The Greek cleanroom engineering firm’s MD and HVAC expert talks honestly about her country’s sector, the problems plaguing the push for sustainability in cleanrooms, and how understanding a project scope is key to continued success
Katia Bougatsou heads up a cleanroom company currently going through a metamorphosis. As Managing Director from the age of 30 in 2015, Katia has seen the company through its 2022 rebrand to BCT Group (Bougatsos Cleanroom Technologies) from V. Bougatsos. As Vice President of ASHRAE’s (The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) Greek Chapter, providing training to undergrads in Athens, has a wealth of knowledge that she is putting to good use.
The Greece-based cleanroom specialist puts an emphasis on engineering, specifically on energy efficiency and not wasting time and funds on unnecessary costs. As a mechanical engineer, Katia has designed and managed many HVAC system installations for industrial and cleanroom environments. “In the beginning, I dealt only with the mechanical systems of cleanrooms, but then I realised that contamination-controlled environments are more than just HVAC so I focused on cleanroom technology and cleanroom validation, obtaining knowledge from training, seminars, associations and a lot of studying. My engineering background helped me a lot to understand the mechanisms behind the so-called ‘controlled environment’.”
Katia talks a lot about her influences in design of controlled environments. “From 2007 to 2010 I worked for the mother company in Greece as an engineer in design and new technologies, from 2010 to 2014 I was responsible for our branch in Romania Frigomech SRL and from 2015 I came back to Greece to lead the mother company,” she explains.
My engineering background helped me a lot to understand the mechanisms behind the so-called “controlled environment”
“My first cleanroom project was a 15,000 sqm ISO Class 8 cleanroom, containing a smaller 1,500 sqm cleanroom Class 6 for the production of Photovoltaic Panels with thin film technology,” she recalls. At this point, Katia was 25, and her company undertook the design and installation of all the mechanical systems for the cleanroom utilities (air systems, chilled /hot water equipment, process cooling water, ATEX Ventilation, BMS/EMS etc). “This project was like a school to me and helped me learn too many things that I still come across very often,” she adds.
The three years that Katia worked for Frigomech in Bucharest, Romania were also highly influential on her. “[This time] involved quickly evolving, switching from traditional technics to more technologically advanced approaches and in many different sectors: food, beverages, pharma, electronics,” she says. “These 3 years were determinant to me to build empathy with clients and understand their needs with so-called ‘disruptive business transformation’.”
These 3 years were determinant to me to build empathy with clients and understand their needs with so-called ‘disruptive business transformation’
Upon her return, Katia explains how she learnt that Greece’s transformation was slower than Romania’s, even though factories were already more advanced in terms of technology. However, quick business transformation arose in Greece as well, demanding some of the approaches and services be focused on higher efficiency and technological superiority. Key experience that she had gained in her years in Romania.
Learning English in addition to Greek in her childhood, and adding Romanian to the list for her years in Bucharest, Katia has thrown herself fully into these career moves. Adding, I think is time to start another language too…”
“I have come across designs from specialised engineering companies that propose sophisticated solutions that may not add significant value to the final result and, other times, solutions that provide low investment cost but are not expandable and the customer needs to invest from the beginning for a minor modification in production.”
Katia’s insight here draws attention to the issue of cleanroom firms not understanding the wider scope of projects. She says that companies specialising in cleanrooms are often very competent in construction and materials selection but lack expertise in engineering. This awareness is something Katia is keen to instil in BCT. “As a turnkey cleanroom provider we have developed capabilities like fast cleanroom construction, automation systems developed in-house and many customised solutions that are unique/patented that give customers many benefits.”
As her “top tip” to those building a cleanroom facility, Katia says she would advise a potential customer planning to invest in cleanrooms to reflect on what they want to achieve with the cleanroom, how far they want to go with their innovative products, how much they want to differentiate from competition, how sustainable they want to be, and how much automation to incorporate and replace manual works with. Then to take this and decide what kind of cleanroom fits their needs and which will be the most competent type of partner to materialise this plan.
“Cleanrooms are not just an environment for production or work, they are more or less a vehicle for constant development as they introduce the customer to another technological world with many more capabilities,” she says.
With Katia and BCT’s strong background in engineering and HVAC comes the focus on design of efficient cleanrooms that achieve their goals with the minimum energy consumption but still as simple and sustainable as possible.
“I think energy efficiency optimisation of the whole system, not just of each unique piece of equipment, will be the main scope of any new cleanroom application,” The MD posits. “Starting with the reduction of generated contamination, methods for more precise automation integration replacing human interference and higher use of new technologies in mechanical systems that provide better collaboration of different parts aiming in achieving the best efficiency value as a system will be the major challenge in the industry giving great opportunities for innovation.”
An idea that is persistent in the contamination control sector in order to address sustainability concerns, is that of reducing air change rates. This is a challenge that Katia comes across in almost every cleanroom.
With the chance to lower CAPEX and OPEX, this is extremely attractive, but there is always risk. “The solution to this challenge is to protect and focus on the critical areas and at the same time eliminate the introduction of risk,” she begins. “In the pharmaceutical industry, this challenge has been addressed by engaging more isolators and RABS, whilst also improving cleanroom garments as well reducing human occupancy. But in other industries that are not so well trained in cleanroom disciplines due to authority’s surveillance non-necessity such as food cleanrooms and electronics, this remains a major challenge.”
Katia’s refreshing honesty reveals some of the benefits and curveballs of the region’s controlled environment industries. “The market in Greece is quite restricted so we never have the same application, it is always something different in another industry for different requirements,” she says. This affords Katia and BCT the opportunity to always be upping their expertise. “I can say that every project we undertake is unique or we make it unique as we always try to develop something new such as to apply a non-conventional mechanical solution which could have lower energy consumption, or another automation approach providing better control and monitoring. We never do the same thing.”
“I love working in new technologies and exploring and materialising high-tech systems in new sectors collaborating with other people in this scope,” Katia says. Listing off some of her top favourite projects to work on, Katia lists rooms for cytostatic products, but ultimately focuses on arguably her greatest achievement to date.
The MD presided over Greece’s first-ever BSL 3 Laboratory, a huge milestone in the country’s controlled environment journey.
The market in Greece is quite restricted so we never have the same application, it is always something different in another industry for different requirements
Like many, Katia comments on the severe change in priorities for companies requiring cleanrooms during the pandemic. “BCT was very busy building laboratories for COVID sampling and systems for factories as food and medicine consumption raised exceptionally,” she recalls. “Factories in Greece proceeded to quickly perform production expansions. Despite this, our company didn’t close for even one day and lockdown made things very difficult. Also, at that time we had in progress a big project in Slovakia demanding frequent transportation of materials and people.”
Despite some huge technological leaps for the country, it still seems to suffer from the same practical stumbling blocks as many other regions. “Air changes, especially in Greece, are still treated as benchmark reference without investigating further what will be the optimum recipe for a cleanroom,” Katia says expressing concern. “The scope of air changes is to dilute generated contamination, so the first step is to look at the causes of contamination and try to reduce it as much as possible. Such steps are made in more evolved markets but still, there is not enough information and cleanroom providers do not often get involved in investigating the generated contamination to advise the best possible approach to air changes.
Of course, experience is important but still, there is much space for improvement by also developing solutions with equipment manufacturers and cleanroom garments providers.”
When trying to become ‘the best cleanroom provider’, it seems there is not one right way to do it, but in fact, many right ways that can and should work together. BCT Group was begun by Katia’s father in the 80s, but Katia obviously intends to take the 40 years of continued improvement in her company and the sector and push the company soaring to new heights.