging areas, USP 797 compounding labs or equipment, and machinery enclosures.
Due to the critical environmental conditions that are demanded in precision microelectronics manufacturing and nanotechnology applications, cleanrooms in these industries have typically required systems that integrated well with the equipment needed to run these operations. Framing systems tended to be the ideal solution for these types of cleanrooms. These systems feature both vertical and horizontal members that easily connect to each other to simplify bulkheading and create air tight seals around equipment and tooling. Plus, the non-progressive design allows for easy removal of the walls without the need to remove adjacent panels, framing studs, or ceiling grids.
One challenge is that cleanrooms in the microelectronics industry typically require anti-static wall panels that are also non-outgassing and non-shedding in order to completely eliminate the potential for contamination when working with electronic devices. The proven solution is honeycomb aluminum panels — they perform well, but they are very expensive. A lot of innovation in the industry has been focused on developing more cost effective solutions. By analyzing the design of the cleanroom, one can often find opportunities to integrate thinner wall panels and lighter weight frames that can significantly reduce the cost of the cleanroom without sacrificing performance or functionality.
Due to the unique needs and requirements found within the biomedical, life science, medical device, and pharmaceutical industries, modular cleanroom manufacturers have developed systems exclusively for these markets.
Aseptic systems are designed to eliminate the potential buildup of particles and other contaminants along cracks, seams, and crevices within the environment. To accomplish this, they utilize radius coving along all corners of the room while incorporating flush windows, walls, ceilings, and floor systems to provide a completely seamless interior. To further reduce contamination, these systems feature durable and non-shedding wall panels consisting of uPVC coating and aluminum honeycomb cores which are designed to withstand the repeated cleaning and sanitization processes required by the pharmaceutical and medical industries.
In order to further meet specific regulations or requirements, many modular manufacturers now offer a variety of interchangeable window, floor, and ceiling styles that can integrate seamlessly within the aseptic cleanroom design.
Further advantages for facility owners
Most modular cleanroom manufacturers design their systems so that that they integrate well together, offering end clients further advantages by mixing and matching varying systems and components to create customized solutions. This type of integration between varying modular products allows facility managers to specify systems that are designed to meet the particular needs of their operation. For instance, a food manufacturer can be provided with a new laboratory, mixing operation, packaging line, and storage area, and still have these systems integrate together to form one cleanroom facility for increased throughput within the manufacturing plant.
Even within these systems, modular manufacturers are continuously identifying cost-savings opportunities for their end clients. Many can offer thinner cleanroom wall panels to be used as cladding to skin existing walls or create side wall returns and mechanical chases quickly and more economically. Interior walls that do not require bulkheading can be constructed from more economical cleanroom partition systems, as opposed a more expensive cleanroom panel specifically designed for bulkheading and tooling needs. Load-bearing structures can also offer financial benefits by allowing the placement of air filtration equipment on top of the cleanroom. This arrangement eliminates the need to create bay and chase areas to surround the environment, significantly reducing costs.
A continued evolution
For those that have not considered utilizing modular cleanrooms in a while, it may be time to revisit them as an option. Newly designed modular systems and components are increasing in functionality and reducing overall costs as systems are becoming more application-specific and less “one-size-fits-all.” As a result, today’s facility managers have more and better options to choose from when comparing modular systems as the industry continues to evolve.
Wayne McGee is President and CEO of PortaFab Corp., a manufacturer of modular cleanrooms and environments, with over 25 years of modular design and construction expertise. PortaFab is headquartered in St. Louis, Mo. www.portafab.com
This article appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Controlled Environments.