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Friday, Jul 12, 2024

Water Worlds

Testing isn’t finished in the lab of WET Design until a water feature gets set on fire. “Got the torch?” asked Jason Baldwin, whose title changes so often at the Sun Valley company that he’s not sure what to call his position. Baldwin sparks the methane gas fed into a sheet of water that spills out in the rough shape of a bell. Flames dance around the water, jostling around looking for oxygen. The pyrotechnics in the lab don’t end there. Baldwin lit up another column of water and demonstrated its safety by sticking his hand inside the water. A nearby device made of acrylic and glass tubes contains a vortex of spinning flame when the torch gets put to the gas source. The creative team at the Sun Valley-based company works in all the natural elements but the grandest of them all, said founder and CEO Mark Fuller, is water. Story continues below. >> A WET project will have water shooting up hundreds of feet in the air or gurgling out of simple fountains or flowing against smooth stone surfaces or rushing across rippled ones. “There is something innate in the human soul that draws us to water,” Fuller said. What began as a side hobby when Fuller worked for Walt Disney Imagineering grew into a company with 200 projects in 20 countries and business offices in China, London and the Middle East. The Americana at Brand and the Nestle USA headquarters in Glendale have WET water features. So do casino resorts in Las Vegas, a harbor front in Dubai, and shopping and entertainment complexes from coast to coast. Common to all these locations is the need for people. Bringing people, an audience, is the promise WET makes with its features and it’s a promise delivers on. That was what the Port of Los Angeles had in mind with the “fanfare” fountain WET created in San Pedro, the busiest cruise ship terminal on the West Coast. The fountain has activated the waterfront, attracting not just walkers and bicyclists but people by the hundreds who watch the displays. “We act as a social magnet; we attract people,” said Nadine Schelbert, a director charged with the firm’s branding and imaging campaign. The public may not know the WET name but it sees the result of the effort put in by more than 300 employees in multiple buildings in the east Valley. There is no step of the process not done in either the studio and research lab on San Fernando Road or the manufacturing facility on Sherman Way. The company made its own steel-roll floor in its machine shop and even prints up its own business cards. The materials library, a small room off the large, open studio, acts as the starting point for the designers and architects with its collection of stone, glass and other material to incorporate into the features. Animators bring to life on a computer monitor what a completed feature will look like and can provide a virtual tour for a client. To accommodate the heavy use of animation, server storage space is equal to that of feature film animation company Pixar. Designers using CAD software and product development engineers design the individual pieces and machinists first make a prototype and then a working piece that gets tested in Jason Baldwin’s lab. An advantage to keeping the design work and manufacturing together is that the creative and technical sides of the company can comingle. If an engineer is on the shop floor seeing a part they designed being made and suddenly thinks of a better design, the machine can be automatically stopped and the change made. “It is continual super-rapid improvement,” Fuller said. Insourcing A turning point in the history of WET was the Fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, completed in 1998. It was this demanding project built within an 8-acre lake that convinced Fuller the company needed to move out of “hobby” mode. Some manufacturing was being outsourced at that time and the financial struggle WET endured convinced Fuller to bring it all in-house. After all, when you are doing cutting-edge design and have all the risk why give the making of the equipment to another firm that adds overhead and profit? Doing all its own manufacturing led WET to adopt lean standards developed by Toyota. These standards make for an efficient process where a single operator can oversee three machines and is summed up on posters hanging in the machining areas with the “5 S’s:” sorting, simplifying, systematic cleaning, standardizing and sustaining. “From concept to delivery we want to shorten the time of delivery by removing all the non-value added steps,” said Jason Hall, vice president, lean production operations. Another lesson learned from the Bellagio experience was the importance of actively getting the WET name before architects and developers. After “foolishly” thinking their phones would ring off the hook after the Bellagio project, Fuller made an investment in business development, sales and marketing. The big push the past year has been in creating and promoting the WET brand to the public; to get the company beyond being known as the designer of the Bellagio and other mega projects. The company, after all, has designed smaller projects that cost less than $5 million. The San Pedro fountain is among those smaller projects, a feature that drew several thousand people to the waterfront for a grand opening in July. The suggestion to bring in WET came from a landscape architect although project manager Chris Grossi was aware of WET and their reputation. The fountain has proved popular with nearby residents and with children who enjoy the interactive aspect. “They can walk up and touch the water with their hands,” Grossi said. Admirers of WET features are called fans in the corporate offices. Branding director Schlebert and Vice President of Marketing Harvey Goldstein hope these fans become excited enough to encourage developers to incorporate a water feature into one of their projects. The number of fans may grow once they set eyes on new features coming this year, including a large one in Dubai and one at CityCenter in Las Vegas that explores water in different ways that will, in Fuller’s words, knock people’s socks off. That may well be the grandest response to the grandest of natural elements. SPOTLIGHT: WET Design Year Founded: 1983 Revenues in 2007: $30 million Revenue in 2008: $65 million Employees 2007: 175 Employees 2009: 350, as of January

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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