The facility designed to foster innovation and new ways for making diesel engines and other products has itself become the constant standard for doing so at Cummins Inc.

Its Technical Center, located on McKinley Avenue near Haw Creek in Columbus, is celebrating its 50th anniversary of operation this year.

While its interior has changed dramatically, as observed by about 40 retired former Tech Center employees during tours at an anniversary event Thursday, its mission remains the same as when former Chairman J. Irwin Miller envisioned a research and design center to help the company survive as an independent engine manufacturer and stay ahead of the competition.

“Cummins at its roots was about innovation — working on taking this diesel technology and bringing it to light and into market, and really transforming our commercial vehicle industry with that product. I think 50 years ago creating a tech center and recognizing the importance of innovation and the company’s focus on technology was really important,” said Jennifer Rumsey, vice president and chief technical officer of the Columbus-based global Fortune 200 company that will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 1919.

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She made her comments during a panel discussion marking the 50th anniversary milestone.

The Tech Center has been integral in the transformation of products and the company’s broadened focus, Rumsey said, from diesel engines to reducing pollutants emitted by engines to creating a fully electric heavy truck, which the company unveiled at the Tech Center in late August.

“The Technical Center here is one of the most important tech centers we have because it’s here that we do much of that leading technology development and tool development work,” Rumsey said.

Innovation is critical because Cummins wants to be the power solutions provider of choice for customers, whether that requirement is an internal combustion engine, a hybrid or battery-powered, Srikanth Padmanabhan, company vice president and president of the Engine Business, said during the panel discussion.

Steve Wilson, who works in diagnostics development, offered another way of explaining the importance of the Cummins Technical Center.

“Cummins has a lot of parts. If the heart is the COB (Corporate Office Building), this place is the brains,” he said.

Having a facility that aids in the conceptualization, innovation and development of ideas and products allows the company to take risks, Wilson said.

“Even when things don’t work out, you learn valuable lessons,” he said.

That could be seen in the historical display of 11 engine prototypes from 1967 to 2014 that Wilson helped assemble in a Tech Center corridor, and were observed by the retirees and current employees during Thursday’s tours.

For example, the 1967 Barrel Engine, which would have been used for high-horsepower operations such as a boat or train, was originally conceptualized in 1938 by company founder Clessie Cummins. Work on the idea continued for years.

Working on the Barrel Engine project helped the company realize that the engines it already had in production were robust and a better option, Wilson said.

Although none of the 11 prototypes ever went into production, key pieces of each eventually ended up as parts of other engines, Wilson said.

Retiree observations

Among the retirees who toured the Cummins Technical Center was Elizabethtown resident Sherry Smith, 69, who worked at the Tech Center for 13 years in a finance department role.

“I gave all the guys their paychecks,” she said. “Fridays, they loved me.”

Smith toured the building with other retirees and was amazed how at how much has changed since she retired in August 2003.

“There’s a lot I don’t recognize,” she said.

Travis Bowman, 64, who worked for the company for 30 years before retiring in 2006, started with Cummins in 1976. That was nine years after the Technical Center opened.

Bowman, who lives north of Edinburgh, said he’s kept up with changes to the engines, but attended the anniversary event because he wanted to see the physical changes to the building.

“They’ve made a lot” he said.

Bowman noted that many new operations now exist in what had been empty spaces when he worked at the Tech Center. For example, the fabrication shop’s location has changed and is about four times bigger than before.

He had jobs in engine development, working with test cells and in the Emissions Measurements Lab. Bowman worked on the B series engines that went into Dodge pickup trucks.

“It was pretty enjoyable. I couldn’t have asked for a better career or job,” Bowman said.

About the Tech Center

Cummins Technical Center

Address: 1900 McKinley Ave., Columbus

Construction: 1964-1967

Occupied: 1967

Architect: Harry Weese

Floor space: About 500,000 square feet

Facility’s purpose: Center of research and technology for the Columbus-based company

Number of employees: About 1,200

Test cells: 89, ranging from 500- to 3,000-horsepower capacity

Emissions cells: 16 (one cold, one tilt stand, one altitude cell, 13 endurance/performance cells)

Annual test hours: About 350,000

Notable:

  • The June 7, 2008 flood that hit Columbus and parts of Bartholomew County damaged the Cummins Technical Center to the extent that it was closed for a month.
  • The Tech Center received a face-lift in 2015 and 2016 to the tune of a $5 million investment in the materials laboratories. A tomography system and 3-D printer were among the investment.

Pull Quote

“The Technical Center here is one of the most important tech centers we have because it’s here that we do much of that leading technology development and tool development work.”

— Jennifer Rumsey, Cummins Inc. vice president and chief technical officer

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Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at johannesen@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5639.