3M expands operation here
Electronic sign manufacturer doubles its space, readies flurry of new products
Kim CromptonJune 29th, 2001
3M, the huge international company that acquired Spokane-based American Electronic Sign Co. late last year and renamed it 3M Dynamic Message Systems, isnt wasting any time in making its presence felt here.
The Spokane business unit, now operating as a part of 3Ms big Traffic Control Materials Division, has doubled the amount of space it leases in the Spokane Business & Industrial Park to accommodate assembly-line stations. It plans to begin producing two new products in its new mass-production area next month, with others expected to follow soon thereafter, says Nathan S. Batson, its operations manager.
Enthused about the market potential for the new electronic-sign offerings, Batson predicts they could prove to be among the most successful products the division ever has had.
The two initial new products both are called active school-zone signs. One is a variable speed-limit sign that gives motorists passing through a school zone the speed limit that is being enforced in the zone at that time. The other is a driver-feedback speed sign that tells motorists how fast theyre going and activates flashing warning lights when theyre exceeding the posted speed by more than 5 mph.
Traditionally, what we have built is custom products. These are going to be assembly-line, shipped-from-stock items, Batson says. We will be producing them at a rate of about four an hour.
Active school-zone signs have had a dramatic effect in lowering vehicle speeds in areas where theyve been tested, so demand for such signs has increased sharply, he says.
3M Dynamic Business Systems will begin production of some new larger variable speed-limit signs for highway and freeway use closely on the heels of the active school-zone signs, Batson says.
Weve got some other products coming down the line that also will be produced on the assembly line here, such as variable time-to-destination signs for use in areas with heavy traffic congestion, priority-control road signs that can forewarn motorists of approaching emergency vehicles, and active railroad-crossing signs, Batson says. Production of the time-to-destination and priority-control signs probably will be begin later this year, he says.
3M Dynamic Message Systems currently employs about 58 people, all here in Spokane, and probably will add 10 to 12 employees over the next month or two to help handle the assembly-line work, he says.
Were trying to keep it as tight as possible. Were looking at real controlled growth, he says.
Batson declines to speculate on possible longer-term growth of the companys work force here, saying, All I know is were going to look significantly different two years from now, and I dont know how its going to look.
To accommodate the assembly-line work, 3M Dynamic Message Systems last month expanded the space it leases in Spokane Business & Industrial Parks Building No. 10 to about 56,000 square feet, up from about 28,000 previously. Margie McHugill, of Crown West Realty LLC, which owns the park, negotiated the transaction.
3M, the big St. Paul, Minn.-based manufacturing and technology conglomerate, bought the Spokane manufacturing operation on Nov. 30. Spokane businessman Luke G. Williams founded American Electronic Sign here in 1988. It designed, made, and marketed electronic reader boards and highway display systems used in transportation-safety, retail, and commercial applications. Under the new name and ownership, the business unit is continuing to operate in those markets while also looking to expand its product offerings.
3M is a $16 billion company with operations in more than 60 countries. Its 50,000 products serve an array of markets, including industrial, consumer, office, electronics, telecommunications, and health care, along with transportation.
Batson claims 3M is the largest traffic-safety company in the world, but he says its Traffic Control Materials Division hadnt been growing as rapidly as the company wanted through sales of its traditional product lines, such as pavement markers and reflective materials. Hence, we were acquired because of our technology, he says.
Already, the Spokane operation has benefited immensely just from 3Ms name and reputation, Batson says. Theres some projects we couldnt get in on (as American Electronic Sign), and now were heading the projects. Its good for the company, and now its going to be good for Spokane.