Inside the Melville offices of Underwriters Laboratories, the 121-year-old product safety certification company, engineers zap electricity into appliances and set fire to prototypes of products that will eventually make their way into homes and businesses.
The 301,000-square-foot brick facility at 1285 Walt Whitman Rd. develops many of the tests used to evaluate the safety of 20,000 types of products, ranging from microwave ovens to manufacturing equipment. Those test procedures are used by colleagues at Underwriters Laboratories' headquarters in Northbrook, Illinois, and at UL's 160 facilities in countries around the world, from Brazil to China.
"We mentor the rest of UL and make sure that everyone conducts the tests in a consistent manner," said George J. Fechtmann, the engineer in charge of all UL test development for plastics and other product materials. Though the site represents a small corner of UL's operation, its engineers' work is recognized internationally.
When the National Transportation Safety Board began investigating Boeing's 787 Dreamliner battery fires in 2013, the agency turned to the engineers at Melville UL, working with the Federal Aviation Administration, to research the safety hazard that led to the temporary grounding of the entire 787 fleet.
"UL was one of the few companies Boeing invited to participate to help them with that issue," said Donald J. Talka, senior vice president and chief engineer of UL. "As a result of that work, the NTSB contacted us and asked us to do some additional research on these batteries."
Last year, 22 billion consumer products carrying the recognizable "UL" sticker hit the market. In 2014, Melville technicians tested more than 15,000 products, and they are on track to test more than 16,000 by year's end. About 420 engineers, technicians and support staff members work there, making it the company's third-largest test facility.
The company is paid by manufacturers seeking safety certification of their consumer or industrial products to avoid liability. First, UL runs tests on the equipment and prototypes. The lab makes recommendations, and after necessary changes are made, UL certifies the product's safety. After initial clearance, company inspectors make unannounced visits to factories where the product is being manufactured to ensure that no unapproved changes were made to designs. These visits can continue for years. The entire process is paid for by the manufacturer.
Through the large windows that line the hallways, electrical, mechanical and chemical engineers can be seen operating all manner of test equipment designed by UL. Signs instruct visitors and employees to don safety goggles before proceeding into the lab.
Technicians jot notes as they ignite materials with specialized burners. Above one windowed door, a red light lets others know they should not enter.
UL's Melville lab, which moved here from Manhattan in 1963, serves as the central hub for all testing of wire and cable products as well as plastics and other materials. The facility's powerful generators are capable of producing 10,000 amps of electricity -- enough to power 100 homes -- allowing engineers to run multiple tests on electrical components simultaneously.
Because much of the company's testing equipment -- which can cost upward of $250,000 depending on the device -- was designed and built in-house, a lot of UL's proprietary machinery looks far more functional than flashy.
A multinational giant
UL was founded in 1894 by a young electrical engineer, William Henry Merrill, to assess flammability risks in early electric products. While its safety testing service has become iconic, shifts in technology, global markets and manufacturing have led to the broadening of UL's focus and services.
In recent years it has transformed from a single not-for-profit entity with one business division into a multinational giant, with a for-profit subsidiary with three areas of focus: consumer products, commercial and industrial, and medical and life sciences.
The Melville lab is part of UL LLC, the for-profit subsidiary of Underwriters Laboratories Inc., the not-for-profit parent organization.
"It was an evolution," Talka said. The company wanted to become more of a product design adviser to manufacturers, and a bigger resource for safe product design information, he said, "so it was decided . . . to split [the functions] into logical groups."
Fechtmann, a 41-year UL veteran, estimated that at least 50 percent of the products he sees fail one or more of the company's 1,100 safety standards on the first round of testing.
Certifying, insuring product
Part of the reason manufacturers turn to UL for product testing has to do with the way insurance providers assess risk for business clients.
"There are always insurance implications," said Susan Kearney, senior director of knowledge resources for The Institutes, a Pennsylvania-based professional development group for the property-casualty insurance industry.
Kearney said that UL plays an important role for property insurers, who decide whether a business is eligible for coverage based on risk assessments performed by insurance underwriters. Since fire damage is the biggest cause of property loss to a business, underwriters may choose to deny coverage or charge higher premiums if electrical wiring and fire safety equipment is not UL-certified.
The fact that UL is often mentioned by name in insurance underwriting guidelines is a testament to its long-standing "credibility and prominence in the insurance industry," she said.
Although manufacturers aren't required to test their products through UL, many choose to do so to minimize any possible liability, and to hold onto business customers who must show their equipment is UL-certified to be insured. Ultimately, the cost of certification -- which can run from hundreds to many thousands of dollars depending on the testing required -- outweighs that of a lawsuit.
"If there's a standard out there and an organization doesn't follow those standards, that's always grounds for an attorney," Kearney said. "The U.S. is a very litigious society."
Expanding its services
As manufacturing has moved to China and other countries, so, too, have UL's consumer product testing operations. Many stateside labs focus more on certifying commercial and industrial products rather than consumer goods.
"We originally had a few manufacturers from Europe and a few other places who would submit products through here for the U.S. market," said 38-year UL veteran Thomas V. Blewitt, UL's engineer in charge of consumer products standards and testing. "Now our customer base is all over the globe."
Keeping up with engineering and design practices overseas has presented challenges, he said.
"You have to understand the thinking of engineers around the world, the thinking of the manufacturers and even the thinking of the consumers."
For example, most hair dryers sold in the United States have a built-in sensor that shuts off the power if submerged in water. In Europe, most bathrooms don't have electrical outlets, so the concern for electrocution isn't there.
It's not uncommon for Blewitt to receive inquiries about recycling requirements in California, or power limitations for products sold in Europe. Having that kind of detailed information in house has turned the company into an adviser of product design in addition to its role as a safety company.
Counterfeit products are another concern surrounding the globalization of commerce. Foreign companies often try to forge the UL mark or mislabel products, Blewitt said. It's the reason the company's Melville-based anti-counterfeiting operation works with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to investigate fraudulent products.
"It's really a knowledge business now," he said.
Developments in testing equipment, increased concerns over health and environmental impacts and the growth of personal electronics have expanded the company's services beyond its past focus on fire risk and shock-hazard testing of finished products.
As a result, even if a product doesn't carry the company's distinct mark, it doesn't mean a component or material inside the device wasn't tested by UL.
Consumer recognitionDespite the company's widespread presence, it isn't uncommon for consumers to be unaware of what UL actually does, let alone what the label on the bottom of their appliances stands for, said John Drengenberg, consumer safety director for the company.
"Some people think it means Union Label," said Drengenberg, a 49-year veteran with the company who works out of the Illinois headquarters.
"We've been using UL as our certifier since the 1920s," said Steve Campolo, vice president of codes, standards and compliance for Leviton Manufacturing, a 109-year-old electric-products maker with headquarters down the street from UL in Melville.
As a manufacturer of components for the lighting industry, Leviton has been around since the beginning of the electric era, said Campolo, and has turned to UL for many of its product testing needs despite the growth of competition.
"We have a great respect for UL's technical expertise," he said. "That has a lot of weight. But that doesn't mean that the others aren't technically capable."
Campolo, a former employee of UL who sits on a number of the certifier's industry-focused safety committees, said the company has changed over the years, but its reputation stands strong.
"We never know how many lives we've saved, but we do know that everything we do is focused on keeping people safe," Drengenberg said.