Automation and sustainability drive industrial, manufacturing building design

Automation, logistics and sustainability are pushing mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection engineers to design industrial and manufacturing buildings differently

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer August 1, 2023
Skywalk construction at Hitchiner Manufacturing. Courtesy: Fitzemeyer & Tocci Associates Inc.

Insights on manufacturing and industrial buildings

  • Mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP) and fire protection engineers are working with their clients to automate industrial and manufacturing facilities.
  • Savvy manufacturing plant owners rely on building information modeling (BIM) models to ensure they fully understand the engineered systems within the building.

July 2023 MEP roundtable. Courtesy: CFE Media and Technology

July 2023 MEP roundtable. Courtesy: CFE Media and Technology


  • Jason Gass, PE, CFPS, Fire Protection Discipline Engineer, CDM Smith, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Alex Engelman, PE, LEED AP, CEM, Associate Principal, Syska Hennessy Group, New York, New York
  • Matthew Merli, PE, Principle/Science & Technology Market Leader, Fitzmeyer & Tocci Associates Inc., Woburn, Massachusetts

What’s the current trend in industrial and manufacturing facilities?

Jarron Gass: Automation, automation, automation! As companies seek to minimize operating costs, efforts to automate manufacturing processes continue to increase. Automation creates opportunities for engineers to innovate and streamline these processes. The advancements with interconnection of various aspects of manufacturing and shipping processes combined with co-locating of different parts of the supply chain are providing the conditions for a more streamlined process from raw source to finished product to end user. These types of efficiencies are working to flatten some of the supply chain issues that have been hampering industry the last few challenging years of the pandemic.

Matthew Merli: There is certainly a large push right now in semiconductor and supporting industries, with CHIPs act as well as private venture capital. That means research/development, manufacturing, as well as supporting academic institutions pushing money into these types of facilities. Additionally, there are huge advances in automated industrial and manufacturing facilities. Things like robotics, automated manufacturing and support functions are growing exponentially. Lastly, more homegrown (i.e., in the U.S. or neighboring countries) manufacturing seems to be happening with supply chain concerns.

What future trends should engineers and designers expect for such projects?

Jarron Gass: Following on the automation theme, the next steps will be bridging gaps in the entire supply chain, from raw materials through the manufacturing process and end user acquisition. There is increased scrutiny on inventory management and maintaining lean principles. This means that every individual at every part of the process is feeling pressure to be more exact in predictions and production. Automating as much of the process as possible combined with predictive analytics, to look at and compare current inventory levels against expected and historical needs for any given period, can maximize efficiency and minimize disruptions in the supply chain.

Alex Engelman: We believe automation and robotics will continue to develop and will play an even bigger role in industrial and manufacturing facilities, with the help of artificial intelligence (AI) and self-driving cars. As far as building design, many jurisdictions will continue to encourage or introduce legislation toward decarbonization, eliminating and reducing fossil fuels and encouraging renewable energy and energy storage.

Matthew Merli: Additional automation in these facilities needs to be considers and thought about. Additionally, adaptation to AI and whatever that brings about for our clients will, of course, be important. Changes will happen quickly and engineers and consultants need to be ready to react.

How is the growth of immediate-delivery services impacting industrial and manufacturing facility projects?

Jarron Gass: Inventory management or supply chain logistics has really magnified the lean approach. On-demand services have presented challenges to efficient lead times and delivering products and services within a reasonable timeframe. From an engineering standpoint, I believe that the challenge is to deliver on the design efficiently and effectively and ultimately construction of new or upgraded facilities. Finding the balance between speed and quality is the defining characteristic of the industry. The ability to deliver cutting-edge and innovative solutions to meet the increasing demands of customer needs is what also often defines the success and profitability of a project.

Alex Engelman: The speed of project delivery for last-mile delivery centers is a highly competitive developer-led marker. Speed to market have led developers to innovate with their engineering, architectural and build teams to accelerate project delivery. To achieve that, a lot of the deliver sortation facilities must be built in dense cities which comes with atypical challenges for industrial facilities. You are now building facilities that cost more, take longer to build and typically have more stringent authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) requirements.

