Educational Pathways to Success: Managing a Local Factory

She Keeps The Lights On — Her Love of Puzzles and Math Leads to Fulfilling Career.

Article by Christina Sikorski

Photography by Kate Wilhite

Originally published in SW Lake Lifestyle

Thunder booms. Wind rattles the windows. Rain pounds on the roof. The lights flicker, but the power stays on.

While a summer storm rages outside, a product manufactured right here in SW Lake County has helped keep the lights on.

Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories (SEL), with headquarters in Pullman, Washington, and locations around the world, has a 130-employee manufacturing facility in Lake Zurich. SEL invents, designs, and manufactures products to protect power systems.

If a tree falls and takes down a power line, within milliseconds SEL products locate the fault, redistribute power, and safely shut off the power to the damaged line. What we see at home is just a flicker, but the lights stay on.

Company founder Dr. Edmund O. Schweitzer III comes from a family of prolific inventors:

  • His grandfather, Edmund O. Schweitzer, partnered with Nicholas Conrad in 1911 to create the S&C Electric Company, a provider of equipment and services for electric power systems which still has offices here in Chicago.
  • His father, Edmund O. Schweitzer, Jr., founded a company in 1949 in Northbrook, IL to manufacture fault indicators, devices that provide visual indication of a fault on electric power systems.

These businesses became part of SEL in 2004; the Lake Zurich location still goes by the name E.O. Schweitzer Manufacturing.

Following in his family’s footsteps, Dr. Schweitzer III wanted to make electric power safer and more reliable.

He ultimately revolutionized the power industry by creating a microprocessor-based digital relay that could not only advise a utility that a fault occurred, but more importantly, could pinpoint the fault’s location. Prior to this technology, crews would need to search by helicopter or by driving the line to find a fault, a time-consuming activity when minutes are precious.

The energy industry was initially cautious, reluctant to accept a new product that had been a professor’s basement project. It took two years for Dr. Schweitzer to make his first sale. Now, however, his technology is widely embraced. SEL has grown from having one employee to more than 6,500.

Those 6,500 employees are now stakeholders. In 2009, SEL converted to a 100% employee-owned company, a move that enabled the company the freedom to focus on taking care of its employees, customers and communities.

Seven years after starting as an intern, plant manager Taylor Howell is responsible for the Lake Zurich location, where her desk sits on the manufacturing floor.

Howell never imagined she would be a plant manager, originally planning on becoming a math teacher. In high school, she loved math and her calculus teacher. “Mrs. Olsen really challenged me but showed me there was still a way to have fun while you’re working hard,” she says.

Howell also grew up in a problem-solving environment. “My mom always had a puzzle she was working on,” Howell says. “To this day, my mom puzzles almost every day. I loved helping her with them and finding pieces that worked.”

While still loving math, in college Howell pivoted to focusing on people, studying sociology and Human Resources and Management with an operations focus at the University of Idaho. In 2016, she started her career at SEL as a Human Resources intern.

SEL made a commitment to training her, setting her up for success. Howell says, “Manufacturing may not be a career path that people are thinking about, but it’s one where you can start small. Our current SVP of Manufacturing started as an assembler.”

Kate Wilhite, Senior Media Manager at SEL's headquarters in Pullman, Washington, further explained how SEL creates opportunities. Through a K-12 Outreach Program, SEL offers students hands-on activities to create and innovate with engineers.

“We recently partnered with a robotics class at Lake Zurich High School on a project where students were presented with a real-world manufacturing challenge. The class worked on developing a solution that involved creating a prototype of a tool to automate a press process,” Wilhite says.

Howell has also visited local schools to talk about her experience and give real life examples of her work in engineering manufacturing and what happens at the plant.

The facility is gleaming and open, with wide aisles and a layout dedicated to workflow, from sub-assembly to finished goods, with “co-bots” (collaborative robots that work with rather than replace employees) to ship-to-from-stock warehousing. Employees wear PPE smocks and shoe-grounders to keep any static electricity where it belongs. Moving toward vertical integration, the site features in-house solutions like 3D printing and injection molding to ensure customers receive high-quality products quickly even when traditional supply chains are constrained.

Ever wonder what is in those big green boxes along the street? These pad-mounted transformers step down voltage from the main power lines to voltage that is appropriate for homes and businesses.

The Lake Zurich facility produces fault indicators that are applied to underground cables as well as products that can mount to overhead lines. And when you call JULIE before starting a digging project, SEL products help identify risks and prevent homeowners and contractors from damaging existing underground infrastructure.

“We take it for granted that things are going to work when we flip the switch. We expect it to work 100% of the time, every time,” Howell says. It’s not just the lights. Other industries like healthcare depend on SEL, too, for products that need reliable power, like ventilators.

Howell says this is one of the coolest things about her job. “There is a sense of pride in what we do. What we do in this facility protects this local community. I can see our products on overhead lines or on pad mounts. It brings home that what I do is important. We support our employees and take care of our customers while investing in the future.”

What advice does she have for students and young people thinking about their future? “Say ‘yes,’” she says. “You will be supported. If you want to change and be better, you need to grow. Saying ‘yes’ will lead to more opportunities to say ‘yes’ again.”

In that spirit, we at SW Lake fully endorse one of the many inspirational "morals to the story" here:

Keep saying ‘yes’, and maybe you will be the person keeping the lights on.

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