A visit to America’s most trusted steward of safety
The Muppets have Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and UL has John Drengenberg.
“Never put foil in a microwave,” Drengenberg said as he picked up a large, crumpled section of tinfoil and placed it in a white microwave. He set the timer for five minutes and hit start, triggering an impressive light show and sci-fi sound effects that made my fillings tingle. Still, my inner eighth grader leaned forward, wide-eyed.
Looking up from the lightning storm, Drengenberg saw my expression and chuckled. “Hey, don’t do as we do, do as we say.”
At UL, it’s not just gleeful, don’t-try-this-at-home mayhem for the sake of curiosity or killer dinner party stories. It’s serious science, testing and inspecting and auditing and certifying and validating to help ensure that the things humans use every day are safe. UL places its mark on 22 billion products, systems and materials each year; the average American home has at least 125 objects with the UL mark, from drywall to fire extinguishers and lamps to mattresses.
Some are vaguely aware of what it means when a beard trimmer or printer is adorned with a little circle containing the letters “UL.” Others have no idea there’s a company out there with the sole purpose of making the world safer.
“Whether people realize it or not, the UL mark is everywhere. It's around you at home, on your commute, at work, at the gym, even at your campsite in the middle of nowhere,” said Bob Jamieson, information security director for UL. “For 120 years, the UL mark has adorned everyday items, large and small. The mark indicates one very important thing: The product has been rigorously tested and certified for safety.”
Shock and Awe
As consumer safety director, Drengenberg doesn’t roll out the microwave demonstration to inspire shock and awe, but to make the point that sometimes foil happens, and microwaves should be able to withstand an errant bit of metal on a potato or a bag of popcorn without exploding, melting, or burning the house down.
Drengenberg, an electrical engineer, originally planned to work at UL for just a year while he narrowed in on a specialty. That was 49 years ago. In that time, he’s become somewhat of a legend and the company’s de facto spokesman – an earnest, funny, living encyclopedia of what’s what at UL. He often serves as the face of the company, whether it’s filming a public service announcement with The Muppets or being interviewed about various safety issues by national and international media. He could be talking ladders with “This Old House” one day or turkey frying with the Wall Street Journal the next. So much for narrowing in on a specialty.
Next I followed him to a smash test. A small silver sphere the size of a bocce ball hangs from the ceiling, waiting to be swung into a small appliance. The collision is designed to simulate the force with which you might drop something – a radio alarm clock or a hair dryer. Even if it breaks, if plastic pieces go flying, the product is supposed to maintain enough structural integrity so a child can’t stick a finger into what’s left and reach any live wires. To verify this, testers use a small, folding piece of plastic the size of a child’s finger (they call it “the UL finger”).
“It’s not just a bunch of guys and girls hitting hair dryers with hammers. Our testing is well-established – we’ve developed these standards over many years,” Drengenberg said. “If you’ve seen a product or machine in the world, it has probably in some way or another passed through one of our labs. For example, a $9 smoke alarm may endure 50 different tests before it goes to market.”
UL’s headquarters in Northbrook, Illinois, is 100 acres of non-descript – plentiful parking, tidy landscaping and deceivingly plain buildings. Passersby would never suspect that all those beige buildings house a mind-blowing collection of testing facilities – laboratories so spectacular that science guy Bill Nye drops by from time to time.
Wearing safety glasses and sometimes hard hats, we move from room to room. To the uneducated (me) it looks a bit like an endless college biology lab, but with Drengenberg’s narration, it’s like flipping through all the best episodes of “Mr. Wizard” and “Mythbusters.”
There’s a rain room, where technicians can simulate a torrential downpour to make sure waterproof products are actually waterproof. There’s a room with a honkin’ high-speed fan designed to simulate tornado-grade winds (and what those winds do to things like roof shingles). At one of UL’s facilities in North Carolina, there’s even a full-size swimming pool with diving platforms to test flotation devices.Bob Jamieson in the “rain room,” where waterproof products are tested.
“We hire moms and their kids to come jump in the pool so we can test flotation devices. We test every lifeguard device used by the Coast Guard,” Drengenberg said, adding thoughtfully, “The pool is heated.”
At UL headquarters there are lab spaces full of circuits and light bulbs, slot machines and hospital beds, ovens and clothes dryers, wires and building materials, bank machines and bulletproof glass. When I ask him about the section of lab with two full-size garage doors, Drengenberg said UL tests a variety of openers. In fact, he is one of the people responsible for the safety standard requiring garage doors to have an “eye,” a safety sensor at the bottom to keep the door from crushing people.
