Workers at Itron Inc. took a brief break from their labors Monday morning to take a bow from one of their newest and biggest customers, Tokyo Electric Power Co.
In a traditional Japanese salute, the leaders of a 10-man delegation visiting Spokane thanked the workers for their push to meet a tight deadline for delivery of 5,300 hand-held meter-reading devices.
“We appreciate your great effort,” said Masakatsu Ikawa, general manager for the utility’s customer relations department.
The $9 million order must be in Japan by March 31 for tax reasons.
Larry Panattoni, Itron’s vice president for manufacturing, said a special team and special area had been set aside to expedite the Tepco order, which officials said they hope will set the stage for more business with Tepco and other Asian utilities.
To make the delegates feel welcome, a bright banner in English and kanji, Japanese writing, hung from one wall, and workers assembling the Tepco units wore special shirts with the Japanese company’s emblem.
“This puts us solidly in Japan for the next 15 years,” said Director of Engineering Peter Martin.
The Itron equipment will be Tepco’s first electronic meter-reading system, he said, noting that the company defeated such formidable manufacturers as NEC, Hitachi and Mitsubishi to get the order.
Gearing up to meet Tepco’s delivery requirements has meant a “Herculean” effort that forced Itron to develop the new equipment in three months.
“We’ve never turned a product around in less than 12 months,” he said.
James Spencer, who is in charge of sales and marketing for Asia, added that it took six years to land the Tepco order, including two years of field trials.
Ikawa said those trials were critical to Tepco’s decision to order from Itron.
The utility’s service territory, with its 24 million electric customers, stretches from downtown Tokyo into largely rural areas, he said.
The meter-reading devices had to hold up under a variety of environmental conditions, he said, yet be lightweight enough to be carried by the 4,500 women who will carry them.
The Tepco team was escorted from station to station along the assembly line, with Itron officials explaining - sometimes through an interpreter - the measures taken to assure quality and reliability.
Members watched test runs and scrutinized the minute circuitry, sometimes asking questions of the assemblers themselves.
“I am very relieved to have seen the factory,” said Ikawa. “It was a great opportunity to see everybody in the factory working on our order.”
The delegation will visit Washington Water Power Co. today, then journey on to Itron’s other manufacturing facility in Minnesota.
The factory at Wauseca makes encoder, receiver and transmitter modules that allow operators to read all kinds of meters without going to the site.
Few are made in Spokane now, but Panattoni said a new production line will be added soon to augment the company’s manufacturing capacity.
“They(Tepco) are really interested in this technology,” Spencer said.
The Tepco representatives are also visiting other utilities in New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.