By Tim Krohn
Free Press Staff Writer
A company that makes components for automated utility meters has brought some cheer to a county with a 9.3 percent unemployment rate.
Waseca-based Itron has added 40 new jobs after a major expansion that included $4 million in new equipment.
“It’s good news for the community,” said Bob Whitney, general manager of operations. “Our employment has held pretty steady and it’s nice to add more jobs.” The plant has added 76 jobs since January.
With nearly 450 employees, Itron is the second largest employer in the county, behind Brown Printing.
The company makes an array of circuit boards and electronic modules that are put on water, gas and electric meters allowing for automated reading. “A meter reader can stand on the sidewalk and read a meter, or a vehicle can be outfitted to just drive through neighborhoods and read the meters,” Whitney said.
The modules, when tied to a cell phone-based system, even allows data to be collected automatically over the air. The company provided the modules that read 460,000 Pittsburgh area meters automatically.
The expansion came about as Itron, which has four plants in the country, expanded production of its OpenWay smart grid circuit board platform.
The meter provides built-in, high-speed two-way communications, giving consumers more choice regarding their energy usage and allowing utilities to provide higher reliability at lower operating cost.
The Waseca plant already produces all of Itron’s gas and water meter modules, recently shipping its 30 millionth gas module.
The sprawling Waseca plant is sterile and quiet with humidifiers hanging from the ceiling emitting mist. “Static electricity is our enemy,” said Whitney of the misters’ ability to reduce static.
Employees affix 1 billion tiny electronic components each year on a variety of circuit boards, and the plant is a major player in research and testing of meter-reading equipment.
Outside the building are rows of meters — the largest outdoor meter test farm in the world. Electronic meter readers are monitored for accuracy for a year, with the Itron equipment certified to an overall accuracy of 99.999 percent.
“They have to be accurate. The meters are the utility companies’ cash register,” Whitney said.
A roomful of machines puts all components through lengthy tests to ensure they will work in all weather conditions. The machines recreate sub-freeing conditions, rain, snow and hot sun. The meter readers — and an A-cell size battery in them — are designed to accurately read meters for 20 years.
The new line in Waseca is supported by a Recovery Act Advanced Energy Manufacturing Tax Credit awarded by the Obama administration in January. The tax credit aids in Itron’s strategy to increase manufacturing capacity in its U.S.-based facilities.
Itron has its Waseca ties to the EF Johnson company, where Whitney previously worked.
Itron purchased one of Johnson’s divisions in 1992 and leased space from EF Johnson. In 1994 the company moved into its facility on the north side of town and has expanded it twice since.