Cleanroom industry 2020: A year in review

A generation-defining pandemic has revolutionised the running of every corner of business. Understandably, cleanroom experts are chomping at the bit to give a debrief on their many accomplishments and challenges of this year

Time to look back and take stock of 2020. But where to start?

When looking back at January 2020, it is hard to feel like it was in the same year as what was to come. Ardmac secured a major contract with WuXi Biologics in Ireland, BES had just completed a semiconductor facility for an innovation centre, and Kingspan was introducing its new sustainability strategy. Things were running as usual despite news starting to crop up about the virus in Wuhan.

Though February still had projects moving forward with Cree appointing Exyte to its new fab, within just weeks all attention would shift to the novel coronavirus. For the cleanroom sector, this meant a huge focus on cleaning and disinfection, with many rushing to provide evidence that their products worked against the new virus.

Erin Huxtable from Wickham Laboratories, explains the trend: “We have had many enquiries through regarding disinfectant testing, which covers a broad range of efficacy tests as per a variety of standards.”

By March, the implementation of restrictions across the planet upset many supply chains and production facilities scrambled to put appropriate measures into place to keep their workforces healthy and productive. Technologies like TOMI Environmental Solutions’ ionised Hydrogen Peroxide room disinfection system starting to surge in popularity.

Many companies were counting themselves lucky to be in an essential business when seeing sectors completely shut down. Garment laundry providers, Micronclean saw many competitors suffer at the hands of the pandemic and were grateful for the company’s cleanroom focus. “The rest of the industry, that predominantly serves the hospitality sector, has been shut down for the last nine months or operating at a loss with a fraction of their previous throughput,” says Chairman of Micronclean, Simon Fry.

The bottom line takes a hit, but customer goodwill is more important

Though by all accounts this industry has kept going, that is not to say there hasn’t been some huge challenges and disruption. Unprecedented increases in demand with unreliable supply chains have been a problem that many have had to wrestle with, while also extremely pressurised timelines. Co-founder of BeMicron, Siegfried De Smet, says: “The biggest challenge we have seen in the cleanroom sector is the unprecedented increase in demand for all types of products and services. This was certainly not forecasted by anyone and lead to a shortfall in meeting customer demand. The lead/delivery time went up and the supply chain issue became the biggest talking point in the town.”

CEO of Connect 2 Cleanrooms, Joe Govier, concurs: “There was instant demand for the rapid construction and commissioning of cleanrooms, stockpiling of consumables and the final challenge of not being able to test and validate cleanrooms at the normal intervals due to various restrictions.”

Sue Springett, Commercial Manager from Teknomek, also spoke about a way in which projects have been held up: “In particular, it has made the MHRA’s job challenging to say the least – the outcomes of audits and inspections could see businesses having to play catch-up in 2021.”

The odd combination of emergency projects being pushed through, while existing projects were halted or slowed created disruption in even this essential industry. “We’ve seen a number of new build projects put on hold, some of which had been timed to be completed ahead of Brexit. Time will tell if all are reinstated in 2021,” wonders Springett.

It has made the MHRA’s job challenging to say the least

Making the right moves was important and Govier adds: “All businesses will run PESTLE analysis when planning for the future and never has this exercise been so important. The positives from the sudden change were quick gains and being part of such an agile sector.”

On the bright side, a domino effect of restrictions on human presence has been seen with Industry 4.0. “The adoption of Industry 4.0 with the reduction of personal in the facilities has been a big change. Facilities had to get smarter at how they operate and protect their staff as well as their critical product/process,” explains Sales Engineer Helen Tebay from AAF Air Filters. “We know people are the biggest form of contamination but whilst demand increases, we have been able to do so on a reduced headcount generally speaking.”

Consumables

The shift in public focus through the spring bounced from cleaning supplies to PPE. The PPE crisis is one everyone watched play out, and even experts were worried. Ansell CEO expressed serious concerns about supply chains and export control. A concern shared by the WHO.

PPE consumers like Wickham Laboratories talk about their personal issues with supply. “We did have some supply chain issues as our usual vendor for face masks and nitrile gloves cancelled orders when they could not provide a date for normal services to resume. We then had to source these items from various other vendors at a much greater cost,” Huxtable explains. “Hand sanitiser from our usual vendor is still unavailable and has been sourced elsewhere. Finding alternative suppliers is time-consuming and prices vary greatly so it has had quite an impact.”

Connect 2 Cleanroom hosts a consumables division that supplies PPE. Managing Director, Michael Wright, explains many bold commercial decisions needed to be made to protect stocks for its customers. Suppliers of PPE, like C2C, had to take measures to ensure supplies for existing customers were still there. Wright says: “Our principle was to protect stocks, accept the changes in the market where you can and always offer your customer an option, however, challenging supply shortages may make that choice.”

Micronclean’s Fry also speaks of his company’s consumables supply chain: “When COVID hit China, the Chinese government commandeered PPE production from export to internal consumption to tackle the pandemic domestically. Given the time needed to manufacture and ship by sea, this meant that Micronclean, along with all other suppliers of single-use products, did not receive orders for a number of months.”

Inflated prices is an issue that greatly affected this sector

Fry explains that at the same time, customers, seeing the supply shortages, all wanted to increase stock levels. “Micronclean has a policy to hold high levels of stock in its UK warehouse due to the vagaries of this long supply chain, so we had a large amount of stock in hand to manage the reduced supply and increased demand,” Fry says.

Working with customers to maintain historic supplies was one tactic taken by Micronclean, who limited any one customer over-stocking to the detriment of others but helped them meet increasing demand.

