A new Centralized Research Support Facility (CRSF) at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) has created a host of benefits for the university and its Animal Care Program, including almost $13 million in savings to date, with more savings expected when existing space is reassigned. The project could signal a paradigm shift as available research space shrinks, but consolidation/centralization requires significant operational and cultural shifts.
“The CRSF has transformed everything we do, from how we organize our team to how and when we work, to our business processes and even the financial side,” says Phil Richter, DVM, PhD, director of the UCSD Animal Care Program. “This whole process has been very challenging, because it’s tough to change operations that have been so ingrained in an institution. But it’s been well worth it.”
The three-story, 42,000-gsf CRSF houses a central equipment sanitation center, administration center, and offices. It was built on a campus greenfield site within one mile of 80 percent of the university’s animal research facilities, and can easily handle the 50,000 animal cages currently utilized, with capacity for 100,000. The plan is to transition one vivarium sanitation area at a time and learn from each transition, explains Richter.
One year in, seven vivaria have been transitioned, and noticeable benefits have been gained in five categories, he says. By conservative estimates, the university has already saved:
- $9.57 million in research facility space (new design and development, existing space reassignment)
- $1 million in research operations
- $1.8 million in facility maintenance and equipment replacement
- $302,000 in utility savings (reductions ranging from 49 to 65 percent on steam, water, and electricity usage)
- Health and safety, the dollar value of which has yet to be determined
A side-by-side comparison of a centralized versus disbursed system tells the story as well: two rack washers instead of 19; three tunnel washers instead of 10; 23 autoclaves instead of 30; one conveyor system each on the sanitized and unsanitized sides as opposed to five; and four staff each on the sanitized and unsanitized sides instead of 23.
Designing a Centralized Solution
UCSD receives more than $1 billion in research funding annually and has four research sites with more that 45 vivarium facilities housing about 200,000 animals of 50 different species. With 20 different cage wash facilities and more than 100 pieces of equipment, plus expected growth, the Animal Care Program needed to expand strategically, reduce maintenance costs, and eliminate redundancies, explains Richter.
“Rather than build another sanitation facility into each vivo center, we said, ‘Why don’t we build a central sanitation facility?’ We wanted to make it fully automated. We wanted to make it modular so that as we grow, we can expand it.”
The university worked with HDR to design a LEED Gold facility with lots of daylight and access to the outdoors. One of the biggest challenges was finding a manufacturer who could design the equipment for the automated cage wash he envisioned, says Richter.
Typically, standalone robots handle cage wash duties. Their “arms” can be programmed to work in three planes to lift, dump, and scrape cages, for example. USCD had tried robots, but they didn’t have the flexibility for what the university wanted to accomplish with a central equipment sanitation facility. Richter envisioned process automation—a conveyor system like those used in food manufacturing and packaging, where the products (in this case, cages) move through different stages of the cleaning process, each stage triggered by sensors as they go.
“We wanted to consolidate this, if possible, to a single equipment provider because of the difficulties of integrating these pieces of equipment,” says Richter.
Through the bidding process they came to work with equipment manufacturer BetterBuilt, which had not yet worked on this specific type of automation project but had been looking into the concept, according to Harry Lim, company president.
“We wanted to build a system that was usable for someone like Dr. Richter, and we were willing to listen to his ideas. It was a good match from the beginning; we always felt automation needed to be customized to a facility, and that’s what he wanted.”
Through months of discussions about various scenarios, the two parties designed a robust system that could handle the number of cages and equipment UCSD needed to process. They first had to design a cart to fit in the trucks that would transport them to the central cage wash, notes Lim. And, they needed a way to track the cages so they were returned to the correct facility, and decided on QR codes that could be scanned into a central database.
The custom-designed system reads the QR codes and knows what cages it’s handling, what type and amount of bedding is required, even how many times the cage has to be scraped. “We can handle the caging simply by having the system read the tag, and the whole system is tracked,” explains Richter.
The system is also one-touch: Once the unsanitized cages are loaded onto the carts, they aren’t touched again by humans until they are returned, clean and sanitized, to the original location.
At the central sanitation facility, the automation system receives cages stacked in a two-level cart that holds either 40 cages per base (80 per cart), or 28 per base (56 per cart). The carts’ QRs are scanned, and operators dock them into a de-stacker system, which lifts off the first base, takes the bottom base out, and then queues everything up in the conveyor section, no waiting required.
The first stop is the automated dump station (ActivADS), which can receive up to 40 cages at a time. This stainless steel enclosed section has an exhaust system to contain allergens. The ADS grabs one row at a time, lifts it off the stack, flips it, and scrapes the cages. Waste bedding falls down into the Sure-Flo™ S200 system, which funnels it to a dumpster area. The cages are then pushed into a tunnel washer on a conveyor belt.
On the sanitized side, the system takes the cages out of the tunnel, flips them upright, adds bedding, then restacks the cages onto the conveyor belt and back on the carts. UCSD uses two different types of bedding, so the system is designed to know which type to put in each cage and how much.
Richter says it was instrumental that the system be able to wash the carts as quickly as the cages, so that the cages ended up on the same carts on which they arrived. Typical staged rack washers take 10 to 30 minutes and have a limited capacity, says Lim, so BetterBuilt developed a conveyorized rack washer that processes the carts as soon as they are unloaded, and they come out clean before the cages are even finished.
