Willis Whitfield | The Human Behind Modern Cleanrooms

Willis Whitfield | The Human Behind Modern Cleanrooms

Revolutionized manufacturing with the Ultra Cleanroom

Willis Whitfield Inventor of The Laminar Flow Clean Room
“An exemplary researcher…an engineer’s engineer. Willis lived in that sweet spot where the best technical work is always done, at the intersection of skill, experience, training and intuition.” ~Paul Homert, President and Labs Director, Sandia National Labs

Given the name “Mr Clean” by Time Magazine, Willis Whitfield invented the Laminar Flow– or Ultra Cleanroom, patented in 1964. He worked alongside other team members at Sandia National Labs to remove dust particles during the manufacturing of machine parts. However, this invention would go far beyond use in defense. The discovery was a phenomenal leap, coming about at a junction with increased technology demand to advance modern medicine, electronics manufacturing and space exploration.

Willis Whitfield | American Physicist

Willis Whitfield grew up learning to fix farm machinery, to keep his Father’s cotton farm in Texas operating smoothly. He then served his country by working with radar systems in the US Navy. After that, Whitfield’s focus turned to developing rocket propellants.

His work at Sandia Labs

Mr. Whitfield began his work at Sandia National Laboratories in 1954. He had a strong desire to come into his best there, as other colleagues were setting the example. At Sandia, his team was presented with the manufacturing problem of dust particles that would render manufactured machine parts for weapons too low quality for use in the field. Although Whitfield said he solved the problem in only five minutes, the always-necessary time for research and development, combined with significant input and cooperation among his team, brought about the solution in those few moments.

The saying in business & industrial management holds true here: a major part of the solution is determining the problem. The problem was hazardous particles flying through the air that made machine parts too low quality for the required field precision. The solution was to get rid of them during production and greatly increase parts quality. That’s just what Willis Whitfield’s invention did.

3D Cleanroom Steadfast
Clean Room Graphic

During R&D, they evaluated what the Standard Operating Procedures were at the time, along with available technology related to HVAC equipment. Back in those days, the procedure was to keep contaminants from air particles to a minimum, by vacuuming the manufacturing cleanroom out in regular intervals. Whitfield began to use HEPA filters and automatically remove the particles with unidirectional- or laminar airflow.

Overwhelming Results

Along with the discovery came the overwhelming results. The measurements showed that Ultra Cleanrooms were a thousand times cleaner than those in use at the time. During early tests, the newly developed cleanroom area held only 750 dust particles, 1/3 of a micron in size,or larger per cubic foot. The average in the early 1960’s were counts of over one million dust particles per cubic foot. And that was the gold standard for clean rooms back in the day.

Then came unbelief and cynicism

Initially, when Whitfield presented his findings at various science symposiums, it was unbelievable; literally. He was even accused of fraud. However, he knew the truth, along with the great leap for manufacturing it presented. Others came about and by 1964, $50 billion in laminar flow cleanrooms were manufactured.

What made his heart come alive?

Whitfield acknowledged:

“the desperate need for this accelerated gap between development and production”

that brought about the innovation. Yet, could the solution have been discovered without the human passion, diligence and integrity of Willis Whitfield and those working with him?And discovery came in a matter of minutes, based on the hard work put in during research –

“I just did the obvious thing.”

Rebecca Ullrich, Sandia Historian, tells us this about Willis:

“He was a nice guy, very honest, very straightforward. He was very modest about it. His values meant he would always do the right thing, even if it cost him personally. He made sure other people shared credit for things.”

He received several awards, including the Holley Medal Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Willis Whitfield Statue Sandia NM Steadfast Automation Control
Willis Whitfield next to his statue in Sandia, NM

His son, during an interview around the time of Willis Whitfield’s passing, said

“I’m sure in his heart, he was very satisfied that he made such a big and positive impact on society.”

It is also worth noting that this is a fine example of when government actually works to produce something that promotes the general welfare of not only its own nation, but the entire world. The patent itself is public, having been developed in a US government facility. Many individuals have benefited greatly from the invention of Willis Whitfield and team; benefits such as modern technology uses, industrial developments, medical and health applications that have surely saved many lives.

For more on Willis Whitfield visit:

Sandia Lab News Article on Willis Whitfield. November 2012. Heather Clark

Sandia Labs News Releases. Laminar-flow cleanroom inventor honored posthumously by National Inventors Hall of Fame. March 2014

 

 

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