Fly, Float, and Troll: How a BC job shop delivered the next big thing in angling

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By Kip Hanson

Knuckle buster, cut plug, mooching—to anyone who hasn’t spent long hours on a fishing boat in the Pacific Northwest, these are odd terms indeed. To the team at J.S. Foster Corp. in Saanichton, British Columbia, however, there’s nothing mysterious about them at all. In fact, this fifty-three-year-old CNC machine shop has built a successful business on angling and its esoteric terminology, and recently expanded on that success with yet another new product launch, the Islander C5. 

Getting to this point required significant capital spending, however, as well as no small amount of rethinking decades-old machining practices. These efforts include investments in five-axis machining, quick-change tooling, automated part handling, and its most recent purchase, a Nakamura-Tome NTRX-300 multitasking lathe from Elliott Matsuura Canada

“J.S. Foster is a family-owned business currently on its third generation of management,” says general manager Bryce Flug. “In 1990, company founder Joseph Foster started a new division, Islander Reels. Fishing was a passion for him and others here, so they decided to see if their idea was viable. Islander has since become the premier provider of saltwater fishing reels on the west coast of Canada.”

Keeping the spindles turning, the reels spinning

Flug notes that, like a lot of job shops, J.S. Foster has occasional downtime, and what better way to fill it than to make fishing reel parts. But what began as a way to keep the spindles turning evolved into a significant piece of the company’s business strategy. Its mainstay product—the Islander MR3 mooching reel—was so well received that ongoing sales were largely a matter of “build it, and they will come.” 

If you can’t see your reflection in the reel before it goes to anodizing, it’s not good enough, according to J.S. Foster.

As a result, the Fosters were free to start additional companies. Aside from Islander Reels, the family now owns JSF Technologies, “a high-tech traffic solution provider,” and its in-house powder coating division, JSF Coatings.

And yet, somewhere along the way, they began to lose their edge in the fishing business, especially among the next generation of anglers. “We used to be quite big in the U.S., but some cross-border regulations came into play during the mid-2000s that really hurt us,” Flug says. “The cork drag reels we developed early on for the fly-fishing market began to lose some of their popularity as younger folks started to embrace the sealed composite drag systems that others were using, which we’ve since adopted in our trolling units. At the same time, we found that competitors had copied our design, had them made overseas and were selling them for less. That’s when we decided to switch gears and do something no one else had done.”

Advancements all around

That “something” turned out to be several things, among them technology advancements like ceramic bearings to improve corrosion resistance, the sealed composite drag systems just mentioned, and a handful of new products, the most recent being the centrepin float reel and its promise of catching “the steelhead of a lifetime.” Says Flug: “We began to build reels that specifically addressed all the things people had been asking us to do.”

They also addressed their machining efficiency. Big time. Setups that once took up to two days on their old machine—a twin-spindle, twin-turret lathe—can be completed in two hours or less on the NTRX multitasker. What’s more, the “frames” used in all of their reels are now finished in a single operation, not the five it once took. This not only reduces work-in-process significantly, but allows them to deliver higher quality, more accurate products in less time.

“We bought the NTRX with a bunch of extra tool offsets and quick-change chuck jaws, and have standardized all of our tooling,” says Flug. “Due to that, and several other improvements, we can often switch from spool to a frame—a process that was quite long and convoluted on the old machine—in 20 minutes or so. And since we’re saving every offset for every different feature on every single reel as a separate wear value, the first part is usually right on size; you hit go and you make a good part.”

Impossible possibilities

That’s not the best part of this not-so-tall fish tale. J.S. Foster also invested in an in-line probing system from Renishaw and a UR10e collaborative robot from Universal Robots. Because of this, the company now enjoys round-the-clock unattended machining, helping them to compete in a market that’s become practically cutthroat compared to those early days. Add to that advanced control features like thermal growth compensation, machining simulation, and graphical troubleshooting tools, and Flug suggests that what once seemed impossible is now within reach.

“The fly reel market in particular has become a very competitive space,” he says. “So while I’m very glad that we can make most of our components in a single operation, it’s the lights-out operation that’s been the biggest game-changer.” As near as Flug can tell, many of Islander’s competitors are still transferring parts across multiple machines like he once did. As such, he feels confident that Islander products are not only of much higher quality than “those other guys” but require far less labour to produce. 

“Victoria’s not a cheap place to operate a manufacturing business,” Flug adds. “That’s what drove us to automate, but we also needed to produce the finest part we could in the least amount of time. One example is our surface finishes.  Parts have to come off the machine ready to hand-polish or tumble to a mirror—if you can’t see your reflection in one of our reels before it goes to anodizing, it’s not good enough. To meet our goals for quality and automation we have innovated beyond what many people in the manufacturing industry would consider possible.” SMT

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