Modular solutions get a new life



SYRACUSE, N.Y.—When Clestra Cleanroom SA ceased North American operations in December 2002, is was bad news for the French company's customers who were left without a supplier of modular cleanroom walls and ceilings. Not only that, the company's 83-mm (3.5-inch) thick wall panels were the only product line of that dimension, which meant replacing a panel or enlarging an enclosure would require ripping everything out and starting over.

But now there's good news for those jilted customers—and potentially anyone who's building a cleanroom. A new company, Cleanroom Enterprises Inc. (CEI; Syracuse, N.Y.), has unveiled a 30,000-square-foot manufacturing operation to produce modular cleanroom walls and walkable ceiling panels.

"We developed our own wall system, but of course, it's interchangeable with the old Clestra panels," says M. Ronald Harms, president and CEO of Cleanroom Enterprises. He notes that the company's manufacturing line is fully tested and up and running.

The match with Clestra's products is understandable because Harms and much of the new company's staff worked for the French firm. Indeed, Harms started CEI in early 2003 by purchasing Clestra's client list and product knowledge. He points out that no patents were involved in the transaction. CEI developed its own solutions—steel-based panels with various infill options—and the company is in the process of obtaining patents.

Harms says that CEI's solutions are manufactured by an entirely different process than that used by Clestra, but there are enough similarities in the finished product to allow CEI to satisfy Clestra's customers. What's more, the delivery is potentially better because the manufacturing site is now located in the United States.

Harms also notes that his company is getting many inquiries from new customers who have no previous experience with Clestra or perhaps any of the other manufacturers of modular cleanroom panels. Part of the reason is that the relationship between modular manufacturers and traditional construction firms has changed.

"We no longer, as a construction manager, perceive these cleanroom companies as competition but more as a partner in doing these projects," says Frank Haughey, director of technical services for the pharmaceuticals group of Turner Construction.

Haughey, who has used CEI and Clestra products for years, says that one of the reasons for this perception change has been better delivery for modular components. In the past, it was actually faster to go the drywall and stud approach. Improvements in manufacturing techniques and increased competition, however, have changed that scenario. Now, by using modular components in the right way, it's possible to accomplish construction faster than before.

Haughey cites examples of companies that took an old warehouse, constructed a cleanroom core inside, and began pharmaceutical manufacturing—all of which took three-and-a-half months or less from start to finish. In one case, Haughey knows of a company that had a drug nearly complete regulatory approval yet with no place to manufacture it. Thanks to modular cleanroom construction, the company was able to meet its production schedule.

CEI's Harms agrees that there's greater cooperation and integration: "It's a much better atmosphere and marriage now than it was five, six, or seven years ago.