Designing industrial, manufacturing, and warehouse facilities

More than just places to make and store products, industrial, manufacturing, and warehouse facilities are becoming more complex. Owners are more demanding in the face of ever-evolving supply chain demands and technological advancements.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer September 20, 2018


  • Andy Campbell, CEng, MCIBSE Senior Refrigeration Engineer Leo A Daly Minneapolis
  • David Crutchfield, PE, LEED AP Principal RMF Engineering Charleston, S.C.
  • George Isherwood, PE Vice President Peter Basso Associates Troy, Mich.
  • Tommy Lane, PE Department Head, Electrical Engineering Spencer Bristol Peachtree Corners, Ga.


CSE: What’s the biggest trend you see today in industrial, manufacturing, and warehouse facilities?

Andy Campbell: One of the biggest trends we see in food manufacturing is an increased focus on protection against contamination. Manufacturers have a greater awareness of food sensitivities and allergies, and they’re making it a big priority in how they process food.

For example, if you have four lines of food being processed, and one is nut-free or gluten-free, it affects everything that passes through the facility. Contamination is prevented through pressure regimes throughout the factory, which has become an important design consideration for mechanical engineers. We pressurize the various environments within the facilities so that air flows from “high-clean” to “low-clean.” Rooms that are designated as high-clean are positively pressurized, meaning that air flows out of them, not in. Rooms designated as low-clean are the reverse. This ensures that ingredients with a higher need for isolation are not inadvertently contaminated.

Another big trend is e-commerce and designing facilities to accommodate online shopping. E-commerce, and the need to offer home delivery within a few hours, is having a fairly big impact on distribution facilities. We’re seeing a lot more sophisticated logistics software and automation systems going in, which is allowing pickers to be very efficient. This hits the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) world when it comes to needing redundancy.

These last-mile facilities are mission critical and need to be extremely robust and reliable. Consumer loyalty is a fickle thing, and it depends critically on a retailer’s consistent ability to deliver on time or early. To avoid downtimes, we need to meet N+1 redundancy, which adds sophistication to the electrical design.

David Crutchfield: In our area (the Southeast), where humidity is a persistent problem, we see different trends for moisture control. We have trended toward the decoupling of the ventilation air system from the traditional space-conditioning systems. All air coming in for exhaust make-up and building pressurization now comes in via a dedicated outdoor system, and the space conditioning operates via sensible coolers. This has the added benefit of allowing entire systems to be shut off when conditions warrant, resulting in tremendous energy-saving potentials.

George Isherwood: Concerns about the environmental impact created by the facility seem to be discussed more frequently when designing manufacturing facilities. This includes energy usage, water usage, and wastewater treatment.

Tommy Lane: The biggest trend I see is more facilities are incorporating automation into their processing lines.

CSE: What trends are on the horizon for such projects?

Lane: Complete automation is on the horizon, which will decrease the number of employees.

Isherwood: We believe that large automotive facilities are partnering with their Tier 1 suppliers, which includes building-supplier facilities near the assembly facilities to limit storage and shipping costs. This is creating smaller manufacturing plants geared toward specific clients of the Tier 1 manufacturers. We believe this trend will continue to develop.

Campbell: E-commerce has driven growth in terms of the number of fulfillment centers. It has also changed the landscape of where we are building them. Fulfillment centers need to be closer to consumers, instead of further out on the interstate. As we look to solve site-selection challenges in this new era of fulfillment, we have to be creative about the sites we consider. Proximity to customers is a top priority, so we’re increasingly looking at nontraditional sites, such as disused retail space, which can be converted into last-mile distribution facilities. Instead of a big storefront, it could be an unattended, older building next to a railroad, but as long as it’s in a populated area, it’s a good site for them.

CSE: Are you noticing an increase in the building of new industrial, manufacturing, and warehouse projects versus retrofitting existing buildings?

Campbell: We’re seeing a trend in getting fresh food closer to the consumer, which is changing not only what kinds of facilities we’re designing, but also how clients are using their existing facilities. There is growth in the demand for fresh-cut fruit and vegetables, ready-to-eat meals, and ready-to-cook meal kits. This is causing both new construction and renovation, as grocers move commissary production out of grocery departments and into custom facilities. For example, instead of making subs or chicken salad tubs in the deli area of the grocery store, they’re moving that production to small, offsite facilities that deliver the product fresh to stores daily. This allows them to be more efficient and turn out larger volumes while still offering fresh produce to consumers. This drives a range of new construction and renovation projects, from new cut-centers to new fit-outs of existing properties to additions to existing distribution centers for food processing.

Isherwood: We are noticing the opposite, that smaller Tier 1 and Tier 2 manufacturers are adapting existing facilities to their processes.

Crutchfield: In our area, most work is new. Very few facilities are retrofitted as the cost to retrofit is often close enough to the cost of a new facility. This has been driven mostly by the specific nature of the manufacturing being done locally.

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

Isherwood: Most of our clients in manufacturing are very concerned about their competitors knowing what they are doing. Therefore, we are required to sign confidentiality agreements, which limit how much we can expand on some very innovative and interesting designs. Our industrial clients are mostly Tier 1 suppliers to the major automotive companies and include foreign investments in facilities in the U.S.

Lane: I recently was involved in a painting facility for a new automobile manufacturer in Nevada. We designed the electrical distribution for the facility using unit substations, panels, and 480 to 208/120-V dry-type transformers. Lighting throughout the facility was designed using industrial LED high-bay linear lighting fixtures. One of the major challenges during design was the coordination between the process-vendor equipment ductwork for the air distribution and the mechanical piping, and between the electrical equipment conduits and ductwork.

