Basics of industrial, manufacturing facility design

Industrial and manufacturing facilities have specialty needs engineers must include in new or retrofit projects

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer September 28, 2020


  • Jaimie Ross Handscomb, PEng, Principal, Industrial Buildings, Stantec, Waterloo, Ontario
  • Steve J. Sovak, PE, Principal, Salas O’Brien, Chicago
  • Jeffrey R. Thomas, PE, CEM, CEA, GBE, CHC, Vice President, Lockwood Andrews & Newnam Inc. (LAN), Houston

Describe a high-tech industrial or manufacturing facility project. What were its unique demands and how did you achieve them?

Jaimie Ross Handscomb: Due to confidentiality, we cannot speak specifically to our clients’ processes, but we recognize that much of our success is a result of open communication with our clients regarding their needs, working with their equipment suppliers and contractors and using the latest design tools so we can provide a collaborative design, as quickly as possible, while maintaining high design standards and code compliance.

Steve J. Sovak: We were involved in the rapid growth of US Robotics/3Com. We designed all of their production facilities in the Midwest and in Salt Lake City. The greatest demand for this owner was speed to market. Their demand was met by our design team through a lot of hard work and for the local projects, to deliver them on a design assist basis, where mechanical contractors were brought on board early to expedite equipment procurement.

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

Jaimie Ross Handscomb: Based on activities we were seeing before COVID-19, there is a growing interest in the manufacturing and industrial sectors, not just in Canada or the U.S., but globally. Now in our new reality, we want to educate our clients on not only what we can do, but on how technology and trends can help them grow.

Jeffrey R. Thomas: We anticipate continued, accelerated growth in the manufacturing and distribution spaces for the foreseeable future. The challenges for the architecture/engineering industry will be to ensure owners see value in the services A/E firms provide for these facilities. As this market space becomes more commoditized, the design/construction markets will be challenged to meet the required costs demanded by the new owners. I suspect distribution facilities will become very simple and standardized. Manufacturing spaces will continue to be where the value of smart design shines. A/E firms will need to partner with key owners to understand how to help them get the most out of their facilities while providing flexibility to shift production as the market demands without huge recapitalization to make changes.

Steve J. Sovak: Yes, we do foresee a broad resurgence in projects in the manufacturing sector. This does bring some unique challenges from a business development perspective, because it is not business as usual. The prolonged lull in manufacturing work has resulted in many people in the industry to move on to other things. Reestablishing old connections is an important part of the effort. But there is a new generation of startup companies and logistics companies that will drive the market. Making connections with these businesses is critical.

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

Jaimie Ross Handscomb: When working with our clients, identifying the key design criteria upfront is the first step in meeting the client’s expectations for health and safety, cost, schedule and efficiency. Pairing our understanding the client’s objectives and needs with experts in design, safety engineering, code compliance and industrial engineering allows us to arrive at decisions early. With this efficiency, we can vet potential costs and redundancy. In most cases, the clients “nice to have” list can be reduced to meet costs concerns while maintaining their “must have” list.

Steve J. Sovak: A production facility does not need to bring to mind a sweatshop environment of days long gone. Most modern plants have appealing employee facilities, breakrooms, lunchrooms, cafeterias, locker rooms, etc. Working with the project architect, an economical solution to amenity spaces can be produced, which meets code, are safe and are very attractive. Modern manufacturing facilities are well-lit, clean and, in many cases, a valuable marketing tool. Many food and beverage plants offer tours where visitors walk along a protected corridor with windows and can see how their favorite products are made.

How has COVID-19 changed your work in these facility types? Has the coronavirus affected these projects, by either increasing or decreasing some aspect of them?

Jeffrey R. Thomas: We have several projects in design and construction and while COVID moved us from working in the office to working from home, these projects are continuing as planned. Owners and operators are grappling with ways to continue working while protecting their workforces. A/E firms are still developing best practices to design spaces that are COVID-19-proof based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and industry guidelines. Large open spaces present unique challenges for maintaining air quality to the degree required to combat something like COVID-19. Similarly, how do you protect workers that face each other across an assembly line eight hours a day without impacting productivity? There are many opportunities ahead of us in this arena.

Jaimie Ross Handscomb: COVID-19 is impacting not only our designs, but our design process. With the great majority of our staff working from home, technology has ensured there is little to no impact on our project design, schedule or costs. The pandemic has forced all of us to look at how we work, how our clients work and what can be done going forward to minimize the impact of future pandemics or other natural disasters.

Steve J. Sovak: The COVID-19 pandemic has had some impact on these types of facilities, but surprisingly probably less of an impact than many schools or office buildings. Most employees in an industrial facility are already required to wear certain personal protective equipment. Depending on the type of facility, this could range from hair net and beard coverings to gloves, smocks, safety shoes, safety glasses, etc. To add a requirement to wear a mask is not a huge reach. Sanitation in many manufacturing facilities is already of utmost importance.

