The complexities of industrial, manufacturing, and warehouse facilities

Warehouses and factories are more than bare-bones buildings for companies to make and keep equipment. The systems that project owners call for can be advanced and complex, keeping consulting and specifying engineers on their toes. Here, professionals with experience on such facilities offer advice on how to meet and exceed expectations.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer September 25, 2017


Russell Ashcroft, PE, Principal Engineer, Southland Engineering, Tempe, Ariz.

Mike Barbes, PE, LC, Senior Electrical Engineer, AECOM, Atlanta

Reinhard Hanselka, PhD, Director of Code Compliance, CRB, Kansas City, Mo.

Marcin Jakubowski, Senior Mechanical Engineer, RTM Engineering Consultants, Orlando, Fla.

Eric M. Roeder, PE, Project Manager, Security & Fire Protection, JENSEN HUGHES, Arlington, Va.

Sunondo Roy, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Vice President, CCJM Engineers Ltd., Chicago


 CSE: What’s the No. 1 trend you see today in the design of industrial, manufacturing, and warehouse facilities?

Russell Ashcroft: I have noticed an emphasis on speed-to-production time concerning all of the components of an engineering solution. One other focus is an increased emphasis on sustainability and a need to make sure that the byproducts (if any) of the processes are environmentally friendly.

Mike Barbes: LED, LED, and LED, no other sources considered. We’re frequently asked to evaluate other sources (high-density discharge, fluorescent, and even induction lighting), but in all cases, the outcome is that LED will be the most beneficial lighting source.

Eric Roeder: From a fire protection standpoint, the clear trend I’m seeing is the desire to eliminate in-rack sprinkler systems. As automated lifts and pickers become more common, so too is mechanical damage to in-rack supply pipes. In locations where the sprinkler or pipe is exposed, these machines don’t have the forethought to avoid damaging the sprinklers. Moving to a ceiling-level-only system eliminates business interruption stemming from unintended activation of in-rack sprinklers. However, the obvious caution flag that comes with this approach is ensuring that a ceiling-only sprinkler-protection design is sufficient to control a fire, given the higher fuel loading that typically comes with these automated pickers.

Sunondo Roy: Cost pressures are obviously the No. 1 overall trend. However, the No.1 technical trend is still energy efficiency, even in spite of the large power and accompanying heat loads from process equipment. There is a constant pressure to find cost-effective energy-conservation measures for all of these types of facilities, whether they are in the type of lamping (LED options that deliver better color rendition and lumens per watt) or advanced lighting controls that zone lighting to match production processes. It is getting more expensive to update aging HVAC equipment in existing facilities using end-of-life R-22 equipment with R-22 replacement stocks. Switching over to more eco-friendly refrigerant units, like R-410a, is a no-brainer.

CSE: What other trends should engineers consider for these projects in the near future (1 to 3 years)?

Roeder: If inert gas (nitrogen) generation drops in price, its use in dry sprinkler systems should be on everyone’s radar. One of the main concerns with sprinkler systems is leaks (frequently caused by internal pipe corrosion due to oxygen in the piping), and environments in warehouses and industrial shops are harsher than most. Using nitrogen instead of air in dry-pipe systems has been shown to reduce corrosion and prolong the life of the pipe in some studies.

Ashcroft: Energy efficiency and a move to be as close to “net zero” are things that we are being asked to explore from all of the clients associated with these types of facilities.

Barbes: I would recommend that the lighting design professional consider numerous lighting manufacturers since the field has expanded due to the high request for LED sources. It seems that fixture quality is positively increasing and costs are decreasing.

CSE: Please describe a recent project you’ve worked on—share details about the project including location, systems engineered, team involved, etc.

Marcin Jakubowski: We recently worked on an industrial project in the Chicago area, where a 113,000-sq-ft warehouse space was renovated into a food-processing facility. Because the space would include both food preparation and cooking, special mechanical systems were designed for exhaust, make-up air, and grease collection. This facility also included freezers and coolers to chill and store food, so our MEP team had to work closely with the refrigeration and control engineers throughout the project.

Roeder: My team and I worked on a large part of a temporary storage and distribution warehouse for a public transit system. Due to the nature of the client, there was limited consistency as to what was stored on which racks. The racks were solid shelving with in-rack sprinklers and original to the building. In the 6 months before we were awarded the contract, workers broke in-rack pipes three times, flooding the facility and stopping work until the fire marshal gave the all clear to reopen. Our design specified early suppression fast-response (ESFR) sprinklers on the ceilings, installation of open racks so that water could pass through, and removal of the existing system. A fire pump was needed due to the additional pressure demands of the ESFR system.

Ashcroft: We just completed a project for a research and development facility in Nebraska, in which we worked closely with the owner (site operations manager, site maintenance personnel, and the company construction manager). They have an existing facility that was designed with a generator with backup capacity for many of the critical systems. After the four-building facility had been in operation for approximately 3 years, the owner realized that not all of the critical processes were on the backup system. We were asked to provide a solution to add the necessary backup power to protect all of the critical product that, if lost, would cost the company many millions of dollars.

