Interview with Karl Johnson, director of engineering, Ritchie Engineering/YELLOW JACKET

Karl Johnson is among the brains at Ritchie Engineering/YELLOW JACKET who are constantly designing and developing new products for YELLOW JACKET HVACR tool users. The BUZZ caught up with Karl to obtain his insights about engineering YELLOW JACKET tools and the future of those tools in an increasingly digital age.


BUZZ: How long have you worked with YELLOW JACKET/Ritchie Engineering, and how many years total experience do you have as an industrial engineer?

KARL JOHNSON: I joined Ritchie Engineering/YELLOW JACKET about four years ago. I have more than 25 years of experience in the design and engineering of refrigeration products. I’ve previously worked for Electrolux and Silver King.

BUZZ: How did you become an engineer?

KARL JOHNSON: I earned a Bachelor of Science degree in geopetroleum engineering from the University of North Dakota. But, back in 1982, that was the wrong time to be getting into the energy industry, because of a slowdown in the industry. So I took the first engineering job I could find – designing microwave ovens for Litton.

BUZZ: What are your primary responsibilities as engineering director for YELLOW JACKET/Ritchie Engineering?

KARL JOHNSON: As head of engineering, I oversee a team of nine engineers. We develop new products and are continuously refining current products. We work very closely with many other departments here at Ritchie Engineering/YELLOW JACKET to connect the needs of our customers with the most available technology.

BUZZ: Do you have a philosophy that you use to guide your engineering efforts?

KARL JOHNSON: Yes, actually. I boil it down to four words: Safety, Quality, Cost and Delivery. Let me explain each. First and foremost, any product we create must be safe to the user and those around them. It can do no harm. Second, we design a product not only to be reliable and consistent, but it must enhance the HVACR tech’s user experience. It must be easy to use. It must reduce the time to get a job done. It must be lightweight, etc. Third, our products must be cost competitive. And fourth, delivery means the product must be available at the right time and in sufficient quantity to meet demand.

BUZZ: In the four years that you’ve worked with YELLOW JACKET/Ritchie Engineering, what has been your proudest moment?

KARL JOHNSON: I’m really proud of our work on two recent products, the ManTooth wireless gauge family, and the Refrigerant Management System Automatic for R-134a and R-1234yf for the automotive market. Both products were designed by our engineering team and show how we can simplify complex problems with practical solutions that lead the way for our industry.

BUZZ: Why do you like working for YELLOW JACKET/Ritchie Engineering?

KARL JOHNSON: I enjoy working here because the work allows me to leverage my experiences over the past 25 years to create new products for tomorrow. I feel I can make a difference in the life of an HVACR technician by creating products that allow them to perform higher quality work in a shorter period of time. More broadly, a lot of people take refrigeration for granted in our country. But I know that what we do matters – if we can help take better care of refrigeration and AC units, we’re helping people feel more comfortable in their homes and offices, and we help keep food safe to eat.

BUZZ: What trends do you foresee in the years ahead that will affect the HVACR landscape? For example, how do you see factors such as the Internet of Things, HVACR technician shortages, big data, new refrigerant regulations, etc., affecting the industry?

KARL JOHNSON: The biggest question that I see facing the industry is what refrigeration fluid will the industry settle upon. About 20 years ago, the industry shifted from R12 to 134A. It cost the industry as well as customers, billions to make the switch. Now we’re doing it again so refrigeration units (including AC units) are safer for the environment. As an industry, we need to settle on a standard fluid, which would help us design the equipment and tools around that new fluid.

BUZZ: YELLOW JACKET was founded more than 60 years ago with the mission of developing a more reliable HVACR hose. Since then, the company has steadily expanded its product offerings. How do you see your product offerings evolving as the Internet of Things makes inroads in two of the main industries you serve: HVAC and automotive? Do you think the IoT will enable the company to introduce new service offerings in the future?

KARL JOHNSON: Large commercial, industrial and institutional buildings already have building control systems for which our ManTooth products can tap into. But, it’s the smaller buildings out there that are just starting to incorporate Smart technology, where we see a huge opportunity for YELLOW JACKET tools. While the emphasis has been on energy efficiency, I see a need for testing and verification – to prove that these systems are actually operating within the range of efficiency for which they were marketed. That’s where I see our tools playing a big role.

BUZZ: The building industry has been slower to embrace digital technology than other sectors, but the industry seems to be quickly making the transition now. What role do you see YELLOW JACKET/Ritchie Engineering and HVACR contractors playing in a connected ecosystem where HVACR and other systems are closely monitored to optimize energy efficiency?