Also, most manufacturing facilities are very large single-story buildings. There is not a concern with the number of people in an elevator as there is in high-rise building. Plus, the workstations are generally more spread out so that social distancing is easier to accommodate. The biggest concern is in the employee areas: plant entrances, security checkpoints, locker rooms, break rooms, etc. It is here that plant management needs to strictly enforce the CDC recommendations.

How has your team incorporated integrated project delivery, virtual reality or virtual design and construction into a project?

Jeffrey R. Thomas: LAN has incorporated VR and VDC into several large wastewater treatment plant projects. These projects have large amounts of large diameter process piping that must be coordinated. LAN uses VR during the design phase in conjunction with BIM models to get these pipes in the right places without creating conflicts. Later in the design process, LAN invites the plant operators and owner to take a virtual tour of the plant to get a feel for any operational issues that can be optimized during design. Valve placement is one area where the owners and operators typically have a great deal of input based on how they like to run their plants. Another area where VR has helped is with the routing of large pipes, conduits and ductwork required for the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.

Steve J. Sovak: One project where we employed an IPD method, actually before the term was popular in the industry, was in the renovation of a paint resin production facility in Chicago for Reichhold Chemicals. The owner selected the entire project team: general contractor, mechanical and electrical contractors and the design team from a series of interview at the start of the work. The project was to duplicate but at the same time improve on their existing production facility in Newark, N.J. The project involved renovation of multiple buildings, processes, tank farms, loading and unloading stations. We had multiple on-site meetings each week to plan the construction activity at hand that included the entire team owner, contractors and design team. Plus, much of the design work was done on-site to get information in the contractor’s hands as quickly as possible.

Jaimie Ross Handscomb: Stantec has a digital practice group that works collaboratively to support our design teams and projects with VR, BIM/Autodesk Revit and other technology design tools. IPD has been a successful tool for us, but partially because a lot of the aspects of IPD existed in our industrial teams at Stantec long before the term was coined. The full collaboration this team brings to the entire project team — design, engineering, operations and more — has been a valuable success factor for our projects.

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

Steve J. Sovak: Immediate delivery services has dramatically changed the layout of a typical manufacturing production facility. Years ago, it was vital to the operation to have very large raw materials and finished goods warehouses. Now the raw materials can be delivered as needed and the finished goods leave the plants much sooner after production. The handling of goods has in many ways been transferred to the logistic companies so they have control of the goods in their distribution centers so that they guarantee deliveries.

Jaimie Ross Handscomb: Immediate delivery services have increased the need for flexibility, enhanced tracking and automation within the new industrial space. Similar to “just in time” delivery, except in the older model it just meant pushing storage of product down one supplier level, rather than the idea of “make it when you need it.” Now supply chain management, flexible production and logistics plays a much greater role, so understanding the partners of a business from equipment suppliers, product and material suppliers and transportation partners is just as important as understanding the business itself.

Jeffrey R. Thomas: Distribution centers must now handle a higher volume of vehicles than ever before. What used to be a 500-trucks-a-day delivery operation may now be 500-trucks-an-hour. On the flip side, distribution centers now must be able to receive enough goods to satisfy the demand. While it remains a “store-and-forward” operation, the rate at which forwarding is occurring is growing by leaps and bounds. Moving this much product presents unique challenges in throughput for vehicle queuing and parking. Unloading, sorting, storing and reloading are impacted as well. Automated storage and retrieval systems present unique challenges for information technology, power and space layouts. Site selection, civil site works and utilities become greater challenges as this demand increases.

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

Jaimie Ross Handscomb: We continue to work with our clients to understand their needs as well as the need of their suppliers so we can identify the technology, equipment and processes that allow them to work efficiently and respond to an ever-changing world. This includes meeting with their technology suppliers, learning about their systems and capabilities, so we can incorporate them into our designs and hopefully learn for their past issues.

Jeffrey R. Thomas: This is a huge “it depends” answer. Historically, a facility would have a data center of some sort and a handful of main distribution frame and intermediate distribution frame rooms to make sure the point-of-use devices had good connectivity. The cable plant ensured adequate bandwidth and the MEP designers ensured sufficient power and cooling in these spaces. In today’s world of cloud computing, the data center may go by the wayside and wireless technology reduces the number of MDF and IDF spaces required. Connectivity to the outside world becomes paramount. The impact on the MEP systems is reduced in this environment.

Steve J. Sovak: In designing manufacturing facilities, we are constantly working with IT experts. Data is of vital importance. Being able to manufacture an item is one thing, but just as important is how much it costs to produce that item. Being able to save production costs by varying throughput of the equipment or varying ambient conditions could have a big impact on the bottom line.

