- September 25, 2018
Using R&D to go beyond demand to supply future needs
Apollo Machine and Welding Ltd. (AMW) in Edmonton, AB, had a humble beginning 45 years ago, when founder Bob Norton opened a 28 sq m (300 sq ft) machine shop with a small rented manual lathe. What he had was knowledge of the oil and gas industry and a vision of how he could supply this demanding sector. It is this mentality that is still the foundation of AMW’s focus.
“Apollo has invested a lot back into the company over the years,” says Jake Quast, AMW sales manager. “We’ve invested in the best equipment and the most technologically advanced equipment to help our customers grow, and I think those relationships have helped us grow.”
Today, AMW specializes in downhole drilling equipment for the global oil and gas sector. The main facility measures 11,148 sq m (120,000 sq ft) and employs 230. And it has a 4,181 sq m (45,000 sq ft) laser cladding facility just 15 minutes away in Laduc, AB, where it does a hard surfacing procedure that can repair or modify steel and alloy surfaces to increase wear properties and overall component life.
AMW has been developing its laser cladding techniques for more than 12 years. It’s a process that has been widely accepted by the aerospace sector, but as Quast explains, “we’re constantly look at ways to improve it. It’s been very well received in the oil and gas industry because it extends the life [of the equipment] and can repair it as well. If a part comes in from one of our OEMs, we have the ability to repair and re-machine it, saving our customers thousands to millions of dollars.”
And working with more exotic and non-magnetic materials, Quast says, is one way AMW is able to make downhole equipment more durable as they’re corrosion resistant.
But getting clients on board with this technology has certainly been a challenge from a marketing perspective, as many large OEMs building downhole drilling equipment are set in their ways, according to Quast. “We essentially had to work very closely with customers to show them new products and test the products with them to ensure they work before they go and change a tool that’s been the same for the past 30 years.
Developing unique processes to meet customer needs goes hand-in-hand with investing in state-of-the-art equipment. AMW has a large electrical discharge machining (EDM) department and some of the largest machining cells available. “We have five, five axis and seven axis mill turns, and our flagship is the NT6600 Mori Seiki,” says Quast.
“Again, it’s about that relationship we build with our customers and investing in the best equipment to offer a one stop shop. Our customers don’t want to deal with multiple suppliers, just one throughout the entire process to the end product,” continues Quast. “That’s why over the years we got into laser cladding and copper plating. That’s why we do BTA deep hole drilling and gun drilling, which is a big one that no one in western Canada really does.”
Gun drills, used for deep drilling processes, are long thin cutting tools that drill precise holes with a high depth to diameter ratio. This process uses high pressure coolant that is forced down the inside of the drill, allowing chips to exit through a v-groove on the outside diameter.
Of course, AMW is always searching for ways to supply future needs and to diversify its portfolio. “We heavily invest in research and development. We have two metallurgists on staff that are constantly working on different projects, talking to our customers to see what they need or what they might need that’s not yet available,” says Quast.
The lab also offers machining and fatigue testing and metallurgical evaluation services.
With about six R&D projects currently in the works, Quast says that AMW is actively looking at other industries and sectors. It recently conducted a gap analysis to compare its ISO9001 certification with AS9100, the aerospace quality standard. “What we’re doing isn’t far off,” he says. “To manufacture such complex tools and components you need state-of-the-art equipment. And our quality is on par with aerospace.”
AMW has supplied some components for Ontario’s nuclear industry and, while Quast says it’s in very early stages, it’s also looking at the green energy sector. “We are in the early stages of additive manufacturing with laser cladding. Take, for example, a long column with a stabilizer blade on the end. Instead of machining an entire part to build that stabilizer, you could just buy the material with the correct diameter and build up the stabilizer blades using laser cladding,” he says. “It will be stronger, more cost effective and, obviously from an environmental perspective, a huge advantage because you’re not wasting material produced at the mill.”
While many small to large job shops in the western provinces rely on a geographical economy or are directly affected by the ups and downs of Alberta’s oil and gas economy, AMW’s market is global. “The downturn was a challenge for all manufacturers out west. But in the last six months there has been a huge increase in activity. The smaller job shops might be having a problem keeping up due to the high quality standards required by the oil and gas industry, but most medium to large job shops are really busy right now,” says Quast. “But we don’t rely on Alberta’s economy at all. We export about 50 per cent right now. Our products are shipped all over the world.”
To imagine that this company launched with just a rented lathe and a vision is extraordinary. But it’s AMW’s philosophy of building strong customer relationships, investing in advanced technology, and positioning itself as a one-stop shop, which has helped it maintain its competitive edge. SMT