Skywalk construction at Hitchiner Manufacturing. Courtesy: Fitzemeyer & Tocci Associates Inc.

Skywalk construction at Hitchiner Manufacturing. Courtesy: Fitzemeyer & Tocci Associates Inc.

What are professionals doing to ensure such projects (both new and existing structures) meet challenges associated with emerging technologies?

Jarron Gass: It is a delicate balancing act to identify upgrades or replacements in both facilities and infrastructure and identify when existing facilities should be fully replaced or relocated based on life cycle analysis of existing equipment and the logistics of maintaining service or production during a renovation. This provides ample opportunity for architectural and engineering consultation. Using the newest software and design tools, integrating design teams at the earliest possible stages and collaborating openly with all stakeholders early and often can allow a design and build teams to optimize both the time or downtime associated with construction with the most return on investment for the actual money being spent.

Alex Engelman: The two major challenges we run up against is coordinating with AHJs and vendors with respect to newer technologies, case in point use of lithium-ion batteries. Additionally, for things such as electric vehicles (EV), the power demand for such facilities has potential to increase dramatically, requiring detailed discussions and planning with the utility companies. Another challenge is making sure the water services can support early suppression fast response (ESFR) or other storage type occupancies. In early planning with the client/developer, understanding the target tenant we can assist in preplanning the needs and making sure anything that should or must be installed with the core and shell and what can wait for final tenant requirements, are valuable discussions.

Matthew Merli: Engineers and consultants all must be staying ahead of these fast-changing technologies. At F&T, we have dedicated market/service leader looking at emerging technologies and services we can provide to our clients to stay ahead of it and continue to be of service to our clients as they see these changes happen.

In what ways are you working with information technology experts to meet the needs and goals of an industrial or manufacturing facility?

Jarron Gass: CDM Smith has an analytics division to address and bridge the gap from data acquisition with how to use that data. The data is used to analyze and identify vulnerabilities and inefficiencies, understand processes and enable or automate those solutions, stopgaps or other processes to be streamlined. If you understand historical data with multiple variable inputs and understand trends (be it seasonal or consumer sentiment) and pull together all aspects of your supply chain, it allows you to increase efficiency along the journey from all the various source materials to that final consumable product.

Alex Engelman: Many of our clients have a large portfolio and aggressive energy performance target and commitments. We work closely with their environmental, social and governance (ESG) teams to understand their reporting platforms and goals so that our designs align. Key piece of this is the data aggregation from the mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) metering.

Matthew Merli: We invest a lot in our IT and building information modeling (BIM) technologies here. We work on highly advanced facilities like high-tech, labs, manufacturing and health care, and those designs can be complex and the models can be quite busy. Ensuring we have a live, Revit/BIM model helps our design team coordinate and makes life easier during construction.

In what ways are you helping manufacturers and suppliers deal with supply chain issues?

Alex Engelman: We have started to work directly with vendors evaluating specific equipment with respect to it not only meeting project requirements but also improving the lead times. For a recent facility, we have redesigned our heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) distribution while it was already under construction to accommodate different type of equipment and meet stringent schedule. It’s not uncommon to swap out manufacturers for equivalent types but typically we wouldn’t have redesigned major portions of the distribution even when it may be a bit less efficient.

Matthew Merli: We spend a lot of time working on this at F&T. There are a few things that have been successful for us and our clients. First, there always needs to be early release packages for long-lead time items (generators, switchgear, air handlers, etc.). Those cannot wait to be purchased until end of design, but rather need to be procured early in design. Additionally, as a firm, we’ve been able to procure equipment ourselves (not typical for an engineering firm), but that has been successful for us to get ahead of long lead times. Lastly, we work closely with manufacturers/contractors to identify what lead times for certain equipment is. We must think of other manufacturers if too long and be open to go in another direction.

Tell us about a recent project you’ve worked on that is innovative, large-scale or otherwise noteworthy.

