As one of the original pioneers of the revolutionary PEX piping technology, Uponor is a company that is known around the world for generating innovative solutions across a number of different applications; from plumbing and fire safety, to radiant heating and cooling systems, and pre-insulated pipe configurations for residential and commercial spaces all over the world.
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2015 marks the 25th anniversary since they established their North American headquarters in Apple Valley, Minn., and in a conversation with Industry Today, Bill Gray, president of Uponor North America, talks about what makes his company’s products so effective, and how their market success has them expanding in a number of different ways. Steve Engelhardt reports.
Uponor’s origins trace back to 1918, when Aukusti Asko-Avonius established a carpentry workshop in Lahti, Finland, but perhaps the biggest turning point for the company was their adoption and subsequent manufacturing of PEX piping technology in 1972. The piping technology, initially developed by German inventor Dr. Thomas Engel, offered a state-of-the-art solution to a number of different industries and proved to be instrumental in launching the company’s products onto a global platform.
Initially expanding their supply of products to the North American market in 1984, the real move came when the company decided to open corporate offices, a manufacturing facility, and a training center in Apple Valley, Minn., in 1990. “Apple Valley was the perfect location to transition our company’s Nordic roots into,” Gray says, adding, “It also made sense logistically and there was a strong talent pool there that we still continue to draw from today.”
The decision to not only expand business into the world’s largest and most competitive market, but establish a permanent presence there as well, proved to be an instant success. With demand thriving, the company continued to roll out new products over the next two decades to meet the current and emerging needs of North America’s residential and commercial sectors. “We are one of the only companies out there whose pressurized systems are entirely PEXbased,” he says, adding, “And over the years when you’re focused primarily on one kind of material, it makes you an expert of sorts.”
But what exactly is PEX technology? PEX, or crosslinked polyethylene, is a flexible, durable piping product that, although developed over 40 years ago, has been used in plumbing systems for the last 20 years. “When you crosslink polyethylene you end up with a very strong, pliable, and flexible product that makes installation easy and long-term stability a guarantee.” The best part about the Uponor system is its unique ProPEX® connections. To make a ProPEX fitting, the pipe is expanded with an expansion tool before a fitting is inserted into the expanded pipe. As the flexible pipe contracts around the fitting, it creates a connection with a high degree of integrity.
The technology has made Uponor’s products – including its AquaPEX® plumbing system, AquaSAFE™ multipurpose fire sprinklers, Wirsbo hePEX™ radiant heating and cooling systems and Ecoflex® pre-insulated pipe systems – leading options in their respective fields, and Gray believes that as more contractors realize PEX’s superiority over alternatives like PVC, CPVC and copper pipe, demand will continue to grow.
“One of the most compelling cases for using our PEX systems today is the fact that you can’t dry fit a ProPEX connection,” Gray says, adding, “This is particularly notable today, given the shortage of skilled labor and its critical role in the installation of internal systems within residential and commercial buildings.” He says because of PEX’s properties and the high degree of integrity that results from its ProPEX expansion fitting, the risk of having loosely connected pipes that could break apart at any moment because of a dry fit is nonexistent. “That alone has bought us significant loyalty and resulted in many contractors, who can’t risk their the integrity of their installations, converting over to our systems from other options like CPVC or copper.”
The quality of Uponor’s PEX systems is particularly important, given the areas of homes and buildings where they are being installed. “Most customers determine the quality of their contractor by the kind of materials they use for either construction or installation,” he says, adding with a laugh, “And if you’re building, let’s say, a $400,000-$500,000 home, is the pressurized water system really the area where you want to take a risk and try to save a little extra money?”
This kind of customer awareness is what drives Uponor and their success in North America, and Gray says the partnership that ultimately exists between Uponor and their end users, is what defines their culture as a company. “Understanding who our customer is and recognizing their role in our own viability really motivates us to keep improving ourselves and our systems.”
Taking this idea further, he says that Uponor has a large customer service team that is ready to travel on-site and solve any application issues the customer may be having. “I think they appreciate our commitment to them and their projects, and demonstrating this consistently over the years has led to a lot of success for us.”
In fact, the company’s current success led them to recently announce an $18 million investment into expanding their manufacturing facility in Apple Valley. The current facility is already at 240,000-square-feet, but Gray says in the face of increasing demand and an ambition to continue to develop industry-leading products through their PEX technology, more room was simply needed.
The $18 million will be used toward the renovation and expansion of an additional 88,000-square-feet, which Gray says will be used to for increasing capacity, as well as provide more room for the company’s engineers to develop new technologies, including that related to research and development activities.
Gray says the move is also a sign of their confidence in the future of the U.S. economy, and the relevant industries that they supply to. “It’s a very exciting time to be in the building industry, especially after the downturn we experienced in the market just a few years ago,” he says, adding, “We’re seeing significant growth in commercial and residential construction, and this expansion will ensure we match our forecasted growth and demand for our PEX systems.”
It’s an exciting future for Uponor, and thriving economic conditions coupled with a manufacturing expansion signal that the company’s PEX systems look to be populating more and more facilities across North America in the very near future.