Tell us about a recent project you’ve worked on that’s innovative, large-scale or otherwise noteworthy. Please tell us about the location, systems your team engineered, key players, interesting challenges or solutions and other significant details.

Jaimie Ross Handscomb: Our team completed a large rail maintenance facility for Metrolinx in Whitby, Ontario, as part of a large design-build joint venture. The 500,000-square-foot facility, designed for maintaining Metrolinx fleet of passenger trains, not only provided significant natural light, but it was also designed to inspire employees and visitors with a focus on safety, environmental concerns and employee health and wellness. The facility has achieved U.S. Green Building Council LEED Gold certification.

Steve J. Sovak: A very noteworthy project for me, while not exactly recent, was that we were involved in the national roll out of a product. We had an ongoing relationship with the Nabisco/Planters-Lifesavers Co., so when they were developing a new product — the Gummi LifeSavers — we were engaged. We assisted with some test market production areas then as the product did well, we got involved in designing their production lines into a co-packer location. First, we had to bring the facility up to Lifesavers production standards and then designed the installation of a new starch molding line at the site. As sales continue to rise, we were engaged to design a permanent production installation for Lifesavers at their Planters snack food location in Chattanooga, Tenn. As this project brought a candy product to a snack foods facility, there were a number of challenges. All of the infrastructure needs to be new: bulk raw materials storage, low-temperature chilled water system, desiccant dehumidification systems, plus the entire production line from the kitchen through packaging. This plant is now owned by the Mars Wrigley Co., but on a recent visit, I was told that this production line remains one of the strongest in the company. That was a very rewarding series of project for me in my career.

What are professionals doing to ensure such projects meet challenges associated with emerging technologies?

Steve J. Sovak: A greenfield site has the advantage of starting from a blank sheet of paper. The designer has control over the outcome of the project and can incorporate all of the latest technologies. But that does not always ensure the best results. In many instances, emerging technologies are changing so rapidly that in the years it takes to design and build a facility, it might not be the state-of-the-art that it was planned to be. Especially with new products, the time to place the item in the marketplace is critical. That could drive the project toward the renovation of an existing structure.

Jaimie Ross Handscomb: It’s now more important than ever to keep abreast of changing technology, codes and standards. We need to not only understand what the technologies are that are coming, but also how to incorporate them safety and efficiently in industrial spaces. Autonomous vehicles have been extensively used in manufacturing for years, but until recently they were used based on human manufacturing and handling processes. Now, autonomous vehicles are being developed and used in the most efficient and practical way, not just how a human would do it. But this drives other challenges for the operation, maintenance and design of facilities. We need to clearly understand our clients’ needs or risk designing a facility that is appropriate for our clients 10 years ago, but not for them 10 years from now.

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

Jaimie Ross Handscomb: Design and construction schedules are being tightened and reduced, which makes tools such as Revit BIM 360 and Civil 3D all the more valuable to the design process. These applications allow our engineers and architects to collaborate in real time to design buildings faster with improved coordination. These models can then be handed over to the constructors to use as a basis for the construction coordination. We also engage subject matter experts from the onset of the project, which helps meet tight schedules as well as reducing unknowns and risk. Our industrial safety group provides invaluable input to our design teams regarding hazardous areas, guarding, racking and industrial hygiene issues. Their early involvement supports faster decision making and reduced design rework.

Steve J. Sovak: Trends to see in the industrial/manufacturing arena are speed of delivery to the consumer, workplace health and safety and energy efficiency. The current pandemic has brought situations that many Americans have never before seen in their lifetimes: empty shelves in stores. Manufacturers responded to the call, companies in related industries stepping up to bolster production of essential items.

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

Jaimie Ross Handscomb: Our design teams use BIM 360 design that allows us to collaboratively work across our global locations. A current manufacturing project is located in Toronto, and the team members are based across Canada (Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto, Waterloo, London, Windsor, Montreal and Halifax) plus experts from our Burlington, Mass., office in the U.S. We are working together in real time and meeting daily online to discuss issues, share information and discuss coordination issues in the models.

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

Steve J. Sovak: The current trend is that there is much more activity in the industrial and manufacturing sectors, and we are glad to see it. Whether it is a conscious effort to bring manufacturing back to the United States or the realization that our supply chain nationally needs to be strong, it is leading to a new resurgence in the industry.

Jaimie Ross Handscomb: We continue to see our industrial and manufacturing clients heavily focused on worker health and safety, increased natural light and improved air quality. They also want to push for faster design/construction timelines and greater energy conservation, beyond governmental requirements such as ASHRAE Standard 90.1: Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings. Clients are looking for energy efficient and safe designs that take into consideration the hazardous issues associated with manufacturing and industrial facilities. This includes industrial hygiene, hazardous area classifications for flammable and combustible materials, electrical safety and arc flash as well as equipment safety regarding guarding, dust collection, robotic equipment and unmanned material handling vehicles.