by Noelle Stapinsky
Canada’s tool, die and mould sector has again proven its resilience in the face of an economic meltdown
From decades of enduring the ebb and flow of the automotive industry and its technological demands, Canada’s tool, die and mouldmakers have become incredibly resilient. They can diversify and pivot on the fly, so when disruption comes their way—recession, economic downturn—even a global pandemic—this robust sector simply adapts without missing a beat.
“I like to compare the mould and die sector to joining the Marine Corp.,” says Ed Bernard, who heads up research and development (R&D) at Crest Mold Technology Inc. in Oldcastle, Ont., and former president and a current board member of the Canadian Association of Moldmakers (CAMM). “Our sector is so fit from a competitive technology perspective because of the unreasonable demands of OEMs and the automotive industry. It’s so demanding and so technology driven, that if you can play in that game, you can play in any game.”
Of course, there are always challenges. Over past couple of years manufacturers faced uncertainty with a new North American trade agreement (CUSMA), tariffs, technology advancements, and ever-changing automotive manufacturing platforms. And obviously, they’re now having to navigate through a global pandemic, which locked down economies around the world.
“Everyone is getting pretty tired of the term ‘pivot,’ but from an R&D perspective, and with the pressures of COVID, there’s a lot of pivoting going on in our manufacturing industry,” says Bernard. “Our mould and die makers are highly advanced manufacturers. The equipment is the top manufacturing equipment on the planet. It’s all about innovation. Our sector is optimistic because, over and over again, it has proved [it won’t] take no for an answer and can work through anything. Many shops are building products and becoming innovative in a new way during COVID.”
Crest is currently collaborating with the University of Toronto and has a few patent-pending COVID-related projects on the go. And Crest and Integrity Tool and Mold Inc., another mould shop in the Windsor area, collaborated to create the plastic designs for a small monitoring device, developed by Audacia Bioscience, that could be used to identify those infected with the novel coronavirus.
Many shops in the mould and die sector already had a foot in the medical industry door, and those that didn’t are dabbling in it now. In fact, the Trillium Network of Advanced Manufacturing has an extensive list of Canada’s mouldmakers’ COVID related activities.
For Windsor, Ont.-based Cavalier Tool and Manufacturing Ltd., business is booming. Specializing in moulds and dies for heavy truck, recreational, agricultural, commercial and consumer products, Cavalier is a global competitor that has posted double digit growth over the past five years.
“We spent many years putting together a strategy to diversify into different market segments and to not be dependent on automotive. Right now, we’re less than 10 per cent automotive because other markets are bearing fruit,” says Tim Galbraith, sales manager for Cavalier. “We’ve just had five record months in a row and we’re on track for a 40 per cent increase this year at least.”
The tooling that Cavalier makes is large, the type that typically needs to be moved around a facility with a forklift. And while it has recognized some opportunity to get into the medical industry, the smaller scale tooling required just didn’t fit the company’s paradigm of moulds that it builds. “But we did do some medical at the start of the COVID crisis,” says Galbraith. “There were hand sanitizer companies that were unable to access their offshore supply chain. We made tools for components needed to make hand sanitizer dispensers.”
Cavalier had to reinvent its digital library to support the new tool design. “There was a need to step up to the plate and we had the tools in our tool belt to help out with the cause. We didn’t do it for profit, we did it to be a good corporate citizen,” says Galbraith.
As for upcoming opportunities, Galbraith says, “oddly enough, and this is going to sound funny, but there will be a lot of automotive opportunities. What happened in the last recession is when automotive became very slow, shops knocked down shifts and people. But when the switch was turned back on they had a lot of difficulty ramping up. The 2008 recession taught a lot of people lessons, but some have very short memories. A lot of those automotive companies looked to us because we already had five shifts running 24/7. And we were investing when others weren’t.”
Brian Bendig, president of Cavalier, adds, “just because we hit them over the fence doesn’t mean it’s easy. There are challenges we face with not being able to cross the border. If we need technical support, we have to contract it from one of our tooling partners in the US. COVID, itself, has also added to our bottom line expenses as well. The remedial efforts that you have to put in—the extra cleaning staff, [finding] floor space in the shop for social distancing, increasing bandwidth on mobile phone plans for employees that are working from home but don’t have high speed internet, etc. All those small things add up.”
