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09.24.18 - Forging Ahead


It’s not easy to keep clean rooms operating at peak efficiency.
These highly sterile facilities, including CALIT2’s Integrated Nanosystems Research Facility (INRF) and Bio-Organic Nanofabrication (BiON), strictly limit contaminants, requiring filtered and recirculated air to preserve the integrity of the micro- and nanofabrication processes that occur within.

Temperature, humidity and air pressure are held to strict standards and must be monitored constantly. Tools and settings must meet certain specifications. Users need comprehensive knowledge of chemicals, gases and procedures. Expired materials must be disposed of and replaced with fresh supplies, which can take weeks to arrive.

There are 118 instruments, eight equipment-support areas, 505 material safety data sheets and at last count, 214 users in INRF alone. It’s a lot to manage. That’s why INRF and BiON now rely on a custom sensor and software system called Forged to monitor and automate almost all operations.

Developed by UC Irvine alumnus Everardo Camacho in partnership with Jake Hes, who manages the two cleanrooms, the system is built on a customized programmable logic controller platform. It encompasses a series of modules that help keep the clean rooms – and the research within them – humming along.

“We’re always lean and mean around here, so we were looking for a way to automate the facilities to minimize staff activity for routine things,” Hes says. “We are a 24/7 facility but we don’t have staff 24/7.”

The system monitors lab conditions, including temperature, humidity and air pressure. It tracks air handlers, process chilled water, deionized water, chemicals, liquids and gases located inside the facility. Forged controls access to tools, schedules equipment use, and logs and analyzes usage time for each instrument. It supplies a live feed from each lab area, tracks inventory, procures supplies and automatically bills users. It compiles, analyzes and visualizes financial data.

“It’s interactive so we can see how everything is going,” says Marc Palazzo, INRF operations manager. “We know when supplies will arrive, we can follow them through the process, recharge is easy, and it shows me visualizations of everything. It’s giving us information that before I would have to crunch numbers to get.”

Housed on a publicly available website, Forged is available from any computer or smart device. Cleanroom administrative staff have full access to all its features. Facility users, including those from UCI, other universities and commercial entities – in the U.S. and abroad – have access to certain modules, including equipment schedules. Users also can view individual pages for each tool, containing that equipment’s profile and specifications, standard operating procedures, real-time operational status and the name of the lab member responsible for its maintenance.

The system sends email and/or text alerts to staff when any indicator is out of spec. “If we can get to a problem right away, before it gets out of hand, it’s a lot more cost effective,” Hess says.

Forged also automatically notifies users if a machine they have reserved becomes unavailable.
“Some of the lab’s external users have to drive an hour or two to get to the facility,” Camacho says. “If anyone is scheduled to use a tool and it goes down, they receive an immediate notification.”

The system also maintains a database of users, including photo id, contact information and clean room permissions. Users log on at large touchscreens located in the gowning areas for access into the facilities. Once inside, they use notebook computers connected to each individual tool to operate equipment.

INRF and BiON have used Forged for more than two years. Camacho began constructing the system when he was an engineering student. It started as a proof-of-concept, monitoring only lab temperatures, then continued to add more features. Camacho now heads a software-consulting firm that oversees and maintains the system, which will continue to evolve. Eventually, every tool will contain Forged integrated sensors and Bluetooth technology.

Forged is an important first step in CALIT2’s long-term goal of digitizing industry to make it smarter and more efficient, an initiative known as Factories of the Future. “This system is a great platform for starting that effort,” Hes says. “Once it gets fully operational, I don’t see that anybody can match it.”

-- Anna Lynn Spitzer