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Introduction to SRON facility manager Frank van Rijn

‘Groundbreaking technological work cannot take place in a shed’
In 2009, facility manager Frank van Rijn observed that the building of SRON on the Utrecht University campus was not fit for the future. In 2.5 years' time the institute will relocate to a new building in Leiden. Van Rijn, who has worked at SRON since 2000, works full-time on the forthcoming relocation.

Renovation or new building?
SRON’s scientific pillars are astronomy, earth-oriented research exoplanetary research. The institute makes "inventions to order", parts of satellite instruments for large international organisations like ESA, NASA or JAXA. Such groundbreaking work in technology at world level cannot be done in the shed in Van Rijn's opinion. In 2009, he advised the board of directors to consider the accommodation in the longer term. The current SRON building at the Uithof in Utrecht would need to be completely renovated, partly because all conduits from 1970 would need to be replaced. However that would involve a lot of drilling as these are encased in concrete. Van Rijn: 'Drilling holes does not go hand in hand with producing chips at the micro level. In the case of a renovation, our employees would have to relocate twice with the associated undesirable disruption to work processes. Furthermore, the temporary renting of cleanrooms is very expensive.' The board of directors chose a new building. When Utrecht University stopped with astronomy in 2011, SRON's search for a location outside of the Uithof started. Van Rijn did not initially make any friends. 'My colleagues did not think it was a good plan. I could explain why relocating to a new building was better. Ultimately, however, the board of directors are responsible for taking such a decision.'

The directors (NWO and SRON) were of the opinion that a national institute for space research had to be located in the Randstad. Options outside of the Randstad were therefore excluded. From 2012 to 2017, Van Rijn worked towards a relocation to the Amsterdam Science Park until the University of Amsterdam works council did not approve the real estate investment for the collaboration between the science faculties, which included SRON. Van Rijn: 'We had just solved a financial puzzle of tens of millions of euros by means of an ingenious plan to share rooms. It was pretty devastating.'

NWO then took the lead and published a tender to which three collaborations responded. At the end of 2017, the NWO executive board chose the bid from Leiden University/ Delft University of Technology. Subsequently Van Rijn could produce a new plan with January 2021 as the hard deadline for the handing over of the new building. SRON is going to make a contribution to the prestigious ATHENA project of ESA, a combination of an X-ray telescope with advanced scientific instruments that will provide new insights into “the hot and energetic universe”. For ATHENA the production equipment must be validated in good time and after the approval of ESA no further changes may be made to the facilities. Van Rijn: 'ESA wants the guarantee that you can build the qualification instrument and flight instrument in exactly the same manner. The planning is a challenge.'

Large cleanroom
The new building meets SRON's needs for the longer term. Ector Hoogstad, the architect behind the DIFFER building, won the recent tendering process. What sets the new accommodation of SRON apart is the relatively large cleanroom in which various activities can take place at the same time. Van Rijn: 'Large machines are needed to make the sensors, in another part mechanical or electronic instruments are put together and there is also a test facility.' Van Rijn advises NWO to develop a vision for the buildings of its institutes because the buildings play a key role in optimally facilitating the work of the researchers. 'We are talking here about very expensive facilities. NWO can play an important role in this.'

From ship to labs
Why did ship engineering officer Frank van Rijn (59) exchange a ship for cleanrooms and labs? Because there are many parallels between being responsible for the technology on a ship and facilitating the core business of SRON, producing groundbreaking satellite instruments, he explains. 'As a ship engineering officer you approach a problem in an integral manner because at sea you cannot phone a fault repair service. The construction of a satellite instrument is just as complex with software, measurement instruments and mechanical electronic parts. As the facility manager, with some understanding of all disciplines, I ensured that the facilities functioned at an optimum level and I brought together the dynamic palette of people and building facilities.' In his current role as "relocation manager" he brings together people who tell him which facilities are needed in the new building: 'The processes are the same. It is always about time, quality and money. I find my work absolutely fascinating with the exception of the unpredictable politics that surrounds it. Because as far as I am concerned, an agreement is an agreement.'


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