POCATELLO — Western Industrial Motor & Machine is located in a nondescript building. The siding on the outside is falling off, as is the siding of most of the buildings around it, leading one’s imagination to try to picture this complex’s long history.
Once a location to build materials to help in World War II, the Gateway West Industrial Center off West Quinn Road in Pocatello now houses multiple businesses, including Western Industrial, which has a lengthy history of its own.
While the outside of the building might be unremarkable, the inside is anything but. With a towering ceiling and massive, colorful equipment including cranes and ovens, there’s no shortage of things to soak in.
The business is all about electric engines — specifically big ones. They sell and repair all sorts of them — from water pumps to engines that power ski lifts and many others. There was even one memorable occasion when they repaired a water wheel that was used to provide power to a bar to keep its beer cold.
Project manager and shop foreman Trent John started working for Western Industrial when he was 19 — more than 14 years ago — and he is passionate about what the business does.
He says that the current trajectory of the business began in the early 1980s. At the time, it specialized in electric locomotive engines — relics of which can still be seen in the warehouse today.
“That’s all they did,” John said. “They serviced the whole Northwest.”
Around the turn of the century, the business was bought out and began pivoting away from locomotive engines.
Now the business has a wide array of customers.
“This one specifically is for the city of Pocatello,” he said of an engine the business was working on at the time of this interview, “and it’s backup power generation for the waste treatment plant, so if anything goes bad with the power or something happens, this thing makes sure the water treatment plant can stay running. Even in a big emergency, we’ll have clean water."
He pointed to another and said, "Big ones like this actually come out of the Salt Lake area and they supply power for big cities in general. They’ll supply a couple blocks with power or keep the grid going to a transformer. It’s kind of crazy the capacity that they have. Physically they are pretty big compared to some of the things that we do in here.”
One of the biggest industries that Western Industrial services is ski resorts.
“All the big names — Park City, Sun Valley, Big Sky, Jackson Hole, all those kinds of places — we do all the business for them for their ski lifts and all the motors that are associated with those,” John said.
Western Industrial also works with plastic manufacturing plants, agriculture companies and farmers, as well as some other interesting customers.
“We do the American Falls dam — the entire dam,” John said. “We actually just went through and did a big project for them where we went through all their motors, we did all their pumps. They even bought a bunch of new pipelines that supply all the water out to the farmers.”
While they have customers all over the region, John says it’s important for them to keep their dollars local.
“We’re bringing in money from the Salt Lake area, Big Sky, all over Montana and Wyoming into our area here, and then we’re big about using local vendors and things like that,” he said. “That way, we’re taking the money that comes in from other economies and we disperse it locally and kind of pass everything around.”
The people at Western Industrial pride themselves on making products that are meant to last.
“It’s not always just about trying to get repeat business,” John said. “If we can send this thing out and then don't see them for another 20 years, that’s all the better.”
That mentality has prompted them to come up with some new processes designed to keep the engines running for years to come.
“With the generators, some of these when they run, they’re right out in the open and they take a bunch of sand abrasion,” John said. “So we’ve come up with this product that we use that’s a two-part brush-on product and it dries kind of in a rubberized type of texture. It’ll make it so the sand is less abrasive over time. We’re trying to make the product not only reconditioned and put a new bearing in it and those things — the mechanical parts — but we’re trying to address things that will save them from electrical failures and downtime beyond just doing a service on it.”
Giving the finished products a high-quality paint job is another aspect of making sure their products are up to their standards.
“Everything that leaves we want to have a really nice paint job on it and it needs to have the same quality look as the quality of work that went on the inside, too,” John said. “I know our competitors, they’ve got a locker with just regular gray spray cans and you can see when you go out to a customer facility, you’ll have something that’s got (paint) runs all over it and it’s just gray and half the shaft’s painted. We mask everything off and we just want to have a super quality product.”
To repair engines, the mechanics at Western Industrial have to do what’s called a rewind — which is a highly specialized process.
“When a motor actually fails, it’s this long, drawn-out process where we actually have to burn the varnish off in that big oven we have,” John said. “We make it so we can strip those coils out and when you strip them out you have to take all this kind of data and all this specialty mathematic formulas and then we redesign them and we make coils.”
There are two ovens in the warehouse — a massive bake oven and a burn-out oven.
“Our bake oven we use for a couple different things,” John said. “When we dismantle a motor, we wash everything and then the electrical parts have to be dried out. We dry them in here at 300 degrees. Then for certain processes, like a rewind or just if a customer wants it done, we have this varnish tank and it fills any electrical voids and reinsulates everything and then we have to bake it up again. As far as I know, this is one of the biggest bake-out motor-relevant ovens in the Northwest.”
The burn-out oven, which burns at 800 degrees, is used to soften copper enough so it can be stripped out of an engine.
A couple projects over the years have stood out to John — including one that required repairing an old elevator in one of the buildings in downtown Pocatello — but one was particularly odd.
“Some guy in Montana just showed up and he was looking for somebody who had a big enough oven to do the project and it actually turned out to be just a little bar that he runs and he runs the whole bar off this old Pelton wheel (a water turbine), so this big old generator generates just enough power for a couple coolers and a couple beer machines,” he said.
John says the wide variety of jobs they tackle keeps him on his toes.
“Working in this industry, you see a lot of interesting things, and you don’t realize how involved electric motors are,” he said.
Western Industrial is located at 669 W. Quinn Road, No. 12. For more information, call 208-237-1000 or visit facebook.com/westernindustrialmotor.