Innovating Cleanroom Systems Through Integrated Technology

A cleanroom is often the most overlooked aspect of a facility, although cleanrooms are truly integral components of successful operations. Vern Solomon, Founder and Innovator of Environmental Systems Corporation (ESC), discusses how Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things (IoT) are informing recent advancements in critical systems and how ESC is stepping in to anticipate — and warn — clients about suboptimal conditions and to improve processes overall.

DAVID ALVARO (DA): How does your professional history inform the work you currently do?

VERN SOLOMON (VS): My roots are in the HVAC industry. I began my career as a refrigeration and air conditioning mechanic. I started ESC in 1983 with the intention of providing the market with good service, without having an especially focused plan at the time in terms of the industry we were targeting. We built our first cleanrooms in the automotive industry back in 1986, which is where we figured out that we were particularly adept at precision temperature and humidity control.

We’ve experienced a lot of pivots along the way. In the 1990s, we were occupied more by cleanroom work and, in 2004, we executed our first real pharmaceutical cleanroom and bought a cleanroom wall system out of France — it has been uphill from there. The three pillars of this business are the structure itself, the HVAC and control of the airflow, and the controls. We sold the service part of our business 10 years ago to concentrate on those three pillars.

ESC covers the pharmaceutical and medical device industries equally. We also work in radiopharmaceuticals and the nuclear and automotive industries. We’re currently looking more at lithium-ion batteries and really low-humidity applications — there’s no limit to the possibilities.

DA: I would imagine that early in the process of any project there’s a moment where you have to help a client to calibrate their expectations in terms of feasibility and timelines.

VS: Everything’s possible — depending on the budget and timeframe — although you simply can’t bend the laws of physics. One of our first projects was a cleanroom for a client who wanted the temperature to be 68–78 °F and 40–50% relative humidity. The cleanroom was designed according to the specifications. Of course, we know that 78 °F is not optimum, but the designers defended themselves with the excuse that this was what the client requested. Our disappointment was that they were the “experts.” Critical environment control is a balancing act between process requirements, associate comfort, operational costs, and the new outdoor air peaks we are experiencing. The responsibility of a collaborative design team is confirm the correct requirements and provide a system to meet these requirements in all outdoor climate conditions.

DA: How would you characterize the company’s approach to managing projects and communicating with customers?

VS: Trust is really the most important thing. If you lose trust, there’s no relationship, which is why we believe in honest communication that’s also respectful, constructive, relevant, and timely; we keep the interests of all parties in mind.

If there’s an issue or we can’t deliver the way a client might envision it, that has to be communicated immediately — it shouldn’t be a surprise at the end of the project. With such a volatile market — from the supply chain to pricing — constant and transparent communication is key.

DA: What macro trends in the pharma and medical device industries are demanding new solutions and tighter controls than were required in the past?

VS: People are beginning to understand that what they’re doing today may be different six months, two years, or five years from now. The challenge becomes: How are we going to build in the tools needed to adapt to whatever that next new technology may be? While embedding flexibility is crucial, what we provide is relatively straightforward and a market necessity — we’re continuing to play up our strengths and take lessons learned from past projects forward. Since our background spans a range of trades, we bring to the table experience and knowledge of what’s actually feasible that others often either do not have or overlook.

DA: What are some of the possible solutions to maximize flexibility?

VS: On the wall system side, we basically have a stick-built system — but it’s not stick-built. When everybody thinks about stick-built designs, they assume stick-built drywall, but there’s no drywall in our system. We have all the same fit and finishes that others have, but with studs and tracks. ESC has the ability to pop out a panel and add additional services or to move a wall — all the little steps that the other systems leave out because, once they’re welded in place, they’re more difficult to move. 

DA: What do you think makes ESC most unique compared with your peers and competitors, whether that’s capabilities, philosophy, or sensibility?

VS: Again, I believe it’s our ability to pull various components together in one group and give projects single-source responsibility. Another key differentiator is our ability to ensure that the control and validated systems work together. While this is probably the smallest aspect of our business, it might be one of the more important elements of ESC, because, ultimately, that’s what the people are buying. They’re buying that temperature and humidity pressure control, as well as the air change rate, etc., and all of these parts are communicating with each other now.

HVAC systems used to be “dumb” — you had your temperature and humidity control in the room, and that was all. Now we have the ability to let our customers know ahead of time if they should expect a problem, because we’re constantly watching the equipment and freezers. Everything is based on the Industry 4.0 model and the Internet of Things (IoT).

We also watch for trends. For us, the future means becoming a software and hardware company, which is a transition we embarked on about six years ago. We just finished a project for a high potency suite that was quite exciting, because the team built an entire 3D augmented reality visual model. The client was able to go in with 3D glasses and decide that the gloves weren’t right, or that they didn’t like the batten on one of the walls. They were also able to swipe open and see the doors and interlocks, which enabled them to take a closer look and tweak things before any construction began.

