More Than Meets the Eye

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by Noelle Stapinsky

Canadian job shops remain resilient and poised for new growth and opportunity

Job shops in Canada have spent the last year proving they know how to roll with the punches. Usually, companies only have to face one existential problem at a time. Whether it’s coping with an economic downturn, handling supply chain disruptions, or dealing with new disruptive technology or competition, most job shops have seen it before. But what happens when you mix all of those together and throw in a global pandemic? Turns out, Canadian job shops can tackle that as well.

After years of navigating technology changes, the ever-changing demands of customers in myriad sectors and diversifying into new markets, Canada’s small and medium-sized shops have proven themselves to be incredibly adaptable, even during the most uncertain times. 

The past year has been immensely challenging for businesses and residents alike, as governments and health officials yo-yo regions through various levels of restrictions and lockdowns. For manufacturers, border closures and travel restrictions have forced them to rethink how they conduct business and remain open. For most, this new normal involves new and revised policies, shift work changes, cleaning regimes to keep employees safe, and upping their virtual game to appease customers and attract new business. 

Shop Metalworking Technology spoke with several job shops to learn how they kept their operations running, what kind of challenges they faced, and what this new normal means for future growth.

Going (safely) with the flow
For AarKel, one of the largest toolmakers in North America, its first response to the pandemic was not only to keep its employees safe, but also make them feel safe. 

AarKel, headquartered in Wallaceburg, Ont., specializes in plastic injection moulds, compression moulds and die cast tooling primarily for the automotive sector. It has five locations in Ontario, two facilities in the U.S., one in Mexico and an engineering division in India. The toolmaker in 2019 purchased Platinum Tool Inc., bumping its team to more than 300 employees. 

“When COVID first hit, it was a shock. We went into full safety mode and anyone that could work from home started to work from home. We did split shifts, breaks and lunches. We bought masks and sanitizer for all of our employees and sanitized the plant between shifts—we hired full time people just for cleaning and sanitizing,” says Larry Delaey, president of AarKel. 

About one week into the first wave of closures, General Motors (GM) contacted AarKel for ventilator tooling for one of its customers. “We got the call on a Friday and by Monday we were building ventilator tools,” says Delaey. “It was something different for us. It’s plastic injection tooling, but definitely outside of our automotive tooling expertise. They were smaller and had to be built in timeframes we’ve never seen before. It was definitely a process to rethink the way we build. It was a different concept, different design practices, and the tolerances were different.”

While tooling for the medical sector isn’t a future focus for AarKel, it has developed business in the home and garden industry. “That business really picked up because of COVID,” says Delaey. “We ended up building some compression tooling for home and garden items. And we believe that business is going to continue for us into the future.”

Along with keeping its employees feeling safe at work, another major challenge was working with its customers to provide acceptable delivery dates. “Things changed very quickly and we had to reschedule tooling delivery dates,” says Delaey. 

For the past two years, Aarkel has been gearing up for the electric vehicle market. Those preparations paid early dividends by making the company more resistant to market shocks.Of course, when building prototypes or tooling, many customers want to be onsite to see the testing and adjust parameters to their specifications. Pandemic protocols have all but stopped the flow of customers through many facilities. To address this new way of business, Delaey says they have iPads setup outside of the machines for customers to view the processes live. “It works okay, but we build some complex tooling and our customers want to be here touching it and working with different processes. But if customers can’t cross the border, that’s going to affect our sales. You try to go through the zoom meetings, but sometimes it’s that personal connection. I’m not saying it should go back to the norm of always travelling, but there will be a need for meetings to happen face-to-face.”

With the pandemic largely in the rear-view mirror, the future is bright for AarKel. For the past two years it has been gearing up for the electric vehicle market to take off. “We figured it was going to happen, we just didn’t know when. We built the first production tools and prototypes for the electric Tesla,” says Delaey. “Since then we’ve done a lot of work with GM on electric vehicles and there are now a lot of customers reaching out to us because of that.” 

AarKel has also embraced 3D printing and additive manufacturing. Meeting NADCA specification, it is now printing steel and looking at investing in another 3D printer. “As we get closer to these electric vehicles, parts are becoming more complex. We’re finding that we need this 3D printing capability to make our customers successful and to provide them with a one-stop shop. We can provide engineering, tooling, 3D printing and sampling for electric vehicles,” says Delaey. “We actually just built a large tool that was shipped to Europe to Land Rover for an electric SUV. We are pretty fortunate to be a part of that.” 

Live off the production floor 
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brian Bendig, president of Cavalier Tool and Manufacturing said “recession or pandemic, we refuse to participate.” He still stands by that statement.

The Windsor, Ont.-based toolmaker experienced a 47 per cent increase in business in 2020 and expects another significant bump in 2021. 

Cavalier honed in on safety protocols and embraced the virtual world to maintain transparency and appease clients or future business partners. 

“We did have to make changes and be resilient,” says Tim Galbraith, sales manager for Cavalier. “Obviously without our people we are nothing. The safety protocols put in place are to make sure we keep our people safe. And we asked them to please do the best they can to be safe outside of the workplace.”

