Volume 13 | Issue 3 | Year 2010

John Olson, president of Whelen Engineering, has enjoyed a long and successful career in the manufacturing sector. For almost a half century, he’s been with the Chester, Conn.-based enterprise (he joined the company in 1968). As such, he possesses an encompassing perspective that only active experience can provide, particularly concerning what was once right about and what subsequently went wrong with American manufacturing.
“We’ve allowed our country to offshore most of our manufacturing, and with that, we lost the good jobs we once were able to offer,” he observes. “Right now, we’re not moving in the right direction. The government needs to better respond to the needs of our manufacturing sector, which was the one area that could offer jobs for just about anyone, from the minimally skilled and educated right up to those who possess doctorate degrees. No other industry offered the same breadth of opportunity, but we’ve seen it go away, much to the sector’s and the nation’s detriment.”

That’s why Olson is proud to be associated with a company that can accurately boast that its products are American made. “We’re one of the few remaining U.S. companies that manufactures all of its own equipment,” he says. “Just about everything we sell is produced in the Whelen factories.”

And he’s talking about a considerable amount of production. Founded 58 years ago, Whelen Engineering designs, manufactures and assembles a broad range of warning and signaling devices that serve several markets. For a long time, the company has served the automotive industry with dash/deck/visor and directional products, as well as halogen flashing, strobe and lightemitting diode (LED) beacon products, not to mention power supplies, flashers, sirens, switches, speakers and other equipment. For the aviation industry, it has provided anti-collision light systems, power supplies, sirens, and speakers, among other tools. In addition, it provides high-power voice and siren warning devices for military, industrial and public situations.

It all began in 1952, when company founder and namesake George W. Whelen developed what was then known as a rotating aircraft “anti-collision beacon,” an innovative piece of technology that fit on small airplanes. Later, this concept was modified to create a magnetic mounted beacon used by law enforcement. “Whelen’s friend, who was a police chief, came up with the idea,” recalls Olson. “He said that if you place a magnet on the bottom within a base, it would be ideal for unmarked police cars.”

Eventually, the modified concept was deployed not only by police but also by fire departments and ambulances services, and it was used to enhance public safety, adds Olson.

Subsequently, with his creativity prodded, Whelen began researching strobe light technology and, beginning in 1963, his growing company introduced affordable, effective strobe products to the small aircraft and the automotive industries. “We were the first commercial manufacturer of strobe lights of any kind, except for photographic strobes,” points out Olson.

As the company moved forward into the 1970s, it continued developing new products, adding to its aviation menu and expanding its line of automotive and railroad safety lighting devices. During the decade, the company introduced the first allstrobe enclosed crossbar as the 6000 Series (which was upgraded in 1978 to the 8000 Series). It also introduced its outdoor warning siren capable of generating warning tones as well as high-powered voice messages.

In 1983, the company (at the time known as Whelen Technologies Inc.) introduced a major lightbar advancement with its low-profile “Edge 9000” Lightbar product. Refined and updated during the next 25 years, the aerodynamic product remains an industry standard. During this period, the Whelen company also developed the concept of uniform ambulance lighting. The efficient, effective systems reduced power consumption, thus increasing ambulance reliability. Meanwhile, strobe-based technology expanded into ambulance, fire and rescue apparatus, railroad, Department of Transportation, marine and aviation applications.

By the 1990s, Whelen advanced into computer-networked vehicle warning systems, programmable warning equipment and instant operating diagnostics for safer vehicle operation. Also, it moved voice and siren warning intelligence indoors, where the technology provided plant-wide employee warning systems. Also during this decade, specifically in December 1994, the company changed its name from Whelen Technologies Inc. to Whelen Engineering Company Inc.

As Whelen entered the new millennium, it designed and developed LED technology and, in the process, created a new and diverse line of lighting products that demonstrated exceptional performance and consistency.

“LEDs have virtually replaced the strobes, and the technology represents a rapidly developing market,” says Olson. “In fact, it has developed much more quickly than any other light source I’ve seen in all of my years with Whelen. Right now, this switchover to solid-state lighting has become the big story in visible light warning technology.”

Indeed, LEDs have become the choice of fire, emergency and Department of Transportation professionals throughout the country, the company reports. Whelen now offers the heavy duty, low-current LEDs in ultra-low profile lightbars, dash and deck lighting and a wide range of lighthead models.

“LEDs are rapidly replacing the strobe, rotating and flashing light technologies,” adds Olson.

As the company grew through six decades, it eventually divided itself into four divisions, each with a specific market focus. These include the automotive division (which provides lightbars, dash-lights, strobe kits, siren boxes and other public warning systems that can be mounted on or within vehicles such as ambulances and other rescue vehicles, among others); the aviation division (which provides warning equipment for aircraft and for airport directional lighting); the mass notification division (which provides outdoor warning sirens and alert systems stationed at potential hazard areas such as nuclear power plants and dams); and the industrial division, which provides alert hardware for industrial settings.

“All of our products, whether it’s a siren or a light, will provide a warning to the public of some potential danger,” says Olson. “Our products also enhance the safety of the traveling public and professionals. Further, we remain a leading manufacturer of aircraft lighting equipment.”

Whelen Engineering Company, which is staffed by 1,250 employees (according to Olson’s recent count), has two robotic-equipped production facilities: One located at its Chester headquarters and the other in Charlestown, N.H. Both boast surprising size and scope – a testament to the company’s refusal to downsize or outsource.

“The Connecticut facility is comprised of 320,000 square feet, while the New Hampshire facility measures 475,000 square feet,” describes Olson. “Within these factories, we house our own tool and injection molding shops, as well as metalizing, sheet metal and electronic assembly divisions. We also have about 70 engineers that are constantly developing new products.”

The company also has a 100,000-square-foot facility in Coventry, England. But this site doesn’t clash with Whelen’s “American-made” philosophy. Rather, it serves to translate products made in the United States to European standards.

The company supports its productivity with a world-class customer service network. “We have 25 regional offices throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico and Europe,” reports Olson. “The offices are part of our marketing arm. Salesmen call upon distributors and customers and work with clients to design products to individual specifications. Also, each office has a repair station. We’re an organization that facilitates repairs and assists with equipment installation.”

The aforementioned philosophy and attributes underscore why Whelen has managed to foster loyalty among employees. Average employment is 22 years, and the company is proud to be able to provide jobs for a committed and ambitious work force. As far as it’s concerned, that’s what American manufacturing should be all about. It should support and, in turn, be supported by the public and the customers.

“We have a saying that we attach to our offerings: ‘This product was manufactured by U.S. taxpayers who support the agencies that buy our product,’” says Olson.

Speaking of taxes, Olson sees that as one way that U.S. manufacturing could possibly regain its previous global stature. But the government must get itself on board. “Somewhere along the line, the government will have to realize that it needs to structure tax codes that will encourage companies to invest in the future of U.S. manufacturing,” he observes. “Investments must be made and return on investments must be realized. For that to happen, we need the appropriately beneficial tax codes. Further, the government needs to develop rules and regulations that will allow manufacturers to do their jobs efficiently and economically. We also need to modify the educational system, so that it will support our society’s technical side. Right now, it focuses too much on the non-technical – such as the legal and business administration professions and the investment community. We need to regain the strength we had during the World War II era, when we made everything in this country.”

Could this be possible? If so, when? Olson concedes it’s a tall order that won’t be easily and quickly resolved. “I’m going on 76 years now. I worked a long time in the industrial world, and I have done a lot and I have seen a lot. But, at this point in my life, I’m not sure that I am going to live long enough to see it happen.”

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