The good news is business is getting busier and Cavalier is growing its workforce and equipment arsenal. In July, it added two news sales positions, some program managers, an estimator, a toolmaker, a truck driver and two maintenance people.
When asked about investing in new equipment, both Bendig and Galbraith laughed and replied, “always!”
“We just bought a five axis CNC mill. Seven weeks ago we installed a seven axis lathe. We’re currently installing a brand new press brake. And we have a new 35-watt laser for high definition engraving,” says Galbraith.
“Our longterm goal is to have a footprint on every continent. It’s one thing to have multiple markets, but we want to have a footprint in multiple countries for multiple markets so we can mitigate economic swings even better than we are now,” continues Galbraith. “We plan on finishing 2020 with a record year.”
Harbouring New Opportunities
Family-run Harbour Technologies is another Windsor, Ont.-based automation and tooling shop that has diversified over the years. It started out in 1972 as a detailing and fixturing operation, but has since morphed into designing and building custom automation for the nuclear, aerospace and automotive industries. And now it’s getting in the medical game.
“Our forte is building custom machinery and automation. We build a lot of tooling and automation for refurbishing nuclear reactors and shielding radioactive components. We also produce a lot of aerospace fixturing. We design custom CNC for automotive, such as multi-spindle or transfer style machines… a lot of high production, high volume transfer machines that require a custom build,” says David Glover, who co-owns Harbour Technologies with his brother Andrew. “And we do a lot of material handling, automated conveyor systems and equipment for the food and beverage industry as well.”
Given its skillset, it was a natural progression for Harbour to transition into the medical industry; building automated personal protective equipment (PPE) specifically.
“We have a line of mask making equipment, medical and non-medical N95 masks, as well as custom medical gown making machines that we are currently designing and building,” says Andrew Glover, who heads up the engineering side of the business.
His brother David adds, “pre-pandemic we did do a little bit of medical, such as weld fixtures for medical beds and wheeled paramedic beds. But now, our biggest market is the N95 mask making equipment.”
In March, Harbour’s nuclear business started to slowdown, which freed up time to shift its engineering design focus to developing automated systems for N95 masks. “It was slightly before we started hearing about shortages in PPE,” says David. “We started engineering the mask-making line based on two of the most common types that the industry needed. It’s a pretty unique, high volume and cost effective system. And we had to do some engineering and investigating on materials. We found other filtration materials that are readily available in the U.S., so we jumped on board with using those materials for the masks.”
Most of the materials that Harbour was able to source are from Canadian firms. And prototypes of the masks Harbour’s automation produces are currently going through NIOSH approval.
Of course, Harbour already has orders in. The first automated line it produced is going to Novo Textiles, a family-owned Coquitlam, B.C. bedding manufacturer that was faced with a harsh choice when COVID hit—use its 20 years of sewing expertise to remain essential or shutdown completely.
Since Novo Textiles switched its focus to PPE manufacturing, it has tripled its workforce and made medical its new focus. “Depending on the level of complexity that the customer is requiring, we can fabricate these machines quite quickly,” says David. But if it’s a new solution that has to be engineered, the lead-time can be 12 to 14 weeks. It also depends on the availability of components. Like everyone, we face challenges with the supply chain not replenishing stock. Although there are many that are reporting that they’re busy, there’s an apprehension around a big slowdown that might be coming up.”
To avoid supply chain issues, Harbour invested a lot of time sourcing high end components from guaranteed sources.
Of course, with this foray into a new market, Harbour is also growing its workforce, adding some skilled machinists, control specialists and electrical engineers. “It’s definitely a fluid growth for us,” says David. “The pandemic has been a challenge, but I think one of the benefits that we have as a family-run business is that employees gravitate to those types of companies. Some of our employees have been with us for over 30 years. We’re unique for a company our size, which has 25 employees. We’re able to quickly scale up for different projects and that’s what keeps us competitive. We are vertically integrated and have all our machining, fabrication, design, and mechanical and electrical in-house.”
As Bendig said, hitting it over the fence is certainly not easy. The resilience of the tool, mould and die sector comes from years of dealing with cyclical industries and learning how to diversify. It’s so accustomed to navigating problems and finding solutions on a daily basis, this sector has proven able to overcome just about anything.
And while other industries grapple with a looming recession, this particular sector is simply choosing not to participate. SMT