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Promega's newest building, the Kepler Center, opens for business

Promega's newest building, the Kepler Center, opens for business

Promega Corp., the Fitchburg biotech tools business, is known for the aesthetic extras woven into its building designs.

The Feynman Center that opened in fall 2013 is part clean manufacturing center and part nature retreat, with its living wall of plants and wood-beamed meeting areas.

The Agora Center, built in 2007, with a stone facade, turrets and copper trim, combines a prairie and pan-Asian exterior with an airy atrium dotted with cozy chairs.

In contrast, the Kepler Center is all business. But it is not without some flourishes of its own.

The Kepler Center, where the movement of Promega’s products will be based, was named, at an employee’s suggestion, for 17th-century German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler, who was the first to correctly explain the way the solar system’s planets move.

It is not part of Promega’s campus in the Fitchburg Center, along either side of East Cheryl Parkway. Instead, the new building is at 5455 Nobel Drive, less than a mile south in the Fitchburg Technology Campus, in a more industrial-looking setting.

Nearly completed and only partially occupied now, the 126,000-square-foot building, with ceilings 44 feet high, will serve as Promega’s global supply center, sending inventory to the company’s branches and distributors worldwide, said Chuck York, vice president for manufacturing operations.

Promega officials toured facilities in the U.S. and Europe to get ideas, including distribution centers for Walgreen’s and for pharmaceutical companies, and turned to the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership for advice, York said.

When the $30 million project is finished and fully operational, in spring 2016, it will consolidate and reorganize Promega’s warehouse and distribution facilities, currently spread among several locations, including 45,000 square feet of space the company is leasing elsewhere in Fitchburg.

“We’ll be able to process 11,000 orders a month, involving about 125,000 items,” said Chad Graffin, logistics manager.

About 75 employees will work at the Kepler Center. For now, no new workers have been hired, but rather, employees are being shifted from other locations, spokeswoman Penny Patterson said. Promega has 1,375 employees worldwide, including 782 in Fitchburg.

And while the Kepler Center’s structure is aimed at efficiency and simplicity, its walls are adorned with artwork — mainly clocks, paintings and photos — gifts from the company’s branches in 16 countries, like the surfboard clock from California, the brushed metal cuckoo clock from Germany, and the painting of Mount Fuji from Japan.

Founded in 1978 by Bill Linton, who continues to lead the company as CEO and chairman, Promega makes biological products and some equipment for biotechnology and pharmaceutical researchers, academics and technicians. Its 2014 revenues were $367 million.

Privately owned Promega is currently embroiled in a shareholder battle, with two dissident stockholders trying to buy up shares and take control of the company; its previous board of directors resigned nearly en masse in September. But the discord — which began about six months ago — has had no impact on Kepler’s construction or operation.

Promega’s portfolio includes 3,500 products, most of which will be stored at the Kepler Center. The company is known, in particular, for its genetic identification kits, which have been used to help identify the victims of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks as well as other disasters.

With a wide range of products, storage temperature has to be flexible. So, parts of the Kepler Center are kept at four temperatures: room temperature, minus-4 degrees, minus-94 degrees and minus-140 degrees. At the coldest level, reached using liquid nitrogen, items are considered cryogenically frozen, a condition used for shipping cell lines to laboratories.

A good chunk of the building looks like many other warehouses: aisles of tall shelves, stacked with colored bins whose items are ready to be picked and packed, shipped off to customers.

Another segment consists of rows of cooler and freezer units, 40 feet high. The automated units are equipped with elevators — or “vertical lift modules” — that move around in the chamber. Here’s how they work: An employee punches a code onto a keypad and the system picks the product tray and delivers it to a door for the employee to retrieve.

“It brings the products to employees instead of employees going into a cold room,” Graffin said.

The chilling units are among the first made by German manufacturer Kardex Remster to be installed in the U.S., facilities director Dan Motl said.

With 60 deep-freezers, the compressors used to keep them cold create heat that can be drawn into the building’s ventilation system and used to help heat the Kepler Center in the winter, Motl said.

Along the front wall of the building are rooms for labeling and packaging with big windows, lined up with the warehouse aisles, to send any rays of light well into the storage space.

On the second floor, right above, are an employee lounge, kitchenette and fitness rooms, complete with showers.

On the south end of that floor, a game room will be set up — an almost obligatory feature at today’s tech businesses. The room looks out on a new Fitchburg bicycle path, lined by trees believed to be 150-year-old bur oaks. The trees were slated to be felled for the trail until Kraemer Brothers, the construction company building the Kepler Center, and Promega officials realized they would be casualties. Promega paid for an easement to modify the trail’s route, with the blessing of Fitchburg city officials, Patterson said.

Big as the building is, there’s room to grow, either on the east or west side of the structure, VP York said. “This building should be good for 15 to 20 years” before it reaches capacity, he said. “There’s space to double the size in the future.”


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