Underwriters Laboratories expands globally

Product safety testing company stays true to its mission locally

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photoMichael Goelze, engineering tech at Underwriters Laboratories, enters data into his computer. Goelze is one of nearly 300 employees at the Camas testing center.

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photoWilson Manzano, a lab technician at Underwriters Laboratories in Camas, tests thermostat components.

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photo“Technology drives change, and that drives testing,” says Ralph Parker, vice president for operational excellence and head of UL’s Camas business.

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Wilson Manzano has been destroying things for a living for more than a decade, and on a recent Monday morning, he was hard at it again.

He ran too much voltage through a light bulb to see if it would burst, too much heat through a thermostat panel to see if it would melt, and soon he cranked up high-pressure gas to see if another gadget would buckle under the too-heavy load.

Underwriters Laboratories

• What: World’s largest certifier of the safety of commercial products and materials.

• Headquarters: Northbrook, Ill.

• Local operations: 2600 N.W. Lake Road, Camas.

• Local leader: Ralph J. Parker, vice president for operational excellence and head of UL in Camas.

• Total revenues: $1.05 billion before expenses, according to tax filings.

• Employees: 282 in Camas; 9,000 across the globe.

• Up next: Though UL is in the midst of a global growth push, staffing in Camas is near capacity and should stay steady.

It was just another day at Underwriters Laboratories in Camas, where engineers and technicians use electricity, gas, fire, water and ingenuity to test everyday products in extreme conditions.

Major changes have reshaped the structure and scope of Northbrook, Ill.-based Underwriters Laboratories in the past year, but for the 282 people employed at the company’s Camas operation, business has continued as usual -- which means there’s something new to destroy nearly every day.

“It’s never the same stuff,” said Manzano, a technician who tests products before they go on the market to make sure they’ll work safely, even if something goes terribly wrong. “In 12 years, I’ve never had a dull day.”

While technicians in Camas have beentesting the limits of consumer products, their corporate bosses are running Underwriters Laboratories through its own gantlet of tests aimed at certifying the business as ready for growth in an increasingly competitive world.

In 2011 alone, UL corporate:

• Made its biggest-ever acquisition, the $275 million purchase of Connecticut-based STR Holdings’ quality assurance and product testing division.

• Expanded its water-quality testing abilities, becoming the first organization to test water in all 50 states and opening a water laboratory in India.

• Purchased an Iowa firm that tests home appliances, two German companies that certify medical devices, and an Arizona business that tests high-tech lights -- all for undisclosed sums.

And on Jan. 1, Underwriters Laboratories became a for-profit corporation after determining that the tax benefits of the nonprofit status it had long held were outweighed by the opportunities a change would bring.

Converting to for-profit status, already held by many UL subsidiaries abroad, allows UL access to more capital to fuel itsgrowth push, said Sara Greenstein, senior vice president and chief marketing and strategy officer at UL’s Chicago-area headquarters.

That push has been fueled by globalization. UL now tests Chinese-made products bound for American shelves and U.S. made products bound for Japanese markets, and must compete with certification entities that have grown up around the world. In an era when food safety crises in China can now lead to health scares in middle America, globalization has alsomoved UL beyond electronics to testing and certification of other goodssuch as food and water.

Underwriters Laboratories also has expanded its reach as a consulting organization. Rather than start product testing onlyafter a prototype is in place, UL now offers consultants who -- for a fee -- will help inventors keepthe testing companies safety requirements in mind throughout product design. Other consultants offer advice on workplace safety and training on lean manufacturing.

Even as it grows, however, UL has stayed true to its origins, Greenstein said.

“Our mission remains what it’s been for over a century:to provide safe living and work environments worldwide,” she said. “We used to be a one-way highway crossing one continent going one direction. In the past few years, we’ve expanded to a multilane highway, crossing continents. We really are a global partner involved in trade.”

That multilane highway has certainly brought some business to Camas, which works with clients from around the world. But the corporate-level reinvention has meant relatively little for Underwriters Laboratories’ Clark County workers, said Ralph Parker, UL vice president for operational excellence and head of UL’s Camas business.

“What we do here is still in our core specialty, product testing,” he said.

That core mission dates to 1894, when Underwriters Laboratories was founded to test building materials and certify as “safe” those most likely to hamper the spread of fire.

In the early days of electricity, when shocks and fires were common risks, UL’s label came to be seen as a mark of quality.

Today, UL’s trademark appears on cellphone batteries, laptop chargers, solar generators, drywall panels, fitness machines, coffee pots -- an estimated 22 billion products around the world.

Retailers often refuse to sell goods that lack UL’s seal of approval. Some countries require Underwriters Laboratories’ OK before they’ll accept imports of U.S.-made goods.

In 1994, Underwriters Laboratories opened its 115,000-square-foot Camas laboratory with just 30 workers. Staffing has grown nearly tenfold since then, as Camas has become a component-testing hub.

Camas technicians specialize in torching, flooding, freezing and tearing at cables, outlets, plugs and other small parts that come together to make finished products.

Despite the corporate-level overhaul, Parker said he expects that work to continue in the foreseeable future.

“Technology drives change, and that drives testing,” Parker said.

As long as consumers want new smartphones, manufacturers want to try new materials and retailers want to know that the goods they’re selling won’t burn shoppers’ homes down, there will be work to be done in Camas, he said.

“How else do we know that what we’re using is safe?”