Whether you’re listening to the top of the hour news on the radio while stuck in traffic, reading about the economy online or sitting in your EZ chair at home watching the national news, it’s hard to escape the daily coverage of a sluggish economy. My recent visit to Uponor’s North American headquarters in Apple Valley, Minnesota, had me questioning most reports heard via the news media on the topic of job loss and spending holds.
Just last month I made the drive to the southeast Minneapolis suburb of Apple Valley to tour Uponor’s training and manufacturing facility. This world-class facility has been an ever-growing asset to the local economy. Employment numbers have increased by almost one hundred over the last year alone as the growth of product lines [Large diameter PEX-a tubing, fittings and Fire Sprinkler system components] has positioned Uponor to expand its campus for the fifth time since beginning operations in 1990.
The timing of my visit couldn’t have been more perfect as the on-campus training facility was filled with contractors from all over the U.S. Training manager Wes Sisco had a packed classroom of experienced contractors looking to further their knowledge of hydronic heating systems in Wes’ Advanced Hydronics with ADS (Advanced Design Suite Software) course. I sat in on his class for a short time and it didn’t take long to recognize Wes’ ability to engage his students and have everyone participating eagerly as each skill set was covered right down to the smallest detail.
The quality and type of training happening at Uponor is first class. Product knowledge is part of each training session but is presented merely as a solution to a problem scenario studied in class. In today’s highly competitive business market a contractor doesn’t have the time to travel out of town for a two- or three-day trip to hear a sales pitch, and Uponor knows that.
When talking with a plumbing contractor from Massachusetts attending Wes’ class I asked about his experience so far, what was his overall opinion of the program? “This is my second time traveling all the way out here. I attended the Radiant Hydronics with Design class a couple of years ago. It was fabulous, and it got me started in the right direction at a time when I was just starting out in the hydronics business. I couldn’t wait to return and take my training to the next level.”
Right across the hall from Wes and all of his new contractors friends is a state-of-the art, stadium-style classroom where longtime Uponor trainer Steve Swanson holds court as the training instructor for the couple dozen or so contractors in attendance that day for the Radiant Hydronics with Design course. While sitting in on Steve’s class I noticed right away the technology built into the room. On display was complex piping diagram projected on a high definition screen that could be easily seen from each seat.
Classroom time may be the bulk of a contractor’s visit to the Uponor training center but hands-on labs are part of the training program as well. Working controls, manifolds and other system components are at the ready for all to apply what’s learned in the classroom in both the Controls and Applications Labs. The Applications Lab is a specially built rough-framed space for hands-on installation. It is in this space where attendees can actually install radiant tubing, fire sprinkler systems and work with manifold balancing and more.
Plumbing and hydronics product innovation has been the main focus of Uponor for decades. As I toured the manufacturing floor it was immediately apparent that the scale at which Uponor produces their signature PEX-a tubing is indicative of their marketplace position. My tour continued to the quality control lab where countless samples of tubing are tested against numerous industry standards every day. Every time an extrusion machine receives a tool or die change a sample of tubing is taken, logged into an extensive computer system and tests are performed by Mark Usselman and his team of strict quality control engineers. Hydrostatic testing to levels far exceeding the expected operating parameters of each PEX-a sample are performed in addition to highly intensive heat tests in ovens reaching 250 degrees to simulate aging. Usselman takes the quality testing procedures his team performs very seriously, noting the various ASTM, CSA & UL specifications and standards that must be maintained within the Uponor manufacturing process. I can’t help but take him seriously as I watched close up, he cites those industry standards as just the starting point in Uponor’s quality control, stating, “There is an ASTM standard we MUST meet but then there is the Uponor standard. A standard he says keeps their tubing and fitting system at the top of the supply chain for quality.”
My tour concluded as we entered the new 20,000+-square-foot expansion. This expansion space will allow for an additional 17,500 square feet of manufacturing space. Space that will quickly be filled with new state of the art extrusion machines for large diameter commercial PEX-a product. Also in this new addition is 3,000 square feet for an employee services area. The town of Apple Valley, the state of Minnesota and all of the contractors installing Uponor’s products can be proud to have such a world-class American manufacturer, employer and industry innovator keeping jobs here in the United States and actually expanding operations.