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A.O. Smith’s tag line is “Innovation has a name.” At least one name for it has to be the Lloyd R. Smith Corporate Technology Center, which the manufacturer opened last October.
The nearly 43,000-square-foot space, located adjacent to the company’s world headquarters in Milwaukee, will serve as the company’s global innovation hub.
R&D is nothing new to a company that got its start in 1874. The company has maintained a corporate research team since the 1920s, and occupied its former research site half a mile down the road from the new one since 1984.
However, Robert Heideman, the company’s senior vice president and chief technology officer, told us that the old facility was built for a different company.
“When we moved into that space, A. O. Smith was made up of six operating units that were in a variety of industries, but the bulk of that business was in the automotive market,” Heideman says.
While the company produced its first residential water heater in 1939, one of the company’s largest ventures at the time was a massive automobile frame factory on the city’s north side. By the early-1980s, the Automotive Products unit had manufactured more than 100 million passenger car frames and 50 million truck frames.
As a result, only a relatively small portion of the old lab was set aside for water heaters.
Over the past 30 years, however, the company’s focus began to change. In 1997, for example, the company sold its automotive operations after more than a century of business. In 2011, the company also sold its substantial international electric motor business.
For the PHCP industry, A.O. Smith also began ramping up its water technology business. In 2001, it bought State Industries Inc., nearly doubling the size of its water heater business. In 2006, the company completed its largest acquisition with the purchase of Canadian water heater and building products manufacturer GSW Inc. and American Water Heater Co. In 2011, A.O. Smith acquired Lochinvar Corp., adding residential and commercial boilers to its product mix.
In 2009, the company also entered the water purification industry with A.O. Smith (Shanghai) Water Treatment Products to sell RO and water filtration to markets in China and export the products throughout the world.
By 2010, A.O. Smith and Takagi Industrial Co. entered into an agreement under which A.O. Smith would acquire Takagi’s North American operations as part of a joint venture to market and make tankless water heaters in North America.
Finally, in 2016, the company entered the North American water treatment market with the acquisition of Aquasana and, a year later, expanded its presence by buying Hague Quality Water.
Lease is up
As a result of this expansion, the company’s corporate technology team has grown by more than 40 percent.
These marketing developments, however, left Heideman with a research facility that was increasingly obsolete for matters at hand.
“You don’t need drains to test motors,” he adds. “You don’t need drains to test drive shafts.”
But engineers testing water heaters definitely need drains – or at least more drains than the old building had. Since it didn’t make much sense to rehab the site, plans were announced in 2017 to build a more suitable research center from the ground up.
“Not only is the company significantly different today than it was more than 30 years ago,” he says, “the technologies are substantially different as well.”
To that end, A.O. Smith's corporate technology team focuses on advanced research and development in the areas of potable and hydronic water heating, water treatment and air purification.
“We are primarily dedicated to testing new technology,” Heideman says, adding that while visitors to the center may see, say, a Cyclone water heater at a test station, there will likely be something inside the water heater, such as new sensor or burner technology, that could be then passed on to the product development for manufacturing if it passes testing.
“What’s done here is early stage,” Heideman explains. “After that, we have to work with product development to move the innovation forward.”
The new research center features water heating and boiler performance test labs, water treatment labs, an air test lab, as well as a number of specialized development labs.
The Water Lab, for example, is used to test and analyze current and future water heating and water treatment products.
Engineers can burn through 20 million Btus of natural gas an hour and go through 250 gallons of water a minute running tests at 72 stations.
The lab is designed specifically for the development and testing of prototype water heating technologies and components, including heat pumps, burners and heat exchangers. Technicians can also test water treatment technologies and products for performance, as well as life and failure modes across a variety of water qualities and conditions.
One other interesting feature of the lab is a private well – the first drilled in the Milwaukee metro area since 1954.
“That gives us challenging water chemistry to test our equipment,” Heideman explains.
The Water Lab also houses a Department of Energy test lab where current and new residential water heating technologies are tested to meet specific federal efficiency standards. And the lab houses an NSF lab for testing water treatment equipment to industry performance standards.
Heideman says around 50 people, mostly engineers and many with post-graduate degrees, work at the center, named after Lloyd Raymond Smith who led the company for three decades in the early 1900s and was responsible for some of the company’s biggest technological breakthroughs, such as A. O. Smith’s proprietary glass-lining on water heater tanks.
Here’s a rundown of the other research labs:
Air Purification Lab: In the Air Purification Lab, indoor air quality filtration media and sensor technologies are developed to be incorporated into indoor air purification systems. These systems are designed to remove gaseous and particulate contaminants.
Analytical Lab: In the Analytical Lab, water quality parameters such as pH, hardness and turbidity are measured. Measurements can also be taken for contaminants such as heavy metals, pesticides and disinfectants. This lab is also used to analyze materials that come in contact with drinking water, to check for material safety and to bench test new technologies.
Coatings Lab: In the Coatings Lab, tests are conducted to validate new and existing organic and inorganic coating performance. Organic coatings cover powder and liquids in various polymeric areas, while inorganic coatings cover metallic coatings, glass enamels and various metallic plating.
Electronics, Sensors and Materials Lab: In the Electronics, Sensors and Materials Lab, the focus is on the engineering, assembly and testing of new electronic controls and data acquisition systems, which will be used by the company’s manufacturing plants and product engineering teams for future products. This team also develops and tests sensors that improve control or provide indication of performance of A. O. Smith products. In addition, researchers analyze and develop metals and polymers used in company products and manufacturing processes.
Microbiological Lab: In the Microbiological Lab, microbial contaminants are cultured and measured to test the efficacy of water treatment equipment. The lab is also used to test various disinfection and microbial removal technologies.
In addition, the new research center has a Prototype Lab, which focuses on fabrication, including machining, welding, sheet metal shaping, CNC technology, 3-D printing and solid works modeling. The prototype team can work with a whiteboard sketch or 3-D models. With necessary resources in hand, this team can build anything.
And while, it’s not exactly a lab, the building’s mechanical room, visible through floor-to-ceiling windows, is very much on display off from the main entrance to the center.
Although the company’s headquarters and tech center are in Milwaukee, A.O. Smith Water Products Co. is headquartered in Ashland City, Tennessee, home of the world’s largest water heater factory. The A. O. Smith network includes five manufacturing facilities in North America, plus plants in Nanjing, China and Veldhoven, The Netherlands.