Mitsubishi Back Story Moves to Manufacturing

By Bill Dries

The back story of the new Mitsubishi Electric Power Products Inc. plant that formally opened in Southwest Memphis last week includes a sewer pipe, the Mojave Desert and artificial lightning.

The $200 million Mitsuibishi plant in the Rivergate Industrial Park had its formal opening last week.

(Photo Courtesy of Mitsubishi Electric Power Products Inc.)

Mitsubishi executives and their site consultants first drove past the site in the Rivergate Industrial Park where they later built the $200 million plant.

“It was down the road on the other side. It didn’t have quite the access that we were looking for and it just logistically wasn’t proper for us,” Memphis plant general manager Ken Badaracco said. “We noticed this property driving to that one.”

Construction began by the Mississippi River in the spring of 2011 during the highest floodwaters on the river since the record flooding of 1937.

Badaracco is more than the general manager of the plant. He was involved in the planning before Memphis was settled on as the general site for the plant he and others call “the most advanced and modern transformer facility.”

It began three years ago when Mitsubishi Electric Corp., the parent company of the electric power products division, decided to increase its capacity with its first North American plant.

The plant is Mitsubishi’s first North American facility to manufacture the large power transformers that are sold to utility companies and other power providers.

“We are making key investments like this one across North America,” said Kenichiro Yamanishi, president and CEO of Mitsubishi Electric Corp., the parent company of MEPPI. “We are building closer to our customers.”

There was a reason the Rivergate site, owned by Belz Enterprises, wasn’t shown and had been unused for decades.

A sewage pipe eight feet in diameter was buried 40 feet deep through the middle of the 100 acres and it carried several billion gallons of sewage a year for the city.

“We thought it was a home run,” said Brian Heery, Mitsubishi CEO. “But it had the pipe.”

The city of Memphis moved the pipe as part of the infrastructure work on the site before construction began on the plant. Heery said it demonstrated the city’s “can-do attitude” toward securing the heavily skilled manufacturing sector jobs.

“We got a new pipe out of it,” said Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. during last week’s opening.

The opening came next to the cavernous “lightning room,” one of several stops at the end of the assembly line where the transformers weighing hundreds of tons are tested and then rolled onto rail cars for transportation. The rail line on the Mitsubishi property is a mile long.

The massive chamber leading to the rail line is where the transformers are zapped with a simulated lightning strike through what is called a 5.2 million volt impulse generator.

The first transformers to be made at the Memphis plant are already sold to two regional utility companies. Four new 500 kilovolt transformers to be made at the Memphis plant for Southern California Edison will be placed in the Mojave Desert to connector solar power collectors in the desert to the California power grid.

“We sell equipment that supports solar farms,” Badaracco added. “But we are not in the solar business ourselves.”

David Mead, senior vice president of Southern California Edison, said his company had previously bought 500 kilovolt transformers like the ones it has ordered from Mitsubishi Memphis that were made in Spain, South Korea and Japan.

The four transformers are part of the biggest capacity expansion in the history of Southern California Edison, according to Mead, with each transformer the equivalent of buying a small utility company a year.

The other transformers to come off the assembly line starting later this year are sold to Dominion Virginia Power and go into service through 2017.

Executives from both companies said the Memphis plant represents a domestic source for transformers and a more secure domestic utility industry as a result.

Badaracco said work on the transformers should begin toward the end of May. They each take a year to make from start to finish without designing in advance. If Mitsubishi does the design in advance that cuts about three months from the process. Customers provide Mitsubishi with specifications and Mitsubishi does the design work.

“We’ve been training our hourly work force and we’ve been installing equipment,” Badaracco said. “In about three to four weeks we’re going to start actually building a transformer. We have purchased parts. We’re ready to start putting things together.”