Commerce secretary tours a Wallingford company famous in the oil patch

Wallingford – It’s a long way from here to the oil fields of China, Russia, Turkey and Dubai, where APS Technology helps modern-day roughnecks drill faster, smarter and deeper.

From an upscale industrial park off I-91 in the heart of Connecticut, APS has hit an economic gusher, averaging annual revenue growth of 40 percent over most of its 20-year history as it’s become a world leader in drilling technology.

Penny Pritzker, the new U.S. commerce secretary, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Tuesday came for a tour of a factory that’s benefitted from a $5 million economic development loan from the state and support from the Commerce Department, which recognized the company last spring as an export leader.

APS was the perfect backdrop for a White House and a gubernatorial administration trying to promote exports and emphasize the value of advanced manufacturing to job growth and economic recovery nationally and in Connecticut, a state that’s recovered just half the jobs lost in the 2008 recession.

“Let’s be clear, very clear, what this company is. It is Connecticut’s sweet spot,” Malloy said. “This is high value added manufacturing, which we can compete with anyone in the world for.”

A visit Tuesday to New York and Connecticut was the second road trip for Pritzker, a Chicago billionaire once described as Barack Obama’s most important fundraiser, since she was sworn in June 26.

About 85 percent of APS’ revenue comes from exports, and the Commerce Department has offered valuable legal advice as the company has expanded overseas, said William Turner, the company president.

Turner, the tall and soft-spoken engineer and inventor who founded APS in 1993, escorted Pritzker and Malloy around the APS factory, a brightly lit collection of computer-driven machines that machine metal.

Their last stop was a steerable drilling device, a new product that’s being tested in what has to be central Connecticut’s deepest well -– a hole 2,600 feet deep that’s been drilled just off the parking lot for the past two years.

It can move 15 degrees off vertical for every 100 feet it travels.Penny Pritzker

“This kind of precision manufacturing is what America needs to be known for,” Pritzker said. “We need to help support and create environments where entrepreneurs like Bill can start companies, grow companies that can be competitive in the 21st century.”

Connecticut has a greater historical connection to whale oil than crude. The presence here of one of the world’s leading oil technology companies derives from the aerospace origins of the discipline.

Raymond Industries, a Middletown company whose product line included sensors tough enough to survive in space and deep under the sea, gave birth to Teleco Oilfield Services.

In the late 1970s, Teleco perfected the first sensor that could give drillers immediate feedback about the location of the drill head and other data. Measurements-while-drilling, or MWD, was revolutionary, allowing more precise drilling without frequent delays for testing.

It ended the practice of literally dropping a plumb line to measure how a drill hole deviated from a vertical axis, said Martin E. Cobern, a former Teleco employee.

When Baker Hughes bought Teleco and moved it to Houston, a group of scientists and other R&D specialists stayed behind, eventually forming the nucleus of the company that would become APS.

One of them was Cobern, who has a Ph.D. in physics from Yale and now overseas research and development for APS.

APS’ product line includes steerable drills and sensors that report on the radioactivity and conductivity of rock, identifiers of different rock types — an important indicator of the presence of oil. The latest generation literally can sniff out and steer its way to oil.

Vibrations and shock are the enemy of drillers, and APS makes shock absorbers capable of withstanding a force of 1,000 Gs. Their devices can withstand temperatures as high as 200 degress centigrade and pressures of more than 20,000 pounds per square inch.

The company’s growth -– it is the recipient of numerous awards as one of the nation’s fastest growing technology companies -– is due to the company’s history of innovation in developing sensitive instruments capable of survival in the most hostile environments, Cobern said.

On the turnoff to APS, two signs proclaim in bright red letters, “NOW HIRING.”

Turner said the company had projected making 70 hires this year. It already has hit 70 and now expects to add a total of 100 jobs, mostly in Connecticut. One addition is under construction, and another one already is planned.

“We are hiring one to three people a week,” Cobern said. “That’s a nice problem to have.”

From just 79 employees in 2008, the company now 300 workers, about 265 in Connecticut. That makes it a significant employer, but it is a far cry from the manufacturing giants such as Pratt & Whitney Aircraft, Sikorsky and Electric Boat.

Catherine Smith, the commissioner of economic development, said the future of manufacturing lies with companies like APS, not those on the scale of a Pratt & Whitney.

“They’re small,” Smith said. “They’re very innovative.”

And they are hiring.

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