They brought all the scientists in, and the team was able to assess the positioning of the bench and how work would flow. We then did the site acceptance test virtually and made all the fixes so, when we conducted the actual site acceptance test, everything worked in the manner in which it was intended.

DA: Is there anything else that has recently changed or enhanced the ESC service offering?

VS: About 18 months ago, we began pursuing digital delivery and doing virtual checks on job sites, which has transformed the way we work. Our priority is being prepared for wherever direction our clients want to go. Whatever new technology is introduced in the future, it will still require a controlled environment.

We’re seeing greater uses for cleanrooms for more manufacturing. An example of this is the new Corvette transmission, which is going to be built in a cleanroom, because there are more electronics involved than ever before. The traditional approach to manufacturing in less controlled environments is no longer acceptable, and we are well positioned to support customers in making this transition.  

DA: How does ESC anticipate and plan for new challenges that might potentially arise, even before customers are specifically requesting such solutions?

VS: There are approximately 18 different ideas that we’ve come up with, and it’s part of my job to shepherd those through. At times, they’re cascading priorities, such as predicting client needs and moving those forward. We often have more sweeping ideas and are constantly thinking: How do we put ourselves out of business? Can we have a disposable cleanroom? Could we put something up in the parking lot that would go around that piece of equipment? These questions are especially important when you consider high-potency spaces and anticipating where things could go awry. We recently got a patent on what is essentially a disposable cleanroom where we can wrap the whole thing up, stick it in a barrel, and send it off to the incinerator.

Our process is to always listen. One of our strengths is the fact that we’re not the scientists or the people that are in the industry every day; we approach problems from a refrigeration perspective and ask not-so-obvious questions to solve client pain points.

I was with potential clients the other night, and I asked, What would make your life easier? Most of the upgrades to our systems have spun out from client demands. For example, we came up with the 6-inch module on our ceiling system because we had a client that wanted to bring the pipes down through the ceiling. We were able to deliver, and since then we’ve found 20 more uses for that same approach. That sums up what we do; sometimes the solution is a simple tweak, and other times it requires more.

DA: What kinds of customers have you been most successful in reaching?

VS: The traditional client that is unwilling to change or move forward is probably not somebody that fits well with our process. We look for clients of all sizes that are willing to diverge from an antiquated approach to meet their expectations of the design. We like to get the people from the quality and validation groups involved as early as possible to ensure that they’re comfortable with the methodology. Our job is to explain a design situation in plain English so that people understand what we’re doing, even if it’s new. We look for the person who’s maybe a little bit of a “rebel” and has an open mind, who can trust the science that we will deliver.

DA:  What’s the best way to get a project started on the right foot?

VS: The earlier you can engage the contractor with the design team, the better. While we have the knowledge on how to deliver a system, it’s beneficial when the client can be part of the team initially, because we’re all going to carry out processes a little differently. We’ve found that what works best is getting all parties to the table upfront, dealing with the system, and having the team design around the strengths of the team.

The absolute priority is getting the design right. If we’re building a 65,000-ft2 cleanroom that needs to be delivered in four months, we may not sign off on the final design for two months; however, that doesn’t stop us from ordering the extrusion and the panels, etc. — we begin that process as soon as we hear a “yes.” Then we figure out what that final configuration should look like and build it. Some cleanroom providers wait until the final drawings are signed off before ordering anything — that’s not who we are. We have enough parts in stock to start a job as soon as the next week.

DA: What can you tell me about how you see the market changing or how ESC is going to evolve over the next five or ten years?

VS: I think Industry 4.0 is a tremendous catalyst for change. We now have the ability to gather information in ways that we couldn’t even conceive in the past. To me, the most exciting part of all this is that we’re going to be able to integrate the data we collect into everything. We’re going to be able to say: This is exactly what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.

This enables us to approach our builds from a more informed starting point and pivot if needed. For example, if I know that tomorrow will be hot and humid, and I know that the client has a system that they haven’t upgraded and won’t meet those conditions, we can step in and warn them not to run the product. We’re integrating those trends, centered around artificial intelligence, which is going to make us a more valuable partner to clients in the future — especially because the mechanical systems are almost always taken for granted.

Vernon Solomon

Vern has nearly four decades of experience in modular design for cleanrooms and close tolerance temperature and humidity control. He assists clients in the Design, Programming and Construction of Modular Construction of Facilities for ISO 4 to 8 Cleanrooms, Biological Safety Containment Level 1, 2 2E & 3, Laboratories and Healthcare, utilizing the ALUMA1 Flexible Modular Wall System. Vern’s background in refrigeration allows ESC to configure unique custom solutions for temperature/humidity and airflow control for these critical environments.