Inflated prices is an issue that greatly affected this sector. “As the supply chain came back online, the very strong relationship that we have with our suppliers ensured that they prioritised supply to us over the huge one-off demands they were receiving from profiteering intermediaries selling at inflated prices to unmet demand in Europe,” Fry says.

Teknomek’s Springett expects shortages in PPE may continue into 2021 for some products, but says there is no place for profiteering on tragedy. “Consequently, when our own costs were driven up during periods of shortages, we’ve held our pricing and absorbed the extra costs. While our bottom line may have taken a hit, we believe the goodwill of our customers is more important.”

Rise from the ashes

All companies have fought their own unique battles this year, and lessons can be learnt from their successes.

The most recent phase of the coronavirus response has been long in the works. Those who design cleanrooms have been innovating to provide solutions that can fit the condensed lead times necessary. Guardtech Cleanrooms made many partnerships for containment suits, G-CON Manufacturing launched a mobile LabPOD to assist with diagnostic testing, while C2C has created a monobloc semi-flush cleanroom envelope solution. C2C’s Wright explains that its monobloc solutions pushed the company’s thought process on pre-engineering to absolute new levels. “By embedding every component variable into our ‘semi-bespoke’ design configuration, we can eliminate all unnecessary processing through design, procurement and installation,” Wright said. “By then automating all of our internal factory systems to seamlessly transact this approach, we can now consistently provide cutting-edge controlled environments, that are still customer configured, from order to operational in 4 to 6 weeks.”

Aside from innovation in construction, there was also some good old-fashioned hard work in other sectors. Micronclean’s Fry talks about the effort that went into maintaining raw material supplies. “We had a particular problem quite early on in the crisis with the supply of alcohol which we blend with WFI quality water for cleanroom filling into our trigger sprays. The high purity alcohols are only produced by a handful of industrial chemical manufacturers and all of them switched supply to the healthcare market for hand sanitisation. Whilst in fact, by the skin of or teeth, we managed to continue to source alcohol by making multiple calls a day to all suppliers and by placing advance orders at exorbitant prices.”

It was strange in the early days of the pandemic when the [UK] government went to large scale industrial manufacturers such as JCB and Dyson for solutions to build medical ventilators, when at the same time medical equipment and device manufacturers who produce equipment and products for elective surgery were furloughing staff

Whilst this was a plaster to the issue, Micronclean’s R&D department started a rapid project to look at sourcing alcohol from a fermentation route from the distillery sector. “The issue was one of purity against pharmacopoeia specification with nearly all the products failing,” said Fry. “We did however find one source that met the purity requirements and we had this in the background should our primary sources of industrial alcohol fail. Luckily we did not need to fall back on this, but it was nice to have the security of a backstop.”

Another interesting solution was from Wickham, with the company’s new virtual auditing facilities. Huxtable explains: “We have adapted to virtual audits whereby laboratory tours are given via webcam and documents are exchanged for review via an online platform. Similarly, given restrictions on where we are able to visit throughout the country, we have launched a remote cleanroom qualification service whereby we utilise webcam tours of the cleanroom facility to assess where environmental monitoring should be done. We can also use this to guide the client on how to place the environmental monitoring plates for sampling.”

Though Huxtable acknowledges that this will not be ideal for all situations, she puts forward that in the longer term, this has the possibility of reducing costs as the client will not have to pay for travel or overnight stays.

Keeping normal operations was challenge enough this year, speaking to Geerd Jansen from Brecon International, he says: “We were not in the situation to anticipate with new "Controlled Environment" concepts or products, as a number of competitors did. Our focus was more in satisfying our customers in realising safe working conditions and commissioning of the projects in time."

Experts from AAF, Teknomek, Termovent, and Wickham Laboratories all spoke of the issues of social distancing in a lab, and the initial organisational headache that needed to be managed. Springett from Teknomek said that a lot of their coronavirus effort centred around operator compliance, and creating solutions that maximised it. “Segregation screens that allow people to stay safe in confined quarters are one example, but the product that really sticks out is our foot operated sanitiser dispenser,” she explains. “Working on the basis that not everyone sanitises unless the dispenser is exactly where they are, we developed a portable hands-free product.”

Simple fixes that may not seem obvious, but help greatly.

Final thoughts

Through many sectors who provide services and products for controlled environments there has been a resounding opinion that while larger more sterile facilities have merely tried to maintain their quality, many smaller more relaxed ones have realised the importance of such practices.

”The awareness has increased manifolds, and these seem to develop into a trend and hopefully a norm in the future,” says Global Sales Manager at BeMicron, Anubhav Nathani.

In line with increased quality standards is the increased interest in antimicrobial surfaces. “There is a trend in enquiries related to testing antimicrobial surfaces, looking at whether a new process or equipment can reduce the risk of contamination,” explains Wickham’s Huxtable.

This was not the only way that organisations were looking to become better and more efficient. C2C’s Govier says: “We also saw the [UK’s] NHS adopting lean principles with the restructuring of some services, such as centralising the production of intravenous infusions, to free up the time of critical care nurses. We supported this trend with the delivery of expedited GMP compliant facilities.”

Govier finished with a thought to ponder: “It was strange in the early days of the pandemic when the [UK] government went to large scale industrial manufacturers such as JCB and Dyson for solutions to build medical ventilators, when at the same time medical equipment and device manufacturers who produce equipment and products for elective surgery were furloughing staff. I’m sure lots of lessons have been learnt and hopefully, the trend going forward will lead to more agile and shorter supply chains, who can adapt in a very unpredictable world.”

Featured Companies

Guardtech Cleanrooms (more information, website)
Micronclean (more information, website)
Wickham Laboratories (more information, website)
BeMicron (more information, website)
Connect 2 Cleanrooms (more information, website)
Teknomek (more information, website)