Air flow simulation reveals important findings for safe reopening of GEA cafeterias

Ever since COVID-19 began spreading across the globe in early 2020, companies have faced the challenge of protecting the health of their employees and customers. To this end, GEA took decisive action early on, implemented a range of measures across its global sites, such as allowing staff to work from home, significantly reducing business travel and introducing sensible hygiene regulations. As a key step towards ensuring the safety of its workforce, cafeterias at all sites were closed early on to combat the virus spreading. One of these, located at GEA’s largest site in Oelde, Germany, is home to 1,900 employees. After several months of being off-limits, GEA as keen to make the cafeteria available again without jeopardizing staff health and well-being and therefore needed to establish a new set of regulations. The challenge was obtaining technical data that could inform the new safety measures.

“The cafeteria is an important meeting point for our employees and plays a huge role in the social side of work,” explains Erich Nitzsche, Vice President of Engineering Standards and Services at GEA. “We therefore had to ask ourselves under which conditions we could open them up again without putting employee health at risk and considered a number of different scenarios. The missing piece of the puzzle – and an important one at that – was being able to simulate conditions.” To achieve this, we commissioned long-standing software partner, Dassault Systèmes, to perform a professional canteen simulation using the Oelde canteen as the basis location. This required recreating the entire cafeteria as a digital twin to allow for the simulation of airflows (including the entire ventilation system) and the movement of potentially contaminated droplets breathed out by visitors.

The ever-increasing amount of knowledge gained about the ongoing pandemic has revealed that aerosols play an important role in the spread of COVID-19. GEA was therefore keen to understand how the virus could spread through the canteen’s airflows, particularly its heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. Dassault Systèmes set out to test various scenarios for reopening the canteens using Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) to simulate and visualize the space and airflows – the results of which GEA would use to implement an effective risk management strategy.

Digital mannequins – they’re no dummies

To-scale mannequins allow for the simulation of realistic scenarios in the cafeteria space. (Image: GEA/Dassault Systèmes)
To-scale mannequins allow for the simulation of realistic scenarios in the cafeteria space. (Image: GEA/Dassault Systèmes)

Using 2D blueprints and images, Dassault Systèmes created an accurate digital twin, mirroring the cafeteria, right down to its air vents and placement of existing tables, chairs and coffee bar. To-scale mannequins were integrated to recreate real-life cafeteria behavior. Incoming and outgoing air conditions and ventilation documentation were used to simulate typical airflow behavior, taking into account natural air leaks at the emergency and entrance doors to the space. The mannequins were placed in diverse scenarios where they breathed or coughed in different areas of the space, demonstrating how the virus could spread in the cafeteria, in the kitchen and on surfaces.

Identified areas of risk now inform new safety measures

“Based on the results of the simulation, we can now initiate specific measures, such as the reworking the entrance and exiting, adapting the seating arrangement, as well as introducing additional safety measures in the kitchen area,” explains Peter Brüggenkötter, Head of HSE Management at GEA. “The results not only help us to identify risk areas and develop suitable solutions, but we can also use them in our communication with employees,” says Brüggenkötter. “Increasing employee awareness is particularly valuable at a time when everyone is reaching capacity with the pandemic situation. We want to motivate our employees, while helping them to respect and maintain our defined safety measures. This of course requires that we apply them sensibly,” he adds.

“I am confident that, with the help of the new findings, we will soon be able to open the cafeteria to our staff again. We will also share these findings across the entire GEA group so that other locations can learn from them as well,” states Nitzsche.

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