Matthew Merli: F&T received an ACEC award for Hitchiner Manufacturing project (see attached information). This was an exciting manufacturing project where it was a brand-new building with very exciting work occurring.

How are engineers designing these kinds of projects to keep costs down while offering appealing features, complying with relevant codes and meeting client needs?

Jarron Gass: Technology continues to advance faster than the process of updating codes and standards. Engineers have shifted to a performance-based design model that analyzes individual needs compared to prescriptive solutions and applies unique solutions with known (not necessarily adopted) technology. For fire protection and life safety, when presented with a project that does not fit into a prescriptive code solution, you need the ability to analyze and perform a true hazard analysis that identifies risks and looks at alternative ways to satisfy code requirements. The use of fire and smoke modeling software to predict building and system reactions is an increasingly viable tool to help solve some of these challenges.

Alex Engelman: As stated previously, being flexible in design and working hand in hand with the entire team including the contractor/subcontractor to understand all the challenges is becoming essential on some of these high-paced, complex projects.

Matthew Merli: On the design side, having check-points or submissions that can have cost estimates is a good idea. Ensuring the systems we discuss (and have a cost estimate for) align with schematic through construction documents ensures this will happen. Getting construction management firms in the process early always helps this as well.

What technologies within the manufacturing plant are you helping design?

Alex Engelman: Revit is helping us coordinate the complicated manufacturing environments and some clients are populating the BIM information for their process equipment to help manage the facility on the go forward.

What types of cloud, edge or fog computing requests are you getting and how do you help the owner achieve these goals?

Matthew Merli: Most of the design (and construction) world is all cloud-based these days. BIM models are live between consultants, so that anytime you open your BIM model you see where it is at that time. Also, our 3D scanning/modelling capabilities for existing buildings that do not have as-builts have been another critical success factor to move projects forward quickly and efficiently.

What are plant owners and managers requesting from consulting engineers to make the facility more prepared for the future?

Jarron Gass: The front-end planning process should help to identify not only a customer’s needs and must-haves, but also provide an avenue to discover wish list items. The customer is manufacturing unique products with complex processes, sometimes the consultants need to help pull out those ideas to be able to implement actionable requests. This really drives the need to think beyond just satisfying a minimum code requirement, but truly looking into the proverbial crystal ball and identifying those items that are currently not in the need category but that could potentially shift in time. This builds in some flexibility and expected expansion points as part of an overall development strategy.

Alex Engelman: the biggest request is generally to maximize flexibility while also minimizing costs both capital expenditures and operating expenses. Provisions for phased or modular expansion, especially in developer-led projects, are frequently requested of us. A lot of clients are also requesting additional infrastructure and provisions for charging of electrical vehicles.

Matthew Merli: Many owners/clients are asking for future expansion capability. These companies tend to grow rapidly (or at least must plan for that occurrence), so designing mechanical, electrical infrastructure for future expansion is critical. Things like modular chillers (for additional future cooling needs) and/or leaving spare taps on chilled water heaters and leaving a space pump pad for future pump are a few examples of projects we’ve done to help design/build now to make future expansion easier.

Does your firm anticipate more industrial or manufacturing building projects, considering the supply chain issues with non-U.S. facilities?

Jarron Gass: Yes, given the supply chain issues from raw sources to finished goods, investment in domestic production is going to continue to ramp up, particularly as automation increases lead to stable and predictable labor costs. The more control that a company can have over the stability of their supply chain, the more stable an inventory that can be managed and allow for the balance of supplying demand without saturation but also without missing sales opportunities. Taking advantage of any program, grant or tax incentive to rehome any portion of a supply chain in the U.S. is a win for creating more sustainable technology driven jobs in the U.S.

Alex Engelman: Prepurchase packages for chillers, air handling units (AHU) and electrical gear is commonplace in the market. Some clients are willing to sole source to shortcut the bidding, shop drawing timeframes.

Matthew Merli: Yes, we anticipate this to remain a strong sub-market for us and for the industry. Being able to show our experience in industrial/manufacturing spaces and helping them grow shows our long-term thinking and viability of the market.