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A house on fire and a pitch-black disco room fill Intertek HQ

Intertek isn’t afraid to challenge itself.

The chemical-testing company has expanded into 98,000 square feet of its Arlington Heights facility — a space 20 times bigger than when it opened there in 1988. It’s also nearly tripled its workforce to vie with better-known Underwriters Laboratories to test consumer products.

The $10 million “supercenter” serves as headquarters for the North American products division of Intertek Group, a $3 billion revenue company based in London.

Intertek, Northbrook-based UL and other testing companies are being forced to come up with new ways of testing for items ranging from electronic bandwidth to wearable medical devices such as patient monitors.

So Intertek’s supercenter — it gradually expanded to take over an entire building at 545 E. Algonquin Road — features the latest in high-tech simulation: a remote-controlled “smart” house on fire, a futuristic kitchen with touchscreen-embedded refrigerators, and a pitch-black disco room with a 20-foot-high spinning mirror to test LED lighting.

Intertek also creates tests for cutting-edge technologies used in smartphones, mobile tablets and cloud computing to make sure they “talk” to each other. It designs tests for cribs, children’s clothes and medical devices such as ultrasound technology and implantable pacemakers to detect even the tiniest traces of lead, mercury, cadmium and other chemicals so the goods aren’t unexpectedly recalled.

“It’s about following the market,” says Gregg D. Tiemann, CEO of Intertek’s products division, which focuses on testing the safety of consumer and commercial products ranging from shirts to smoke alarms.

Here’s what scientists and researchers do at Intertek:

– Make sure electronics comply with federal communications rules and worldwide safety standards. Do smartphones work with mobile apps and across networks? Are speeds as fast as advertised? Are devices compatible with next-generation technologies such as 4G/LTE?

– Test the latest “smart” medical devices for safety. Do they meet strict standards guarding against hazardous materials? Do they reliably communicate patient information to the doctor?

– Help manufacturers bring their products to market quickly without safety, quality or performance problems. Do home appliances perform as advertised and meet safety and energy-efficiency rules? Does their packaging contain harmful chemicals?

– Ensure that lighting products, including LED lights, work in any kind of environment, whether at a nightclub or in a war zone, and qualify for Energy Star energy-efficiency certification.

Intertek has increased its hiring by about 75 percent at the center in the past five years, to 200, and hired 32 people statewide this year. Its other local labs in Oak Brook and Romeoville employ another 137.

Scientists at the lab in southwest suburban Romeoville test commodities such as coal, crude oil and refined fuel, and those in west suburban Oak Brook make sure the latest teddy bear’s nose and eyes won’t choke a child.

Intertek’s U.S. operation employs 6 percent of its workforce in the greater Chicago area.

“Engineers and chemists aren’t the easiest to find,” Tiemann says, “but we’re able to identify a lot of local talent, especially in chemical and electrical engineering.”

ABOVE: Kenneth W. Prettyman, Technician (left), and Emil P. Remolana, Project Engineer (right), conduct performance testing of lights in elevated ambient.