Each year, in one of its numerous spaces for fire testing, UL displays a variety of popular children’s Halloween costumes and sets them on fire to show how frighteningly flammable some of them are, and how important it is to keep costume-clad kids clear of flickering jack-o-lanterns.
“That event is always really popular with the media,” Drengenberg said.
There’s even a large-scale lab big enough to contain a house or two. Seriously – they can build and furnish a three-bedroom house inside and light it on fire to test, among other things, how quickly it burns depending on the materials in the home. One of the most important takeaways of studying the science of fire is to help train firefighters on how the dynamics of home fires are changing. UL has even fire tested a mid-century home and a modern home, both with period-specific furnishings, and the results were startling.
“It used to be that people had 17 minutes on average to vacate a house when a smoke alarm went off. Now, due to the preponderance of plastic materials, it’s only a three- or four-minute head start,” Drengenberg said. “We make people paranoid before they leave here. Make sure to check the batteries in all of your smoke alarms when you go home.”
I tell Drengenberg I’d never really considered there was a company out there making sure that the coating on broadband wires isn’t too combustible, or that a door can withstand flames for a certain amount of time.
“I love it when people say that,” he said. “We have 120 years’ worth of expertise in thinking about and testing the things that nobody really considers.”
‘A Fairly Dangerous Innovation’
To really tell the story of UL, we have to go back to 1893, when Chicago hosted the World’s Fair, a massive, months-long event to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ journey to the Americas.
It’s hard not to tumble down a history nerd rabbit hole when discussing the fair. The 630-acre, 200-building “White City” on the shore of Lake Michigan had everything – art, culture, science, politics and even murder, as detailed in Erik Larson’s book, “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America.”
“That book is mandatory reading around here,” said Mike Nuteson, director of sourcing and architecture at UL.
The Chicago World’s Fair is where Henry Ford first saw an internal combustion engine, which set his imagination to work on a carriage that needed no horses. At the fair, Pabst Beer won a blue ribbon and changed its name to Pabst Blue Ribbon. Other quintessential Americana that emerged from the 1893 fair? Cracker Jacks, Juicy Fruit chewing gum, the Ferris Wheel, phosphorescent lamps and spray paint. It’s also the first time an exciting new technology, electricity, was on wide display.
The White City was the first world’s fair illuminated by electricity, which no doubt contributed to the rapid spread of alternating current in the years to follow. Because electricity was such a new technology, and the fair such a large undertaking, workers didn’t always know how to properly ground, insulate and deploy it, which created all kinds of hazards.
“It could be a fairly dangerous innovation,” Jamieson said. “There were serious concerns about fires and electrical shock, so the insurance underwriters of the World’s Fair asked William Henry Merrill, a 24-year-old electrical engineer from Boston, to come out and investigate how to deploy this technology safely.”
Merrill never went back to Boston. He stayed in Chicago and spent $350 to form a new company, Underwriters Laboratories, to continue to test and develop safety standards for electricity and any number of new technologies entering the marketplace.
“Most companies don’t start off with the why, they start off with the what. There’s a really good TED talk by Simon Sinek about this,” Jamieson said. “UL started off with the why, and that was to make the world a safer place. That’s changing as the times change. In the beginning it was about making electricity safe. Today, it's making the world safe for payment cards, for mobile devices, for working on the Internet, for all kinds of things Merrill never thought about in the 1800s.”
The question du jour, then, is how to remain true to that rich legacy but also adapt with the rapidly changing world – how to maintain the standards set more than a century ago, say for fire-proof doors, but also set new standards for things like sustainability, renewable energy or nanotechnology.
“On the top of everyone’s minds, from our chief executive to all of our engineers, is how to remain relevant and innovative in a dramatically changing marketplace. The definition of safety over the last 120 years has changed significantly,” Nuteson said. “People didn’t used to think as much about indoor air quality, or consider how to put out a fire in an electric car, or worry about what problems holding a little device up to their ear for eight hours a day may cause. We’ve got to ride that innovation curve from the industry.”
The Circle of TrustBob Jamieson at the site of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where Pabst won its blue ribbon, Henry Ford first saw an internal combustion engine, and UL was born.
Jamieson, a former Marine, brings remarkable warmth and tranquility to managing UL’s digital security, something that could easily be a frenetic and stressful job. He credits this to a battalion commander he once had who, even with rounds whizzing by, calmly walked up and down the line to make sure everyone was in position. It made a profound impact.
“I thought, ‘If I grow up to be something, I hope it’s something like that guy,’” Jamieson said.
