Job Shops | Manitoba: Kinetic Energy

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by Kip Hanson

Kinetic Machine Works
Selkirk, MB

  • Years in business: 16
  • Shop floor: 8,000 sq m (86,111 sq ft)
  • Part capacity: 15.8 m (52 ft) diameter x 37 m (120 ft) length
  • Key processes: Turning, milling, welding, waterjet, plasma, and laser cutting
  • Key equipment: CNC machines from Mazak, Chevalier and Tos; fabricating equipment from TRUMPF, Flow and Cincinnati

On the west side of Selkirk, a few blocks from the Red River as it winds its way down to Winnipeg, sits Kinetic Machine Works. The company has been in business since 2000, when owner and CEO Dale Place began working alone in a shop no larger than many people’s homes. Today Kinetic employs 78 people, the production floor has grown to 8,000 sq m (86,000 sq ft), and is known in the province as a one-stop shop for machining, fabricating, maintenance, and design.

It’s difficult to fit Kinetic into a specific manufacturing category. From tugboat fabrication to MRI machine assembly to hydroelectric turbine rebuilds, there’s little that Place and his team won’t tackle. “We excel at complex jobs where a very high skill set is needed, or at work other shops won’t take on for fear they’ll mess it up,” Place says. “Our claim to fame is simple: if someone else can’t do it, then you contact us.”

Recent projects include a 226,796 kg (500,000 lb) 15-car ferry, a craneway door for Manitoba Hydro’s Pointe du Bois generating station, and ongoing fabrication of components for scissor lifts, zoom booms, and forklifts for Caterpillar and other industrial equipment suppliers.

“We’re not really fixated on one type of manufacturing,” Place says. “We do everything from high-volume production machining to custom prototyping to massive project management to heavy duty commercial construction. For example, we’ve built over 16 ships during the past decade, which means we’re able to provide structural, electrical, mechanical, interior finishing, carpentry, and engineering design services. In my opinion, we’re unlike any other job shop, anywhere.”

Place’s career path has been one he might not recommend to others. He took his first job at 12 years old, sweeping floors for a machine shop at the end of his street. He soon began machining parts, and by the time he graduated high school, had enough hours for an apprenticeship certificate. He went to work for a large manufacturing firm in Winnipeg, KP Industries, where he became friends with a number of engineers. Those engineers later left KP to form a medical firm named IMRIS, an event that would have substantial influence on Place’s future.

At age 19, Place bought a piece of land at a nearby industrial park for $2,500. He attended a farm auction shortly after, where he won his bid for an abandoned building. Place took the building down piece by piece and reassembled it on his new property. Another auction brought him his first equipment, a “bunch of old junk” that he hauled back to his shop and rebuilt himself.

“I didn’t have any money, and neither did my family,” he says. “I was still wearing braces when I went into business, so the banks just laughed at me when I asked for a loan.”

They’re no longer laughing. In 2002, Kinetic began taking orders for medical equipment from his contacts at IMRIS, and eventually produced over $40 million worth of surgical components, fixation devices, and MRI machines. In 2006, the company moved to a new 929 sq m (10,000 sq ft) facility and began to take on additional customers. After five years of no salary, no time off, and 16 hour days, Place had grown his company to a relatively comfortable level of self-sufficiency.

Like many companies, however, Kinetic has seen its share of ups and downs. Its heavy involvement with the medical industry nearly brought it to its knees during the Crocus Investment Fund scandal, causing his largest customer at that time to become insolvent. “I had around $1.5 million hanging out there and thought for a while I would probably fold along with the rest of them,” Place says. “I actually had to invest another $500K to finish the project we were working on, just so they [IMRIS] could get paid.”

In hindsight, however, the crash of 2008 was a mixed blessing. Not only was Place able to pick up a lot of used machinery at auction, it also forced the company to expand into uncharted waters. “There were shops folding left, right and centre around us,” he says. “Our own sales dropped nearly 80 per cent when the economy tanked. It was crazy. Luckily, we’d been developing our own line of boat lifts and docks over the past few years, so we worked on that until our regular customers came back. The result was that 2009 was a pretty good year for us.”

Place says he’s since learned not to put too many eggs in one basket, so aside from Kinetic’s various manufacturing projects, he’s also active in commercial construction. He built, owns, and rents over 150 apartments, has put up several strip malls and sports facilities, constructed blast bunkers and other concrete work for the Department of Defense, and does “a lot of hydroelectric turbine rebuild work throughout Canada.”

“I like doing what I’m doing,” says Place. “I’m not a guy who says, ‘Oh, I’m going to focus on making these widgets and that’s it.’ I’m always looking for what we can do next.”

His people play a large role in those activities. Place is rightfully proud of his team’s diverse skill set, many of whom are Red Seal certified journeymen machinists, welders, millwrights, and electricians. The company has also invested heavily over the past few years in new equipment, including several pallet-changing Mazak Nexus 6800 horizontal machining centres, a Mazak live-tool lathe, and a FaroArm Platinum CMM with 3.7 m (12 ft) measuring reach and 3D laser scanning capability.

“Obviously, being in business creates some huge challenges. For me, it was starting too young and the banks not taking me seriously, making it impossible to get any kind of funding for the first five years. They won’t give you money unless you have assets, but how do you acquire assets unless you have money? It’s ridiculous. We got past it eventually, however, but it was a difficult process. Today, we’re focused on further diversification, so we can make sure to keep the doors open if there’s a repeat of 2008. Until then we’ll keep fighting the battle, and look forward to coming to work every day.” SMT

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