Campbell: To accommodate growth in the Cincinnati area, Kroger-the largest supermarket chain and the second-largest retailer in the U.S.-purchased a former Nash Finch warehouse for repurposing. Our firm led the design of the renovation of the existing 390,000-sq-ft distribution center to suit Kroger’s unique program. The renovation included the modernization of approximately 217,000 sq ft of an existing dry grocery-storage warehouse, truck maintenance space, office, employee break area, and dock.

The team also converted approximately 150,000 sq ft of the facility to perishable cooler space and added a 45,000-sq-ft addition to include a freezer, cooler, and mechanical room. The existing 1960s warehouse posed a variety of code-related challenges to the team, including dated fire safety and fire-suppression solutions. Kroger identified the need to address the cost of employee retention within their new facility, and so this project was designed to implement a strong workplace strategy. Our firm focused on increasing brand identity through a fresh and vibrant interior design and emphasized key employee amenities to increase pride of place.

Critical to Kroger’s goal with this project was appealing to a multigenerational workforce. Our design did that in a number of ways. It’s much more open than their previous environment, both in terms of allowing visual connectivity between areas and allowing employees of all ranks to have free access to different areas. Younger people find this freedom of movement important because it speaks of a level playing field and a transparent corporate culture. Further down this road, the interior finishes are colorful and vibrant, with references to Kroger’s mission to “feed the human spirit.” The interior design creates an uplifting work environment where people feel like they’re contributing to something bigger than themselves. Studies of the millennial generation show again and again that they want to belong to a mission-driven organization, and that attitude drove our design. We’ve heard from Kroger that the design is having its intended effect, and that morale is high in their Cincinnati Fresh Center. In a recent internal survey of Kroger employees on trust and communication, they found that the Cincinnati Fresh Center got a score of 85. That puts the Fresh Center in the top 25% of their facilities, right alongside their retail stores and offices. For a distribution center, that’s pretty incredible. This project is also a great example of the trend of companies building facilities specifically for fast distribution of fresh foods. The location was strategically chosen to give fast access to customers.

CSE: Many people might not view such facilities as particularly complex. Please explain some of the advanced, and possibly surprising, features you’re seeing in industrial, manufacturing, and warehouse buildings.

Crutchfield: We have seen steam pressures above 1,000 psi becoming a requirement for one particular client. Finding the local construction talent required to perform this work has been a challenge, as the typical builders and tradesmen are not used to working on this type of system.

Campbell: Design has a significant impact on employee retention, which is not a trivial matter in manufacturing and distribution facility design. Rehiring and retraining an employee is expensive, and so the quality of the employee experience is a critical business concern. To keep employees comfortable in hot climates, we’ve found that ammonia refrigeration systems can be used to provide efficient climate control to large, nonrefrigerated spaces. This is typically used in refrigerated warehouses, but adding it to a nonrefrigerated space makes it very efficient to cool a very large space. This has had a significant impact on employee retention.

Isherwood: Every manufacturing facility has unique design features. Clients are very focused on the production of a product safely and efficiently as well as leveraging their facility’s design to help attract and retain employees, which make manufacturing facilities challenging.

CSE: Each type of project presents unique challenges-what types of challenges do you encounter on projects for industrial, manufacturing, and warehouse buildings that you might not face on other types of structures?

Lane: The challenges for most manufacturing projects is obtaining accurate utility requirements for the process equipment, as most equipment vendors are concerned about the functionality of their equipment and not the utility requirements of the equipment.

Crutchfield: The challenges usually revolve around the balancing act of project cost versus project budget. Most often, the building is there to support a specific task or production line and the building is often thought of as a shell that is there to let the production line work. Explaining why certain MEP systems are necessary can be a challenge.

CSE: How are engineers designing such facilities to keep initial costs down while also offering appealing features, complying with relevant codes, and meeting client needs?

Crutchfield: Cost control starts at project conception with this project type. We automatically look at less expensive methods to perform the same function. Can we use a plastic pipe product instead of a metal pipe? Can we gang all plumbing fixtures in the same area to avoid long runs of underground sanitary lines?

Lane: Electrical engineers are lowering initial cost by allowing aluminum bussing in distribution equipment and allowing aluminum windings in transformers. Many projects are also being specified with aluminum feeders for 100 amp and below.

CSE: Have you worked on such projects for overseas clients? If so, how have you found project requirements in other countries as compared with the U.S.?

Isherwood: Projects that I have worked on for overseas clients are looking for our company to implement relevant U.S. codes into their facilities with the belief that these requirements will be the most stringent and safe for their employees. While most of my projects have started off with this concept, I have been in meetings explaining why an expensive wastewater-treatment facility is required for a manufacturing facility.

Campbell: Projects in Europe tend to have higher energy and environmental requirements. As energy is considerably more expensive in the rest of the world, the paybacks are quicker and have a lower likelihood of being value-engineered out. In Europe, there tends to be more stringent environmental legislation in place, which aids producing higher first-cost, lower total-cost facilities.

CSE: How has your team incorporated integrated project delivery (IPD) or virtual design and construction (VDC) into a project? Define the owner’s project requirements and how the entire team fulfilled them using these methods.

Campbell: We model all projects in the design phase. We use a full suite of virtual reality tools to assess the viability of construction, and more important, the operation of the facility. This allows us to quickly move from drawings to a 3-D parametric model. We use full-scale process modeling to better engage the client’s end users and to develop highly accurate mapping of the facilities, site, and infrastructure. Clients are able to walk through their facility using virtual reality before the design is complete to ensure all process and layout expectations are met.

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