Plasma productivity in Alberta: A Solid Foundation

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by Nestor Gula

Alberta screw piles manufacturer spurs growth with new tube and pipe cutting equipment

THE PROBLEM: A need for a versatile plasma cutter for the shop and in the field

THE SOLUTION: 85 amp portable plasma

Portable plasma cutting equipment is helping an Alberta screw piles manufacturer improve process efficiencies in the shop and in the field.

Bryce Bernhard formed Alberta Screw Piles in 2010, a year after immigrating to Canada from his native Houston, TX. The 31-year-old came to Alberta with his Alberta-born girlfriend, Charlene, “with a thousand bucks,” and a desire to succeed.

With his background in construction, he started the aptly named Lone Star Contracting in the Edmonton area and it grew because of the oil boom that was occurring in Alberta at the time. “We were doing construction for industrial purposes and the oil/gas industry, all the way down to riding arenas for facilities and whatnot,” says Bernhard.

To facilitate and hasten construction, Bernhard did not pour concrete posts to support buildings, but used screw piles, sometimes called helical piles, for foundations and ground anchoring. “It is a steel pipe with a flat plate that’s bent like a screw on the end of it, so it screws into the ground and the soil conditions dictate the capacity,” he explains. “It’s a steel pile rather than a concrete pile. We manufacture the screw piles and install them all over western Canada, mainly in Alberta.”

These screw piles eliminate the need to excavate soil and then wait for the concrete to cure–something that can take several days. “It’s more environmental friendly. You don’t have to remove the dirt,” explains Bernhard. “It doesn’t disturb the area around it. It’s way quicker. We can put in a pile and weld a plate on top of it and within ten minutes you can put that weight on it right away. You don’t have to wait for the concrete to cure, and have trucks driving to pour the concrete in, and put the steel rebar in; that whole process is eliminated.”

Bernhard started building “clear stand steel engineered buildings” which he describes as “a big truss that can span 120 feet wide and has to sit on something.”

Alberta Screw Piles' Bryce Bernhard invested in equipment that can be used in the shop, seen at bottom, or in the field.He started supplying his own foundations whenever he was a project manager for these sand and salt sheds that cities use to maintain roads.

“I built those and looked after those projects for a number of years and then I just started supplying my own foundations at day one; the very first screw pile we ever supplied and installed we fabricated ourselves. We’ve always supplied the engineering to our customers. We’ve always fabricated the steel screw piles and then that led into a smaller piece of equipment, since I had all the fabrication tools, to start doing residential ones, to do smaller developments and then the projects got bigger, so I ended up getting bigger equipment. Now I have equipment that can do the smallest jobs and get into confined space, the medium sized jobs and then the very large jobs for more commercial and industrial applications.”

Alberta Screw Piles Ltd. was formed in 2010 to differentiate it from the contracting business. “We accumulated so much screw pile equipment that to further our growth and to make a good name I needed something more specific in the industry,” he said. “Once I added a million dollars of installation equipment, I wanted to branch off and have a division for screw piles, and that’s where Alberta Screw Piles came in.”

Bernhard invested in new fabricating equipment that could be used in the shop and in the field, including Hypertherm plasma cutters.

“The PowerMax 85 was purchased last year and is the most used,” says Bernhard. “We use it in a lot of ways just with the hand torch and then we use it in saddles to cut pipe and then we use it out in the field as well.”

Once the piles are all installed they will cut them all to the proper elevation that is measured by a laser. “We shoot everything with a laser to get the proper elevation and then we put a saddles beveller on. The reason we use plasma rather than oxy-acetylene is because we don’t have to pre-heat it. We don’t have to grind it afterwards. It’s just a perfect clean cut. We can put a steel plate right on top of that. We use the Hypertherm to cut everything perfect elevation, perfect clean cut, no clean up and with no pre-heating whether it’s minus 20° or not. It’s really nice too, as mobile equipment and as shop equipment.”