Animal Operations Center
Another unique feature of the CRSF is an animal operations center (AOC) on the second floor of the building. The AOC houses an information handling system UCSD has developed over the past 15 years. The central database keeps track of animal census, people and their movements, room temperatures, security cameras, animal health, and various facility statuses, as well as the new cage wash facility through BetterBuilt’s ActivView system.
“The AOC gives us information in real time. It is a communication hub,” says Richter. “The AOC allows us to congregate and do away with offices and phone calls and silos as much as possible. The efficiency of working together and people sharing information, and being able to use that information faster, has been the result.
“This really becomes the backbone of our operation and how we can handle all of this material and choreograph this whole multimillion dollar research dance. Ultimately, the AOC leads to better care for the animals and better research results, because we can follow things much more closely and effectively.”
A Transformational Process
The Center for Automated Equipment Processing (CAEP) has been a “freeing” experience, notes Richter, enabling the animal research program to operate in vastly different ways.
“In the standard paradigm, equipment sanitation is interwoven into everything you do. By extricating cage sanitation from the rest of the processes, it has literally taken everything and turned it on its head. We have seen, almost every day or week, some new benefit.”
Without an equipment sanitation area, new and existing vivaria have more space and can configure it in ways that are more efficient and conducive to the research, notes Richter.
The animal research program can now organize personnel by duties—warehouse workers, transportation workers, and those working the automation lines are separate from people working directly with animals and research. “That allows us to focus on the needs of each worker type, which are different in many ways.
“The vivaria folks don’t have to think about whether they have someone on staff for the sanitized side or the unsanitized side, or what they are going to do when the cage wash stops. Now, they can focus on the research projects.”
Workdays have been partitioned into six four-hour shifts daily. Tasks can be done when it makes the most sense, adds Richter. The standalone cage wash can run all night without disturbing anything, so cages can be processed overnight and ready when researchers return to their labs in the morning. The program is moving toward a seven-day-a-week operation, as well, he adds.
Being able to more closely track costs associated with equipment sanitation improves costing analysis and gives the freedom to address these costs in different ways. When cage sanitation costs are recovered in the traditional per diem mechanism, scientific projects that require or result in sanitation beyond what is standard are not taken into account, explains Richter. UCSD is considering separating out cage sanitation processing charges from standard per diem charges in certain scenarios. This also allows the program to provide equipment sanitation as a standalone service.
“The more accurate tracking of sanitation costs achieved gives us the ability to recover costs more directly associated with what is driving those costs,” says Richter.
Financing and Other Considerations
The CRSF cost about $36 million, says Diane Hamlin, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, project manager with HDR's architecture studio in Los Angeles. UCSD secured a $14 million National Institutes of Health grant, and with the already conservative estimate of $13 million in savings, the project will pay for itself in the near future, she adds.
However, funding can be a hurdle, notes Richter. “Even if the savings are considerable over time, they are not organized into a single budget area, making it difficult for an organization to move ahead with such a capital project. The standard research facility funding and development process doesn’t recognize this type of capital project/facility. It would take an extremely well-organized institution/company with a clear team mission to develop such a facility, or a champion high up in an organization.”
Another important consideration is biohazard regulations, says Jessica McCormick-Ell, Ph.D., NRCM(SM), CBSP, RBP, university biosafety officer, Rutgers Environmental Health and Safety. UCSD’s facilities are on a central campus, but at Rutgers, the campus is spread out over different communities. Trucking cages to a central facility at Rutgers would mean traversing roads in different towns, and rules governing transportation of hazardous materials may apply to research materials. Financial gains could be outweighed by heavy fines for violating these rules, she adds, so conversations need to include everyone affected by a consolidation project from the outset.
“Groups that are centralizing are having people trained or using specific trucks to meet these requirements,” says McCormick-Ell. “Depending on how your university or company is situated, centralization might be possible, but in other cases it might not be possible.”
Collaboration and communication throughout the process was key to UCSD’s success, says Richter. Their team had to include the equipment manufacturer and supplier, engineers, and key university representatives.
“None of us had the right answer. The engineering side was designing utilities for the building without equipment specifications. We didn’t know what the equipment was going to need, so it was an iterative process. It was challenging at times, but it was all about communication and having the flexibility to allow the project to develop.
“Ultimately, there were a lot of unexpected benefits that were never put forth as the business justification. It is changing from a labor-intensive service of housekeeping and really going back to what is important with the animal health, and focusing on the research.”
Equipment specifications (all equipment manufactured by BetterBuilt):
- ActivIAS – Integrated Automated Solution is the full automation system that receives the dirty cages from a transport cart, flips, dumps, scrapes, washes through a tunnel washer, re-orients, fills with bedding, restacks, and places the cages back onto the transport carts.
- Sure-Flo S200 is the soiled material handling system that automatically takes the dirty bedding dumped from the ActivIAS system and transports it to a dumpster.
- Sure-Flo S210 is the clean material handling system that supplies clean bedding to the ActivIAS system through a bedding dispenser.
- ActivView is a supervisory system that allows the client to view their entire operation from their command center. The system also collects data to allow clients to be more efficient.
- BetterBuilt R690C is the conveyorized rack washer that allows UCSD’s carts to be processed and washed at the same speed as the cages.
- BetterBuilt R630 is a stand-alone rack washer that allows UCSD to wash miscellaneous items and is a back up to the conveyorized rack washer.
- BetterBuilt T236 both stand-alone and integrated to the ActivIAS system, allows UCSD to wash the various types of cages needed.
By Taitia Shelow
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