Job Shops – Nova Scotia – Under pressure

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by Kip Hanson

Carving a niche with pressure vessel production

Mulgrave Machine Works Ltd.
location: Mulgrave, NS
size: 40,000 sq ft / 3,716 sq m
years in business: 45
key manufacturing processes: metal fabrication, welding, cutting and rolling

Sean Reid may like to go home at night, but that doesn’t mean he’s afraid to work long days. As president of Mulgrave Machine Works Ltd. (MMW) in Mulgrave, NS, Reid does whatever it takes to get the work out the door and make his customers happy. It’s something he learned from his father.

In 1969, Reid’s dad and several business partners opened Mulgrave Machine Works. They had a vision of servicing the area’s burgeoning oil and gas industry, as well as pursuit of work with nearby shipbuilders, mining companies and pulp processors. The business was successful, and Reid purchased the company in 1984. Unfortunately, he passed away just seven years later. His son Sean has been at the helm ever since.

Although MWW continues to serve the industrial base on which it was founded, it has since carved a special niche for itself. “Our name might indicate otherwise, but we are first and foremost a metal fabricator,” Reid says. “We do a lot of custom plate forming, structural steel, that sort of thing. Yet we’ve also developed a reputation in the pressure vessel business. We’re certified by the Canadian Welding Board and ASME accredited for the manufacture of unfired pressure vessels.”

Hanging alongside those certifications is an ISO 9001:2008 plaque, something Reid’s father would be proud of. He’d also be proud of the new facility his son built—nine years ago, MWW moved to a 3,716 sq m (40,000 sq ft) building, four times larger than the original facility. “The move afforded us the opportunity to manufacture multiple units at once, rather than one at a time,” Reid says. “It increases our activity rates and our competitive advantage.”

Another increase in capability was created one and a half years ago with the purchase of an ESAB Avenger X 4500 plasma cutter. According to Reid, the machine boasts travels of 3000 mm x 12000 mm (10 x 40 ft), with plasma cutting to 50 mm (2 in.) thick and oxy-fuel to 200 mm (8 in.), making MWW the area leader in terms of steel cutting.

Since the company specializes in pressure vessels, the ability to roll shells is important. Here MWW relies on a double-pinch plate roller from Sweden-based Roundo Machines AB that allows them to roll sections 25 mm (1 in.) thick x 3000 mm (10 ft) long. Prior to purchasing the equipment, Reid says, they were at the mercy of their steel suppliers and subcontractors. “Aside from adding value to our customers, it was important to put those processes under our control.”

The shop also has the usual suspects seen in most any fab shop—ironworkers, saws, welding torches and manipulators—as well as a 697 sq m (7,500 sq ft) paint finishing shop under the roof of the original facility. Reid says that four-step coatings are pretty much the norm on any work done for offshore oil and gas customers, and having the ability to spray and cure under controlled environmental conditions has been a critical factor to winning new business.

“All of this adds to our competitive advantage and keeps us up to date with technology,” Reid explains. For example, double pinch rolling avoids having to use a press brake to do the initial bend on the bigger plate sections used in conical hoppers and larger shells. And the plasma table made the company’s plate shears “almost passé,” he says.

In fact, about the only limitation MWW has right now is its 20 ft. ceiling, which can make maneuvering some of the larger weldments challenging. Yet Reid says it’s important to stretch your capacity to the nth degree. “You have to offer the full monty, doing everything in your power to get the job done, regardless of your limitations. Do that, and the opportunities for growth will come over time.”

The result is that MWW can build some mighty big pressure vessels, their largest one to date a 30-tonne monster for a nickel mining company. Of course, sometimes cutting and welding is the easy part of running a job shop. Reid says one of his toughest jobs is managing the rollercoaster ride of customer demand. “It’s always a challenge to juggle the schedule and make sure that all the people are busy on the shop floor.”

When dealing with large oil and gas multinationals, he explains, the time between initial expression of interest to shipment of the final product often takes a year or more. This can make forecasting cash flow and staffing levels difficult. “You’re always looking at what’s coming in the doors over the next few quarters—things don’t always pan out as originally planned.”

MMW fights for the same fitters and welders who work the oil and gas fields in Northern Alberta. And while it’s tough to argue with northern wages—nearly twice those found in Nova Scotia—Reid points to quality of life as a way to attract workers. “Sure, the wages are great up there, but you’re likely to be living in a work camp with 5,000 or so other folks. That means 12 hours a day for 14 days straight, then off for a week. With the travel time, you’re lucky to see your family four days out 21. It can be hell on you.”

The result, says Reid, is that welders tired of the Alberta grind call him looking for jobs. “Word travels fast in the industry. When we win a large contract, people hear about it and the phone starts ringing. They see the opportunity to get home—it might not be permanent, but hopefully long enough to spend some time with family.”

Another roadblock is the government. Reid admits the provinces have to be very careful where they invest their funds, but points to government programs that occasionally create undue competition. “There have been some mistakes made with regards to investments into large corporations. In one particular instance, I feel my tax dollars are going to my competitors.”

Due diligence in government is needed, he says, to avoid infringing on his and other established businesses, and ensure that a level playing field is enjoyed by all. Still, Reid maintains a positive outlook. “I see an upward trend, for sure. Everyone is getting busier, so we’ll continue to work hard, chase the opportunities, and stay on our toes.”

Above all, Reid says, businesses must be conservative if they’re to succeed. “That’s something my dad told me before he passed, and he was right. I’ve seen other companies around here that grew dramatically in a short time. They’re no longer here. Growth is good, but only if it’s within your means.” SMT

Kip Hanson is a contributing editor. [email protected]

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