Cold weather testing is big businessby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
Temperatures are taking a swing upward, but it's sure been a brutally cold week in Minnesota. The temperature in International Falls on Tuesday dipped to minus 42 degrees, breaking a record that's been on the books for 30 years.
People in the self-proclaimed "Icebox of the Nation" not only embrace the cold, they capitalize on it. International Falls is a popular spot for cold weather testing. Auto engineers come each winter to test new products against the frigid elements.
It's an industry that thrives on cold, but is veiled in secrecy.
Bemidji, Minn. — When the thermometer drops to extreme lows in International Falls, it's not unusual to see caravans of strange looking cars and trucks logging test miles in the cold.
Some vehicles are fresh from the drawing board. They're often camouflaged or disguised. There might be duct tape over the logo, or cloth tarps covering identifying features.
Paul Nevanen coordinates the community's cold weather testing facility. He said it's a secretive business, but one that brings hundreds of thousands of dollars into the community each year.
"It's considerable, the impact it has -- the people that are flying here, staying in hotels, eating at restaurants, buying parts and fuel, and some of the supporting services that are required to support these programs," Nevanen said.
For decades, International Falls has been a destination for teams of auto engineers from around the globe. It attracts manufacturers that test batteries, lubricants and auto parts, too.
But in recent years, the city hasn't exactly lived up to its icebox reputation. A string of mild winters in the 1990s prompted some testing companies to head further north to colder environments in Canada and Alaska.
That's when the city joined with Koochiching County to build their own test facility, one that includes something called a "cold box." It's capable of artificially maintaining temperatures as low as minus 40. Nevanen said it helped bring some business back.
"We can guarantee them now when they come here, they can get their work done and they can hit their target temperatures--you know, try to take Mother Nature out of the equation," said Nevanen. "But still, it helps when it's cold. It's kind of perverse, but it makes everything easier if it's constantly cold outside."
Minnesota used to keep close tabs on the industry and promote its growth. From 1990 to 2001 the state maintained a Cold Weather Resource Center in International Falls. But the state office closed because of budget cuts.
During the 90s, cold weather testing was a $9 million industry, employing some 500 people. Now, the economic impact is less clear. The state no longer keeps track of that employment and revenue data.
There's still plenty of cold weather testing activity going on in the region. Baudette, Bemidji, Cass Lake and a few other communities all host private test facilities. But Nevanen said the low-key nature of the business makes it difficult to quantify.
"The auto industry typically likes to keep a low profile on this activity," he said. "If they have sensitive vehicles, if they're doing work with prototype vehicles that aren't production models yet, they wanted a fair amount of security around that. So it's tough to be too public about some of the activity."
The future of the industry is less certain. Nevanen said the auto industry is now in its own deep freeze.
"The auto industry is going through a very difficult time," said Nevanen. "That affects everything in the pipeline and the way they approach things. Budgets are very tight and they're trying to save money any way they can. They want to reduce travel. We've had a couple of cancellations just based on the current crisis that the automakers are facing."
Nevanen said he's not too worried about the industry. As long as automakers continue to turn out new vehicles, there will always be a need for cold weather testing. And as long as northern Minnesota keeps recording frigid temperatures like we had this week, the region will be an attractive place to do it.
- All Things Considered, 01/16/2009, 4:49 p.m.