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UL Director Tom Blewitt’s passion for learning carried him through a long career of great changes, from the globalization of manufacturing and new engineering materials to today’s smart technologies
At UL, science drives the mission and the business — and perhaps no one personifies that more than Tom Blewitt, UL’s chief technology officer, consumer business unit.
For nearly 40 years, Blewitt has been at the forefront of many projects at UL that have literally set the standard for consumer safety. Like many UL professionals, Blewitt came to the organization with an engineering background and a desire to make the world a better place.
Over the course of his career, Blewitt has focused on lifelong learning to deepen his understanding of the science behind UL’s mission and the business of his clients.
“When working with a client, our job is to think through the technical concerns and practical aspects of any request,” Blewitt said. “But most importantly, it’s to solve their problems. And that often means understanding their limits and identifying opportunities, both from a technical and a business perspective.”
One of the most illustrative problem-solving approaches to client requests Blewitt faced happened early on in his career. In the 1980s, he was asked to run a series of tests on sauna heating equipment at the client’s site in Sweden to help ensure that the company’s plastic control box would not be a fire hazard if subjected to electrical overloading of wires within.
While not a controls or materials expert by training, and before e-mail and the internet put such expertise at our fingertips, Blewitt first spent time considering how to address the technical challenge — how to design a meaningful test far from one of UL’s labs — while still helping to ensure the product would stand up to UL’s rigorous standards.
Taking a creative but unconventional approach, he used a piece of welding equipment from the client’s factory production line to simulate a controlled overload condition to test the control box material. The simulation was a success, and by delivering a practical solution to the client, Blewitt ultimately allowed the company to complete the certification process and get their product to market in a timely manner.
Blewitt continues to look for practical solutions today, designing his way out of problems and helping his clients innovate in the process — a mindset that he has long-admired in engineers since his youth.
Growing up in New York City, and based in UL’s Melville, New York facility, Blewitt knew about UL early on, as his father had a high appreciation of UL and of engineers in general while working as a building inspector and plan examiner in New York City.
Blewitt’s parents, who emigrated from Ireland, left school early to help support their families and were not able to complete their formal education until later on in their lives. Perhaps, as a result, they instilled in Blewitt and his siblings an appreciation for education from a young age. Blewitt, in fact, was the first in his family to attend college, earning his degree in electrical engineering from Polytechnic Institute of New York.
In early 1977, Blewitt attended a UL group interview on his college campus and discovered that the company he had vaguely known as a youth could be a place that fulfilled all his professional interests. For young engineers living on Long Island, most of the employment opportunities at the time were in the defense industry, which for Blewitt held less appeal after the Vietnam War.
“From the beginning, being able to learn about all the different technologies and how things were made across many industries was fascinating to me,” Blewitt stated. “The continuous learning environment that is accessible at UL, as well as the people that are willing to share their knowledge, has always been a UL strength I’ve appreciated, and still is, almost 40 years later.”
Blewitt’s love of learning contributed to his personal and professional development considerably as manufacturing and standards globalized, and UL began seeing a rapid influx of imported products that needed to be tested and certified.
“My understanding of the marketplace and how technical problems can be approached significantly changed,” Blewitt noted. “It was a great eye-opener, challenging my framework and the assumptions of what I knew.”
“For example, I thought I was well-versed in electrical shock hazards, but I quickly found out that I largely understood shock hazards in the context of products that I had tested for installation and use in the U.S. market. However, those standards represent only a portion of appliances in common use in Europe and Asia, and the hazards that may be present due to home constructions and electrical distribution systems that are different from those in the US.”
Another major change during Blewitt’s career was the evolution from metals to engineered plastics in manufactured products. Learning about these new materials would contribute to another significant part of Blewitt’s career: his work in spearheading UL’s early involvement in the environmental public health field, which led to speaking engagements about the treatment of toxic waste materials, food and water safety, and commercial food service sanitation at conferences around the globe.
Throughout his career, Blewitt has touched a wide range of product categories. In part, advice from a former boss, Howard Reymers, proved pivotal in that he encouraged Blewitt to work in several different areas, build up skills across categories and step outside his comfort zone.
“I have never stopped learning or looking for opportunities to learn,” Blewitt said. “Working across industries at UL has enriched my awareness of the company, helped me communicate better with customers and government officials, and of course, garner results and solve client problems.”
So what’s next for the man who’s potentially seen and done it all?
Blewitt is currently focused on helping to develop safety standards for smart lighting and other smart technologies as well as performance-based testing and validation services for these cutting-edge technologies.
He also serves actively on the IEC TC 61 technical committee for appliance safety, in a prestigious post chairing the U.S. delegation.
“The marketplace should feel that UL is a ‘true north’ out there for them, as UL has kept its status as a high-integrity organization,” Blewitt stated. “With our expansions into so many new areas and the cross-pollination between our traditional safety and new performance lines of business, I think UL is unique in the marketplace and as a result, UL will have great success for a long time to come. The sky’s the limit for UL.”