CSE: What are the challenges that you face when designing industrial, manufacturing, and warehouse facilities that you don’t normally face for other building projects?

Jakubowski: Designing for industrial, manufacturing, or warehouse facilities often requires a more intensive involvement in the construction phase of the project as compared with other building types. One reason for this is industrial systems and equipment information are often not available at the beginning of the design process and can sometimes continue to be optimized or revised until the very last day of construction, which is well past the permit and bid design documents deadlines. Additionally, the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) engineer will often be required to coordinate with several nontraditional trades, such as system vendors or specialized-equipment manufacturers. If the facility requires design for any refrigeration or waste-handling systems, those also must be closely coordinated with the MEP engineer.

Roy: The manufacturing process is the prime driver for most industrial facilities. We have found that many clients will choose a system that isn’t as efficient, but the staff is comfortable with maintaining it if the inefficiencies do not affect the manufacturing process. Whatever cost savings may be obtained with improved HVAC systems apparently pale in comparison to productivity losses that the new equipment may cause during manufacturing processes. Although counter-intuitive to go with outdated solutions, it is always important to talk with the facilities and manufacturing personnel to fully understand the impact of facility changes to the core production process. Even minor productivity losses of a few pennies per product can result in significant losses in high-volume processes. That typically isn’t a concern in conventional commercial buildings.

Ashcroft: The challenges faced include the delivery speed of the completed design as well as the final construction of the facility. All this is to be accomplished with much consideration given to the project’s capital costs to the owner while remaining within the desired program requirements.

Barbes: The projects must incorporate flexibility in the lighting and power distribution systems. Industrial and manufacturing processes can, and do, change from the time design starts to the time construction documents are completed. Other than the obvious revised power requirements of manufacturing equipment, there will be power increases, so it is critical to size the service equipment to the extent allowed by the serving utility. It would be advisable to provide empty conduit and real estate for additional (future) electrical distribution equipment. Typically, industrial and manufacturing clients are more receptive to this train of thought than perhaps a commercial/developer client.

CSE: What are some unique elements/considerations to designing/retrofitting such facilities?

Roeder: Industrial facilities don’t stop. You have to work around the operation of the facility, since they’re integral to the owner’s business. This generally means schedules are longer and special considerations have to be taken into account when taking a life safety system out of commission, such as delaying demolition until after the new system is online.

Ashcroft: One of the things I have started to notice is that if an existing facility is in an older part of the city, there are often concerns about the capacity of existing utility-delivery systems. There may not be more infrastructure for power, water, network bandwidth, etc. to meet the needs of the facility’s renovation.

Barbes: The most common issue I have seen is “inaccessible” distribution equipment. For example, the switchboard (or switchgear) does not have sufficient space to allow for additional overcurrent protection devices (fuses or circuit breakers). In which case, the only solution is to install new equipment and back-feed the existing equipment.

Jakubowski: Humidity control and space pressure control are two unique elements that might come into play with a design for industrial or warehouse facilities. These elements should be well-defined so the unique requirements can be met. Oftentimes, the combination of typical HVAC equipment and refrigeration equipment is required to achieve the facility’s goals. Redundancy and backup power also need to be part of the design to ensure the critical processes are not affected.

CSE: Describe a specialty facility you helped design recently, such as a microbrewery or another unique industrial space. What were the challenges and successes?

Ashcroft: I recently worked on a semiconductor research facility that was being added to an existing campus. Part of the campus was more than 4 decades old while other parts were less than 5 years old. The challenge for this project was to meet the needs of the new facility without disruption to existing operations. Another challenge arose as we realized that a new central utility plant would be required for the building (plus the need to include future expansion); however, the site was so constrained that the central plant was sited more than 800 ft away from the research building. All of the systems from the central plant had to be run aboveground without disruption of current site traffic flows, and still fit within the agreed-upon budget for the project.

Jakubowski: We worked with a Greek food-production facility, which had a very high amount of grease discharge from their cooked meat. A specialized draw-off system was designed and considered for allowing the collection and storage of “high-quality” grease for recycling. Ultimately, this system was not implemented due to the high upfront costs for installation. The distance of the system from the cooking ovens and grease-storage areas would mean that underground grease-transfer pipes would be required and would have to be heat-traced to prevent solid grease blockage.

Barbes: We recently designed a manufacturing facility, which in itself is not such a difficult task. However, the proprietary process was developed in Europe and the difficulty was in converting the process to U.S. standards. Besides the apparent metric conversions, the electrical distribution equipment was completely redesigned due to the significant equipment differences between German Institute for Standardization and National Electrical Manufacturers Association standards. Another interesting issue was the lighting design and light levels between metric units (luces) and non-SI units (footcandles), and compliance with the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) and other energy standards. The design approach was to first determine the power and lighting requirements and then start the design process as an original project in lieu of a