KARL JOHNSON: As more data is captured and analyzed, HVACR systems will become more transparent. We’ll not only be able to see how well they’re operating, but we’ll be able to trace every adjustment and repair. So, for example, if an HVACR system is blamed for making people sick, or a refrigeration unit is blamed for not keeping food at the right temperature, we’ll have that data to look back at. Because of this change, I see more HVACR service tools becoming digitized, which would allow technicians to track their service history better. In terms of change, this will affect technicians who still have a love affair with our classic analog gauges.

BUZZ: Two years ago, YELLOW JACKET launched the ManTooth series of digital wireless gauges. What has been the acceptance of these gauges among HVACR technicians and how do you think these gauges will change the maintenance of HVACR equipment in the future?

KARL JOHNSON: We were on the leading edge when we introduced the ManTooth. Today, we just launched our second generation of this technology. ManTooth technology has been widely received, and has generated knock-offs from other competitors, which we expected. We believe this is just the start of the digital revolution coming to HVACR. For example, we anticipate that as the technology advances, a technician will be able to capture even more data, which will be useful in anticipating how a particular unit needs to be serviced in the future. In addition, we see the technology moving toward a point where a vacuum evacuation will self-optimize itself, which will free up a technician’s time and increase their efficiency.

BUZZ: How do you think digital technology such as ManTooth digital wireless gauges is affecting the training and development of younger HVACR technicians?

KARL JOHNSON: Technicians new to the field are learning with digital technology while going to school. But we still see master technicians in the field relying on analog technology. We think there’s room for both. New technicians have much to learn from master technicians – the technology can serve as a learning tool. When a new technician is on a job and has questions about what’s happening with a system, he or she can email or text the results from ManTooth to a master technician who can provide the context of what’s happening with a system. Or, a technician can share the data from a job back at the shop with a master technician, who can provide insights about the HVACR system to the new technician.

In other words, there’s room for both technologies.

BUZZ: How would you imagine digital HVACR tools integrating with other IoT technology, such as other digital systems within a building?

KARL JOHNSON: We see digital technology continue to migrate into the tools themselves. For example, someday, we may create an analog gauge that is actually digitally driven. The digital technology within the gauge speaks with the digital systems within the HVACR unit, which is connected to the entire building, which is connected to multiple buildings. Today, our ManTooth system relies on Bluetooth, but there’s no reason that at some point, our tools automatically connect with the digital systems of an entire building.

BUZZ: One of the key concepts behind IoT is access to more data remotely. How is the ManTooth helping HVACR technicians improve their quality and efficiency as they move from one HVACR job site to the next?

KARL JOHNSON: While some of this work may migrate to a desktop, where a technician will be able to remotely maintain a system, the fact is, there will always be parts to change on an HVACR system, and there will always be refrigeration fluids to change, too. We will always need technicians to service HVACR systems. But what will change is we will use that technician’s time more wisely, they’ll be more efficient, and their work will become more accurate with the availability of more data.

BUZZ: Increasingly, buildings are becoming smarter and buildings are being connected with digital technology. Data can be gathered from various systems (such as HVACR) and monitored/manipulated to obtain greater energy efficiency. What role will HVACR contractors and technicians play in that system?

KARL JOHNSON: Big buildings (office buildings, manufacturing plants, hospitals, etc.) already use control systems that allow for greater control of energy use. But that technology isn’t there for the mom and pop store – the small retailers, for example – that need to monitor and maintain a milk cooler. That technology will be coming to these smaller applications in the years to come, and we will have smart HVACR tools to maintain that equipment to help keep lowering those costs for a small business owner.

But greater energy efficiency isn’t the only purpose behind smart building technology. Because we live in a litigious business environment, smart building technology will allow for greater traceability. Building owners already get alerts in the middle of the night if a cooler shuts down. But someday, our technicians will get alerts from an HVACR system that gives them earlier warnings that a cooler may soon have trouble – before it shuts down and puts the food product at risk. We’ll also have the electronic records so a retailer can determine if that refrigerated product is still safe to sell. And that historical data will be readily available, so if more than one HVACR technician is servicing a unit, any one of them can see what work was previously performed on a unit.

Ultimately, that’s what this is all about – giving HVACR technicians more information to make smarter decisions, which saves them time, and lowers a customer’s cost of ownership.