Upchurch Scientific thinks small

Cameo LaForest shows off an assortment of tiny valves manufactured by Upchurch Scientific. Standing next to her is Don Mulkey, and at left is company employee and Tim Herman. - Jim Larsen
Cameo LaForest shows off an assortment of tiny valves manufactured by Upchurch Scientific. Standing next to her is Don Mulkey, and at left is company employee and Tim Herman.
— image credit: Jim Larsen

What do you guys do over there?

That’s a common question that Upchurch Scientific employees hear from Oak Harbor residents, so last week they opened their doors to the public for a tour of their “gee whiz” production facilities.

Upchurch Scientific prospers in the lilliputian land of scientific instruments. Whidbey Playhouse is presenting “Big” this week, but every week Upchurch Scientific specializes in “Little.”

Just over 100 employees work in the seven neatly scattered buildings just off Goldie Road on Oak Street. They create “fluid transfer products,” such as minuscule valves and tiny tubing with microscopically hollow centers. You can’t see the hole, but they swear it’s there, and it goes on for the length of the tube.

The products are used in science and industry world wide for sensitive diagnostic, analytical lab and medical device instruments.

How sensitive?

Well, company officials have several favorite examples to explain sensitive. The swimming pool one, offered by marketing manager Mark Kincy, goes something like this. Say you have an Olympic-sized swimming pool and someone spits in it. Upchurch Scientific makes parts for instruments that can determine from a single water sample: If the spitter was male or female; what that person ate for breakfast; and, if samples from the people in the pool are available, the identity of the spitter. Perhaps this public knowledge will keep the water a little cleaner in the Oak Harbor swimming pool.

About 150 curious people toured the facilities on Oct. 25. Company CEO Alan Schell said it’s something the firm does every five years or so, to answer the community’s questions. There was no political agenda. In fact, Schell said the company has been pleased by support from both city of Oak Harbor and Island County officials in recent years.

Employee Vickie Hiday led one touring group past Terri Newton, who checks parts prior to shipment. “Remember, the next inspector is the customer,” advises a sign above her work station. She and other quality control professionals inspect every tiny part and verify their dimensions. “It’s critical,” Newton said of her job.

Kathleen Key, a 12-year employee of Upchurch Scientific, was carefully checking equipment for instruments that can measure everything from anthrax levels to the amount of drugs in athletes’ bodies. “I’m an expert at what I’m doing,” she said. All the employees expressed pride in their work.

In the machine shop, machinists create incredibly tiny machine parts. “It amazes me what they can do 8, 10 or 12 hours per day,” said tour leader Hiday.

Machinist Dave Butler drilled and shaved a part and put a shaft on it, then plucked a hair from his head to demonstrate the thickness of the shaft. And this was early in the evening. “I’m going to run out of hair before the night’s over,” he said.

No picture taking was allowed in the “extrusion center,” where employees work behind glass windows. Plastic tubing is extruded there and, in a proprietary process, the tubes emerge with a hollow center. “Making a hole through a tube is top secret?” one tour-taker wondered aloud. When he was shown a tube with a hole so small it was invisible to the naked eye, he understood. The tube itself was barely larger than fishing line. In the tubing room, hollow-centered tubes are rolled up on what looks like large fishing reels.

In a small office near the extrusion center, engineer Herb Rettke is contemplating how to make the company’s Teflon tubes even stronger. At present they can withstand 1,000 pounds of pressure per square inch (psi). Rettke explained that he was recently hired to increase that by an astounding amount, to 10,000 psi. “We’re going to push the envelope,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy.” But that’s the goal, and the company has already invested $100,000 for research and development. It’ll take another $400,000 to get production going, Rettke said.

By the end of the tour, many Oak Harbor residents finally knew what it is they do at Upchurch Scientific. And they gained even more respect for the people who work there. The company motto, “A small company that does big things,” seemed entirely accurate.

For a look at their products, go to their website at

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