NC trend: Cool factor
Chris Champlin ran a hand down a freezer that once consumed as much energy as an average house. But this is no chest freezer in a garage. What begins life as a flat piece of sheet metal leaves the Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. plant in Weaverville as a freezer small enough to sit on a countertop or a floor model taller than your head, bound for universities, blood banks and laboratories. The Boston-based company with $17 billion in revenue last year is the world’s largest scientific-equipment maker, and it’s selling high-tech refrigerators and freezers faster than workers can make them here in Buncombe County.
Manufacturing jobs, after years of decline, are growing in North Carolina, by 6.8% between 2010 and 2015, according to a new report by the N.C. Association of Manufacturers and the N.C. Chamber Foundation. Though it’s a far cry from the peak of more than 800,000 jobs in the 1990s, before the long descent of the textile and furniture industries, the state has added back nearly 30,000 net new jobs. Total employment stands at about 460,000.
Thermo Fisher has added a third shift, six days a week, as its 800 Weaverville workers try to keep up with demand as customers replace older, less-efficient models that use gases known as hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, as coolants, says Champlin, the plant’s general manager. By 2020, Thermo Fisher has promised to transition its cold-storage equipment to hydrocarbons — removing the “F” in HFCs, greenhouse gases far more powerful than carbon dioxide. The flagship TSX model Champlin showed off has already made the switch; the old freezer once consumed 25 kilowatt hours of energy a day, three times as much as the new version.
It’s one example of what will be typical in the not-so-distant future: By 2030, the study says, a typical manufacturing business will be expected to have sophisticated automation and advanced infrastructure while employing workers who require more skills.
Champlin recently traveled to London, where one of his plant’s freezers was being used by Paul Nurse, the Nobel Prize-winning head of the Francis Crick Institute, Europe’s biggest biomedical research center. Back in North Carolina, workers are making products that could one day hold a scientist’s life’s work or life-saving blood at a hospital. The plant near Asheville is central to many of Thermo Fisher’s largest customers on the East Coast and the Port of Charleston.
On a recent visit, workers rolled out a new TSX freezer from a cold room where it was tested overnight to be dried with blowers blasting hot air and then shipped. When it arrives at a blood bank, for example, where workers open a freezer door multiple times a day, it has to return to a steady temperature at lightning speed. Champlin gripped the narrow frame of the freezer’s side panel. “A lot of science goes inside this wall,” he says. “It’s refrigeration on steroids.”
The next frontier for Thermo Fisher is in the rapidly growing field of precision medicine, where biopharma companies combine DNA analysis and diagnostic testing to target therapies for specific individuals and groups of patients. Such personalized techniques could turbocharge a company that has doubled revenue and added 25,000 employees in the last decade, for a total of 55,000.
That number includes the factory in Weaverville, where Thermo Fisher recently invested $2.5 million for new equipment and expects to spend another $2 million in the next 12 to 16 months, Champlin says. The question is: What is Weaverville’s next innovation?
Photo courtesy of Angeli Wright/Asheville Citizen-Times
Sen. Richard Burr talks with general manager Chris Champlin on a recent tour of the facilities at ThermoFisher Scientific in Weaverville.