After trying many different screening processes for those entering the facility for work, Cavalier worked closely with ministry inspectors to ensure its protocol and procedures met the upmost safety standards. 

There are separate entrances and punch clocks for each department. Employees enter one at a time where a person manning the entrance goes over a health questionnaire with them before they can enter. There are separate exits. 

“We spent a lot of time and effort making sure that we met all of the standards because there’s a lot of room for interpretation. Our goal was to keep our people safe with
the least inconvenience,” says Galbraith. “Everyone has personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitizing stations. We have cleaners that wear backpack sanitizers, as well as cleaners to clean and disinfect high traffic areas.”

In 2020, Cavalier received Gold Awards for health and safety and mental health by the Windsor-Essex Country Health Unit. “The protocols we put in place are not just COVID related,” explains Galbraith. “Our health and safety committee is very active and constantly looking for ways to improve our operations. People, Process, Equipment is our mantra. And people are the most important.” 

In another interesting move, Cavalier recognized the need for a digital footprint years ago and has been building up its virtual presence. “When COVID started we were well ahead of the curve and able to deal with the fact that sales reps could not cross the border or knock on doors. In our industry, face-to-face selling is paramount. People need a relationship when they’re placing orders that are anywhere from $100,000 to
$1 million per tool. It’s not something you do from a catalogue,” says Galbraith. “The personal relationship part is what built this industry.” 

As they say, you don’t buy a car without kicking the tires. Cavalier is allowing customers and potential clients to do it virtually. If a customer wants a tour of the facility, Bendig or Galbraith will use a Selfie Stick to personally walk customers through the facility using a phone or tablet. For those that don’t want a personal tour, they can access the facility online through the Google Streets App. 

Galbraith explains that with this app, users can click on hotspots in the parking lot for short descriptions of the business. When they click on the front door, Bendig welcomes them into the building. It’s an interactive tour of the entire facility where visitors can learn about all of the different aspects of the operation.

To allow clients to watch test runs, Cavalier has mounted several cameras on their machines that broadcast tooling tests live. “Customers always want to sign off and watch the press run. They might want the back pressure higher or the temperature turned down on the cavity, or the transfer point might need to be in a different spot,” says Galbraith. “With the cameras, they can log on and virtually attend. They can change parameters and direct us. Normally they would only send one representative to sign off on a tool, but now, even the designers, engineers and guys in the shop that are going to run the tool can have their say. It’s been a huge success.”

It’s certainly business as usual for Cavalier. On January 1, it acquired Mold Service International located in Oldcastle, Ont., instantly adding 25 per cent more capacity.

Shifting focus
When the first wave of the COVID pandemic hit, everything changed for Tecumseh, Ont.-based Laval Tool and Die Ltd., a one-stop shop for engineering, product development and tooling and prototype supplier that supplies a variety of industries including automotive, military, industrial, medical and aerospace. 

“Our clients, supplier base, how we deal with our employees, and our relationships with our suppliers all changed,” says Jonathon Azzopardi, president and CEO of Laval Tool. “There were a lot of things that we took for granted that either stopped or became very difficult to get our hands on. So we had to pivot for sure.”

Amidst the panic and chaos of the first round of provincial closures, Azzopardi says they had to integrate new ways of managing the business. “But what we also learned is how fragile human resources is in our company. You’re never not vulnerable in that area, but we became very aware how critical we are to our employees and how critical they are to us. And that meant we had to really step it up in a lot of areas of our business if we were going to make it through.”

With more than 70 employees operating in a 45,000 sq. ft. facility, Laval broke up its production into three shifts—days, afternoons and weekend shifts—to minimize employee exposure. But this, of course, meant restructuring the company to create self-sufficient shifts where everyone was cross-trained. 

“People had to be cross-trained without someone to train them because there was no interaction with other shifts. We had to come up with ways to get people trained on something they’ve never seen or done before. It took some patience and it was kind of fun in some ways because people got to learn new things. So there are some positives that have come from this pandemic, but they didn’t come without their challenges,” says Azzopardi.

The second step for Laval was securing the raw resources needed to function. “We needed to keep a stock to be able to weather the storm regardless what conditions were going to be thrown at us. If we would normally buy one month’s worth, we’d buy three months worth just in case we lost a supplier,” says Azzopardi.

After that, it was all about adopting the right policies that would allow Laval to function if there was more disruption. “We were one of the first to adopt mandatory masks. Washing hands, temperature checks, direction arrows, individual workstations, lunch breaks… all of these policies had to be in place,” says Azzopardi. “In February, we took the approach that everyone was going to get it (COVID-19). When you do that, you spend a lot of time thinking about what will happen if an employee is gone for two weeks, a month or more. That’s pretty tough to do because you don’t build a business around redundancy. We have had our scares and we have had employees who’ve gotten it, but it was our policies that stopped it in its tracks. We didn’t have one case where it was passed from one employee to another. I just wish we could keep people as safe outside of the plant as we can inside.”

He continues, “I will say that people that have really embraced what this pandemic has given us will come out stronger because of it. These policies aren’t going away, the training and the strengths we’ve all achieved aren’t going away either.” SMT

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