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The Rise of the Gigafactory: Protecting the Buildings of Tomorrow

04 October 2022

A PHRASE first coined by Elon Musk to describe his first electric car battery production plant, the term ‘gigafactory’ has now become the generic way of describing any large-scale facility that produces lithium batteries for cars on a massive scale. What measures can the businesses running these undertakings put in place as part of their drive to be resilient and protected? Iain Cox offers a timely overview.

These buildings are cropping up right across the globe to such an extent, in fact, that the term ‘gigafactory’ has even been used to describe any expansive, high-volume manufacturing plant. As the scale, innovation and modernity of these buildings evolves, though, so should the fire safety regimes deployed to protect them.

Gigafactories are truly enormous and, while Tesla’s gigafactory is one of the largest buildings on earth by footprint at a staggering four million square feet, one thing is clear: fire safety needs to be front and centre of these buildings’ design and must evolve as time passes.

Here in the UK, we’ve seen plans for at least three of these facilities. Automation company Britishvolt is set to build a Gigaplant in Northumberland capable of manufacturing enough batteries for 300,000 electric vehicles each year. The facility will be equivalent in size to 50 football pitches.

Recent reports of design changes to the £300 million building and a halt to the construction process would seem to suggest that the creation of a complex building on this scale is not without its challenges. The car battery manufacturer hopes to kick-start its assembly lines in mid-2025.

Different challenge

It’s often the case that, when new industrial and commercial buildings are constructed, it can be without the knowledge of their intended use. In short, they’re built on a speculatively.

Gigafactories pose a different sort of challenge as the emerging technology that they’re set to produce is constantly evolving. The processes they need to house will also be evolving and need to be accommodated. On that basis, the building designers are handed the challenging task of creating a structure that can accommodate such innovation and the fire loads within.

In any large-scale and complex building such as this, it’s paramount that fire safety is not taken lightly so as to ensure the safety and protection of the occupants within, not to mention the resilience of the business itself.

When envisioning new buildings, decision-makers often consider the risk of fire is catered for simply by following the Building Regulations, even though the guidance for those regulations is limited in scope. In fact, an industrial building the size of 50 football pitches is outside the scope of that guidance as it’s a unique and complex building. We may see similarities in the labels we are giving to parts of these large-scale buildings with terms like ‘warehouse’, ‘industrial process’ or a ‘factory’, but they are not a ‘common building’.

This necessarily means the adoption of a different approach to defining and engineering the fire safety and protection of such large-scale facilities.

Automatic fire sprinklers

It may be a surprise to many, but a key fire protection component in current and existing gigafactories is the automatic fire sprinkler. The array of processes under one roof, the sheer scale of everything and the complex hazards involved means that a flexible protection system is needed to safeguard the general facility and those working within it. Automatic fire sprinklers are ideal for this purpose, with specific protection elements deliverable for individual processes.

Some may question whether it’s appropriate to use sprinklers in such an environment. In August 2018, a Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada suffered limited damage when a fire broke out in the production area late in the evening. The installed sprinklers suppressed the blaze, which was finally extinguished by the Fire and Rescue Service.

Importantly, the facility returned to full production the next morning, thereby demonstrating the effectiveness of sprinkler systems as the perfect tool for physical resilience and business continuity.

Performance over time

As the UK plans its own gigafactories, ‘mega’ warehouses and similar industrial buildings likely to proliferate in the coming years, we must turn our attentions towards the performance of these buildings over time and consider the impact of fire and its consequences.

Now is the point at which we must think of how – and why – we should protect these valuable assets, which may not be glamorous, but nonetheless are vital as part of the UK’s dedicated business infrastructure.

We can build even bigger buildings, but ultimately when there’s a fire on site, there’s no protection mechanisms in place and the Fire and Rescue Service finds itself unable to cope with the emergency situation?

Protecting the value of such properties – and those individuals who work within them – should always be top of the agenda.

Iain Cox is Chair of the Business Sprinkler Alliance (www.business-sprinkler-alliance.org)