The company purchases full lengths of piling pipe that measure between 12 and 13 m (40 and 44 ft) in length and cut them to length at the shop. Pipe diameters range from 73 to 406 mm (2 7/8th to 16 in.) up to 11 mm (.42 in.) depending on load weights. Pipes under 7 in. diameter are cut using a band saw while all other wider pipe is cut by plasma. Wall thicknesses vary from 5.5 to 10 mm (.217 to .395 in.).

In 2015, to manage both businesses he amalgamated both companies under the Alberta Screw Piles Ltd. name.

The piles are varied. “We do residential. We do industrial. We do commercial, oil fields, energy, anything,” he says. “We do everything from residential deck, just to build a deck under the back of your house, to transmission lines across the province. Anything from what’s going to hold a thousand pounds to a 600,000 pound load.” Simple deck piles are supplied to home owners, home builders, personal contractors, He said some are standard but many have to be specially engineered. “Especially around here the soils can’t hold up those kind of weights. We engineer a solution for a deep foundation so it’s to hold that amount of weight.”

Working out of their 557 sq m (6,000 sq ft) manufacturing shop in Leduc, AB, just south of Edmonton, Alberta Screw Piles employs eight people in the shop and two in the office. Bernhard says what they do in the shop is “a pretty simple process, the main things that we use are welders, plasma cutters and a band saw. The plasma cutters would be the most diverse tool that we have and we use it for cutting pipe length, for blasting the pin holes for installing the piles, and for cutting the edges on our piles and on our plates.”

Installation of one of the screw piles Alberta Screw Piles fabricates. They're installed all over Western Canada.The welding process used to weld helixes is mostly Flux Core or MIG, and plasma is used for cutting since the steel plates used to manufacture the helical screw ends are anywhere from three-eighths to one-inch thick. The helical shapes are formed on a die. “We build dies ourselves because these dies are in different sizes and we need to give them different pitches,” he explains. “It comes as a flat plate and then we bend it to create a proper pitch. On a smaller helix, on a smaller pipe we would have a little bit less of a pitch, let’s say three inches, but when you get to a bigger diameter pipe and a 36-inch diameter helix, then you would go more to a six inch spread or so.”

The company has developed many of the helix shapes. “Over the years we’ve definitely improved our pitch and the quality of our pitch because there’s nobody you can call and get a crash course on how to fabricate and manufacture screw piles. We’ve all been self-taught and we learned by experience over the years.”

Another business aspect that Bernhard needed to learn was employee management in Alberta’s boom years. “It’s not just finding people but it’s finding people that will show up and actually work,” he laughed. “That’s probably the worst part about being a company owner; trying to keep a good positive work force that will do good work, show up on time and make a good work day out of it rather than not working and expecting a paycheck and then quitting. Before, whenever it got busy, people could get a job within the next day and not one employer would ever ask for a resume. But now things are a little bit different with the economy.”

Bernhard trains his workers and tries his best to keep them in Alberta’s now slowed down economy. “We’ve actually been doing very well this year with the screw piles. The profit margins have gone down significantly because there’s more people fighting after the same job. So rather than three companies quoting on one job there’s probably ten companies quoting on one job and it’s strictly by the lowest price who wins the job,” he says. “I’m paying guys just as much and maybe even slightly more, but the quality of labour has improved. I’m getting more skilled individuals for the specific task.”

Although the economy in Alberta is slow right now, Bernhard is quite optimistic about the future. “We’re becoming more efficient. We’re getting better employees and we’re maintaining our equipment and growing a little bit and fine tuning all of our details throughout our jobs right now so that whenever it does get busier, whether it’s a year or two, even two plus years from now, I think we will be able to grow,” he says. “I have extra equipment that all I have to do is grab a new piece, like a new excavator for the attachments. They’re all custom built and I have extra attachments sitting here in the shop so within a blink of an eye we could double our installation sites out in the field. I think we’re ready to go whenever things pick up.” SMT

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