Michigan-based Russells Technical Products manufactures test chambers and systems. The company’s roots reach back as far as the 1940s and Ken Russell, the then-operator of Ken Russells Refrigeration, a commercial heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) business. Ken Russells Refrigeration was a precursor to Russells Technical Products, which went on to design and manufacture environmental test chambers, which are generally used to expose specific environmental conditions to various products, materials, or components.
This shift came in 1972 when the company was purchased and incorporated as Russells Technical Products by Don Bench, already established at that point in the test chamber industry through his work with Conrad Inc. which was founded by chamber industry heavyweight Charles Conrad. Over the ensuing half century, Bench’s family became a part of the company, with his grandson Jim currently serving as president.
Jim Bench explains that, after his grandfather took over the company, the focus pivoted to test chambers as it was a field he found to be more interesting than “sitting on top of a local restaurant in January fixing their HVAC.” Even greater attention was paid to environmental test chambers by Don Bench and son Bill in the 1980s as hires were made from other companies to continue its growth, including current Chief Executive Officer Gary Molenaar.
Some three decades later, the company is growing rapidly and will be celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 2022.
Russells is active in many different industries today including automotive and aerospace and especially within space technology. The company has been in the field since the early 1970s, supplying standard and custom design-built environmental test systems. Customers from across the industry use the chambers to test products to ensure optimum efficiency on land and in outer space through methods like temperature and humidity testing, altitude testing, cryogenic freezing, solar radiation, wind/freezing rain, and thermal shock testing.
Clients’ products have experienced incredibly fast temperature changes of 600 degrees Celsius per minute so the company has gotten used to accelerating its lifecycle testing to ensure solar arrays or pieces will work in space without having to worry about needing repairs.
Sales Manager Ryan League adds that, since developing a reputation in the seventies for its capabilities in design-build and engineering experience, Russells has enjoyed a good amount of standing with larger aerospace and defense contractors like Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, L3Harris, Northrop Grumman and more, in addition to automotive and commercial customers like General Motors, Hewlett Packard, and others. Clients like these have strict requirements for equipment at both high altitudes and low temperatures, and the company’s attention to these details has made the space industry “the bread and butter of [Russells] for the better part of thirty years.”
A collaborative and open relationship is what Russells application engineers and management strive to foster with clientele. Bench explains how application engineers at the company gladly lead customers through every step of the process, with the same point of contact being present for a client throughout the entire process, with information readily at hand. Russells offers a friendly and personable approach along with a unique, in-depth knowledge of the client’s project.
“That same engineer is still responsible for your bottom line [as the project goes to the test floor] and will work with you through the installation process as well as in startup and post-installation,” Bench explains.
Russells focuses on customer service at the heart of its priorities. As League explains, the company is small enough to be nimble and offer hands-on solutions while still operating on a global scale, an approach that is highly valued in its segment of the marketplace.
This amicable approach applies to more than customer relations, and Russells demonstrates a philanthropic streak. Many Russells employees are involved with FIRST Robotics competitions, a program encouraging high school kids to pursue careers in science and technology. Several workers volunteer and mentor as professionals and team with students to build robots for worldwide competition, a company practice in place for over twenty years. This involvement forms the base of the company’s community-minded practices and has even led to some students choosing Russells as a place of employment after their education.
The company also gives back to its local Michigan community through initiatives to benefit local rescue missions, women’s shelters, or even local families in need, efforts that it considers vital to its annual operations and to the ongoing growth of its local community. Russells and its employees view the company as an important piece of the community and seek to breed that culture from within.
Bench acknowledges that the company gets to work with exciting aspects and products in the industry, and although it is not responsible for making these products directly, it does play a part in improving them. This vision is projected to employees so that it is understood that what may seem like a relatively minor task can have a real impact within the industry.
Although countless companies were taken aback by the effects of COVID-19 in 2020, including within the testing industry, not much slowed down for Russells during that time. League attributes this to the company’s primary customer base being essential government businesses, like the U.S. Department of Defense, so demand never slowed down.
As a result of the pandemic, there has been a big change in the global and local supply chains which has led to a significant impact on how Russells accumulates the materials and components that go into equipment. The pandemic caused the company to re-evaluate its own supplier network, as it typically deals with many Michigan-based suppliers for its raw materials like steel and its pre-manufactured components. Because of the impact on the supply chain, it had to invest in new relationships, and these have strengthened it and allowed for the development of new, more agile business partnerships. This was a tumultuous time for countless industries, but Russells is leaving the pandemic in even better standing than it was before.
“If we can’t make it financially, we can’t meet everybody’s needs,” Bench says, underlining that the company is always keeping an eye on its financial footing. “Our customer base depends on us to service their equipment… we need to be here.”
Growth is slow but consistent, and he adds that the company intends to be around for a long time so its clients can rely on its strength and expertise. Russells will be looking into its internal systems to grow and get better at serving these clients moving forward, including experimenting with new refrigerants, and investing in new software for both machine operations and internal corporate operations.
Bench explains that the goal is not necessarily to be on the leading edge, but to be close enough to remain a leader in those spaces. The company is capable of solving many testing issues and uses much expertise and tried-and-true methods while being unafraid to try new things.
League highlights that test chambers have come far in the past thirty-to forty years and that the industry has built systems with a profound longevity. “We stand behind our products and want customers to understand that we build test chambers to last, and they can have confidence in the products we offer.”