Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

"Schweitzer is ready for a big expansion"

From today's Lewiston Tribune:

Pullman electrical engineering firm plans to double manufacturing space, add 300 jobs

PULLMAN -- Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories will likely double its manufacturing capacity in Pullman to 200,000 square feet in an expansion that would add 300 jobs.

The new positions would be in addition to the 160 workers SEL employed in 2005 and the 227 it's hiring for this year.

"We're trying to decide what to do next because we're coming up on our limits,'' said Ed Schweitzer, founder and president of SEL.

Schweitzer spoke Tuesday to members of the Pullman Chamber of Commerce, suggesting Pullman is a possible setting for SEL's next growth spurt. About 800 of its 1,200 employees work in Pullman.

The company is the second-largest manufacturer in the region and is responsible for adding more jobs in the region in the last five years than any other private company in north central Idaho and south eastern Washington.

SEL already owns land adjacent to its location in the Pullman Industrial Park zoned for industrial use where the new building could go. Schweitzer would like it to be ready in 18 months.

"We'll have to look at other options as well just out of business prudence,'' Schweitzer said.

States with good environments for entrepreneurs include Idaho, Texas, Florida, and Wisconsin, Schweitzer said.

"It's really tough to manufacture in the United States,'' Schweitzer said. "Yet we've managed to do it. We've succeeded by working harder and hopefully smarter.''

One reason SEL has managed to stay in America is that many of its processes are automated, Schweitzer said.

SEL pays assemblers $10 per hour with benefits. But at that level of pay, it's difficult for them to afford homes in Pullman, Schweitzer said.

SEL competes with companies that manufacture in China where assemblers are paid 95 cents per hour, Schweitzer said.

One approach that SEL won't take is shopping around for the best package of financial incentives from state, federal and local governments, Schweitzer said. "SEL builds its own buildings. We don't go to the tax payers and ask them to do it.''

The growth at SEL is being fueled by an increased demand for a variety of products.

SEL makes relays for electrical transmission. Relays protect high voltage transmission lines, distribution lines, transformers, generators, motors and circuits by detecting problems and, if necessary, stopping the flow of current. They are about the size of a video cassette recorder.

A recently introduced product scrambles electrical grid information to protect against attacks and has applications for sewer and water treatment plants.

It can prevent intrusions into the software programs of those operations that might render them inoperable.

The company is also working on new kinds of projects that are getting closer to production. SEL engineered a system for a refinery in Greece that, in the event of a power outage, prioritizes its needs for electricity in less than one-tenth of a second.

The quick response time is faster than humanly possible. It protects key pieces of equipment and prevents processes from being interrupted in ways that could damage products.

It developed a system for a Chicago area pharmaceutical company to regulate the temperature in places where it stores drugs.

The expansion of manufacturing is at least the seventh in SEL's 22-year history since it left Ed Schweitzer's basement.

The most recent expansions were in 2000 when it moved into its present 65,000 square-foot building in 2000 at 2440 Hopkins Court in Pullman and then in 2002 when another 40,000 square feet were added.

The announcement of expanding manufacturing comes while SEL is already constructing a 90,000 square-foot, five-story corporate headquarters and a 17,000 square-foot event center. Both are expected to be completed in early October.

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