An interview with Wayne McGee, owner of PortaFab Modular Building Systems, and Tim Loughran, owner of Cleanroom Construction Associates.
How is the modular cleanroom industry changing to meet the demands of today’s market?
Tim: While the modular cleanroom industry continues to evolve, the basic benefits provided by modular construction have not changed much over the years. When we are helping architects and contractors specify a cleanroom, modular construction is an obvious alternative to conventional construction if the space is going to require a large amount of future adaptability, the timeline of the project is extremely condensed, or the disruption to the current operation of the facility needs to be minimized. The recent developments in modular construction have more to do with the greater selection of systems and components than anything else.
Wayne: I agree that the primary advantage of modular construction relates to the fact that future modifications are inexpensive, clean, and non disruptive to the current operations. With pre engineered systems, it is typically easier to control quality and eliminate the time and costs associated with much of the design process, but the systems still need to meet all of the space’s requirements. As the modular construction concept continues to grow, we continue to invest in developing systems so that we can build more sophisticated cleanrooms that utilize more pre-engineered components.
Are you speaking primarily in regard to hardwall cleanrooms?
Tim: Yes, softwall cleanrooms tend to be smaller or portable units that satisfy a fairly limited number of applications. They require very little integration with windows, equipment, and door systems so they are pretty simple to install. When I speak of modular cleanroom construction, I typically am considering hardwall systems that are an alternative to conventional construction for more sophisticated applications and larger design projects.
So, are there different types of hardwall cleanrooms?
Wayne: Yes, the majority of the modular cleanrooms on the market today utilize what we call a “Post-and-Panel” system. The technology is very similar to that used to create modular offices whereby steel or aluminum posts integrate with standard composite wall panels to create a cleanroom envelope. For pharmaceutical and aseptic cleanroom applications, however, there are systems that utilize “unitized panels” or “mono panels.” These panels are affixed to the posts and utilize some type of internal connectors so that flush wall surfaces can be created. Finally, microelectronics and nanotech applications often require another style that allows for significant bulkheading.
Tim: There are also liner wall systems that integrate with standard construction materials like metal 2 x 4s to create entire stand-alone cleanrooms. We could call these hybrid systems as they combine many of the benefits of modular construction with standard construction methods. To some extent, the wall system is not entirely module in nature, but the system is modular because the ceiling, window, door, and flooring components are all pre-engineered.
Plus, within each of these systems there are often different wall systems. For example, a typical modular system may include different components for creating liner walls, load-bearing walls, partition walls, and bay or chase walls.
Wayne: As an example, the system we sell into the microelectronics market actually features three different wall systems: framed, liner, and batten. The framed system is the most sophisticated one, and I liken it to an erector set because it can be configured in an almost unlimited manner. Framed wall panels feature aluminum posts and brackets that can be used to create openings of virtually any size in any area of the wall. In a typical cleanroom, this style will be used to create most of the walls, but liner or furring walls can be used to skin existing walls in the facility and batten walls can be used for interior partitions.
Aside from the general advantages of using modular construction, would you say that one can gain even more advantages because modular systems have evolved?
Tim: Exactly, once a company commits to using modular construction for a cleanroom project, our focus then turns to choosing modular systems and components that will allows us to design the cleanroom in the most cost effective manner while still meeting all other requirements. For larger or more complex installations, utilizing a variety of components and wall systems can have a major impact on the overall cost.
Wayne: To that point, we will often integrate as many as three different modular wall systems when designing a large cleanroom or outfitting an entire facility. For instance, the majority of a cleanroom project may utilize a load-bearing, 3″ thick post-and-panel wall system, but we will use a 2″ thick system for interior and chase walls and ½” thick liner wall panels to skin existing walls in a facility. By eliminating posts and using thinner panels where we can, we cut costs, save space, and minimize waste.
Wall systems have evolved, how about other structural components?
Wayne: One key to success in our industry is developing components that integrate with each other yet work for a wide variety of applications. The more that we can pre-engineer systems and components, the more we can reduce design time and benefit from using standard, mass produced parts that integrate seamlessly with each other. Aside from the wall systems, our biggest emphasis has been on developing ceiling, window, and door options that integrate with our wall systems.