Today, Jamieson is the type of guy who goes to the Black Hat computer security conference each year in Las Vegas but instead of staying on The Strip, gets a place in the mountains and hikes in the early morning hours before attending sessions.
“Then at the end of the conference I drive over to Lone Pine, California, and climb Mt. Whitney in a day, about 22 miles of trail going from 8400 feet to 14,500 feet and back,” he said. “So far this takes around 14 hours but I’m trying to get it down to 12.”
He loves telling stories, whether about something technical such as the impact of Moore’s Law or how UL uses Clippy, Microsoft’s animated paper clip, to ward off cyber attackers.
“We monitor all of our server ports, and if somebody's doing a brute-force attack on one of our servers, we have Mr. Clippy pop up and say in a little window, ‘I see you're doing a brute-force attack. Can I help you with that?’” Jamieson said. “Now, think if you were the attacker. All of a sudden, you got Mr. Clippy popping up, asking if he can help you with your brute-force attack. You probably would try to get out of that system as quickly as you could and find someplace else where Mr. Clippy wasn't.”
(No offense intended to Mr. Clippy, of course.)
Apart from teasing Jamieson about his loquaciousness, Nuteson is his co-revolutionary in helping UL become a digital company, one that uses the cloud for communication and collaboration between employees and clients around the world, but also one that uses the cloud to securely store and share a whole lot of important information. But it wasn’t always so.
“We always say there’s two types of companies – those that have been breached and know it, and those that have been breached and don’t know it yet,” said Jamieson, who is vigilant about security and was initially unconvinced UL should adopt Microsoft Office 365 and Microsoft Azure.
“Bob was a tough customer when it came to the risk put forth in moving our intellectual property outside of our four walls and into a Microsoft cloud-based platform. He was leery of all things cloud. Basically, he wanted to ensure we can trust Microsoft from a security perspective. And we decided to go out to Redmond for an executive briefing. Bob came along and said he was going to ask all of his tough questions, and by the time we came back, he had gone through a metamorphosis,” Nuteson said. “If he was a caterpillar on Monday, he was a beautiful butterfly on Thursday when we were flying back.”
Jamieson said that when he visited Microsoft, he met like-minded, security-obsessed folks who listened carefully and connected him with the right technical staff to make sure UL’s demanding safety needs would be met as the company moved to fully embrace the cloud.
Nuteson, a cheerful, wise-cracking barbecue champion who in his free time leads caravans of off-road vehicles on primitive camping trips, said it’s been incredibly rewarding to help usher the heritage-rich UL into the digital age. But becoming a digital company isn’t just digitizing stuff, he said, it’s about changing the way employees collaborate and communicate, both with each other and with clients.
“I would guess if you went up to an employee or client and asked them what technology we’ve deployed, they wouldn't be able to tell you that it's in Microsoft's cloud. They may or may not have ever heard of Office 365 or Azure. And to us, we actually see that as a good thing,” Nuteson said. “If we're delivering high-quality services to our colleagues and clients, and it's transparent to them how that's being delivered, we really feel that we've done our job.”
UL is transitioning from a legacy safety company to a digital one. This means not only changing the speed at which the company moves and helps its clients move, but also the way UL stores, shares and protects information.
“Over time, as you can imagine, we have amassed a tremendous amount of information about a tremendous amount of products. And this is something that not only are we trusted to maintain, but our customers really value us for the way we allow them to leverage that information,” Nuteson said. “If our customers can’t trust us with those secrets, we have no business being in business.”
UL labs are equipped with extensive sensors for measuring and collecting data from its tests, data that moves directly into spreadsheets on engineers’ PCs, and often into graphs to help them visualize what’s happening. Clients can access the latest test results, which is crucial data for getting to market, via a secure, personalized SharePoint site.
Along with safety testing products, UL is advancing its expertise into other areas of the home and workplace, such as indoor air quality, transaction security and the environment. UL has also expanded into responsible material sourcing, supply chains and risk management, all of which can help customers get to market as quickly and safely as possible. The company is moving at a faster speed than ever before.
“UL is spreading its wings,” Nuteson said.
Really, it all comes down to a circle of trust, said Jamieson, who explained the concept in the manner of a slightly more Zen version of Robert De Niro’s character in “Meet the Parents.”
“UL has an incredible archive of product information and is the proud steward of a 120-year-old circle of trust,” he said. “Customers have come to trust that products with the UL mark are safe and reliable. Companies worldwide have trusted UL with their most secret product information. And now, UL trusts Microsoft to help create a future that is safe and to help us innovate at the speed of our customers.”Originally published on 5/6/2015 / Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft