The definition of harsh has changed in a high-tech world

The usual response to the idea of a “harsh environment” is to envision the salt spray of a drilling rig, dirt, grease or debris. But in today’s evolving world of “high tech,” the definition of harsh isn’t always what it used to be. An environment most people would consider far from harsh, almost sterile, can be extremely susceptible to contamination, and an invasion by anything that doesn’t belong can be harsh in the extreme.

Consider the world of food processing, the development and creation of pharmaceutical products, the rapidly expanding world of biotechnology and the pristine world within a semi-conductor clean room. Each requires electronic components of various sizes, shapes and configurations. And, in every case these operating connections require protection from outside elements – and in many cases that means high-pressure cleaning equipment and often corrosive chemicals and disinfectants. Various industry sources suggest that as much as 40 percent of a daily operation is devoted to cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting equipment which means that protecting critical elements from contamination from outside elements is paramount. At the same time, designing hardware that maximizes the cleaning efforts can save time and save money – downtime is the bane of every operation no matter what the scale and saving a few minutes here and there can add up to significant dollars over the long-haul.

“The example of taking a pressure washer to your car gives you an idea of what people face in a bottling plant or food processing installation,” suggests Nathan Xavier, Assistant Product Manager for Industrial Products at Rittal Corporation. “When you’re done the car may be clean but the cracks and crevices around doors and windows and between panels can hold almost undetectable bits of debris, dirt and residue. That’s what happens inside these facilities, too, and even the most sophisticated cleaning procedures can’t guarantee that all the undesirable elements are gone – and the detergents and cleaning agents themselves can have accumulative effects that cause wear and reduce the security of various components. The design of the equipment can play a significant role in whether these facilities are really clean and safe.”

And, never far from the forefront are the demands of a variety of regulatory agencies – U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 3A-SSI, NSF International and NEMA for starters.

A non-corrosive material like stainless steel forms the basis for the design – using 304 and 316L stainless steel in most cases with a brushed finish. But, a rugged and proven enclosure is only as good as its seals – the ultimate protection keeping even the most invasive contaminates away from critical elements. A secure seal conforms to FDA Guideline 21 CFR 177.2600, for example, has no gaps and can be readily removed and replaced when necessary – customary seals deteriorate over time with exposure to detergents and other chemical agents. Rittal has added a special touch, using silicone seals and dying all its non-metallic parts a bright blue so they can be clearly distinguished from debris or extraneous materials.

While the designs are relatively simple when taken at first glance, there are significant details within each enclosure that elevate them to the HD standing. A sloping roof with an overhang to protect the door edges and seals is an obvious result while mounting hinges inside the structure removes a place for contaminants to collect. Details can drill down to the use of specially designed sealed locks with custom keys – again, limiting spaces where even bacteria might collect. Spacers to keep wall-mounted units away from the wall – so there are no gaps where contaminants can build up are also considered standard requirements in most installations.

As the reality of what constitutes a harsh environment evolves from the realm of heavy equipment, wild weather and caustic substances to include unseen invaders like bacteria, cleaning agents and dust, the demands for enclosures that offer protection for critical components continues to escalate. The concept of Hygienic Design provides an effective, efficient approach to protecting vital components in environments once thought to be well outside the definition of harsh.

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