Has this been a big problem? Is it challenging to get standard ceiling systems to integrate with other modular components?
Tim: No, traditional ceiling grids and tiles will work for many applications. The lowest cost alternative is typically a standard grid system with cleanroom grade fiberboard panels with sealed edges while higher end facilities may require aluminum honeycomb ceiling tiles. The challenge is that some of the ceiling systems on the market are not designed for certain applications and do not always integrate well with the walls.
Wayne: To Tim’s first point, we have definitely seen an increase in the use of our heavy-duty grid systems because they are designed specifically for cleanroom applications. Not only are they designed for clean environments, but they are engineered to hold the weight of fan filter units without sagging and compromising the ceiling’s integrity. In regard to integration, there are pharmaceutical and aseptic cleanroom applications that require walkable ceilings and extremely smooth surfaces and these can be challenging to integrate. Products like our panelized ceiling integrate seamlessly with our walls and feature an uPVC film coating that allows the joints between the walls and ceiling to be chemically welded.
Are there standard modular cleanroom windows?
Wayne: There are not many—if any—off-the-shelf, flush cleanroom window systems on the market. Even if there were, we would need them to integrate with multiple wall systems in a variety of widths in order to satisfy the many needs of our clients. Because of this, we have dedicated a lot of resources over the past few years to developing flush and beveled window systems that integrate with our wall systems and provide the functionality required.
I imagine doors are even more challenging?
Tim: With windows, we are typically most concerned with minimizing areas where particulate can accumulate and making the room easy to clean. Doors create even more challenges as there are hundreds of different cleanroom doors available on the market and it takes a fair amount of skill and experience to incorporate these into a modular cleanroom. Plus, choosing the most appropriate door style is affected by the room’s cleanliness class, use, and traffic requirements as well as direction of swing, room pressurization, and a host of other factors so it would be impossible to create a one-size-fits-all cleanroom door.
Wayne: For these reasons, we have worked with door suppliers and our designers to develop and manufacture aluminum door frames and cased openings that can be used across a very wide variety of door options.
What about floors?
Wayne: Integrating a modular system with the floor is typically fairly straightforward, but we are seeing more companies that want to eliminate all 90 degree angles in their cleanroom so we have developed coving solutions that allow our wall systems to transition to floors and ceilings.
Are there any other factors that are helping modular construction evolve?
Tim: Companies today are definitely more interested in the environmental aspects related to construction projects and this has helped the modular industry evolve. Inherently, modular cleanrooms benefit from less material waste and site disruption as the systems are pre-engineered and pre-fabricated off site. With the push by some to achieve certain LEED standards, the focus on creating more environmentally friendly components and systems should continue to grow.
Wayne: There are also accounting and tax issues related to modular construction. Modular construction has always benefitted from accelerated depreciation schedules and certain sales tax exemptions, but in recent years, parts of the government’s economic stimulus act have provided an even greater incentive for companies to use modular construction to invest in growing their businesses.
Having studied the modular construction market for the last seven years, I have seen the same core benefits of the modular concept apply to industries that range from office furniture to highly engineered processing systems: cost, speed, quality control, consistency, flexibility, lack of disruption. I even had a client that spoke of reduced OSHA exposure and the ability to minimize in-house union labor as reasons for using modular construction.
When it comes to modular cleanrooms, these same core benefits apply, but we are seeing costs and installation times decrease as suppliers design more intuitive components that fit together more quickly. Better design has enhanced quality control and improved consistency while product line expansions have yielded more flexibility. The biggest challenge the modular industry faces from my point of view is that too many people simply don’t consider it. Its biggest challenge is overcoming the “We have always done it that way” mentality that keeps people from even considering it. I think that if people just give modular a chance, they will be delighted with the results.
Mark Forst is a marketing consultant and writer that has worked extensively with companies manufacturing and selling modular products including cabinets, closet systems, processing equipment, in-plant offices, office furniture, and cleanrooms.