Alberta oil pump manufacturer embraces lean to cut machining costs
by Ed Robertson
While rising energy prices and changing market conditions worldwide have caused energy-related manufacturing to heat up a cyclical business, what’s approaching white-hot status in the oil and gas fields is getting the most out of existing wells. From shale-gas extraction on the natural gas side to limited supplies of lighter oils increasing the demand for heavier oils, OEMs and shops serving the energy field are seeing growth across many fronts.
Founded in 1989 with headquarters and main manufacturing in Calgary, AB, Kudu Industries Inc. supplies a critical component to heavy oil extraction, the progressing cavity pump (PCP). Heavy oils are heavy not only because they are more viscous than lighter oils, but also because bringing them to the surface involves lifting a high percentage of sand and other solids. This makes pumping it a challenge, particularly in deeper existing wells.
Robust in design and powerful in performance, progressing cavity pump hardware is capable of maintaining the tremendous pressures necessary to keep oil flowing while also resisting clogging problems that plague conventional pumping equipment. In general, PCPs can do the job for about one quarter the price of conventional equivalent, using only about half the power, cutting costs and saving energy in the energy field.
“The basic pump design hasn’t really changed that much in terms of steel, chrome, elastomer, and other materials,” says CEO and company co-founder Ray Mills. “What has changed is that a pump sold for much more when we founded the company as opposed to now, and the reason why includes how we’ve come to look at and apply lean manufacturing principles.”
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Founded in part to serve a market need for PCP technology in Alberta’s medium-crude oil wells, Kudu’s business boomed for the better part of 10 years, until a collapse in the price of oil caused sales to follow suit in 1998. It was then that company management began working with the National Research Council and its Industrial Research Assistance Program to apply lean manufacturing principles to the company.
Note the reference that lean applies to the company and not strictly its manufacturing processes. “Lean is very important to us,” Mills says. “Hardware and software are important, but lean tells us how to properly look at acquiring and using knowledge. It helps us move from looking at production technology strictly in terms of machines or software to a broader definition of acquiring any tool we can use to help us improve.”
From a low point in the late 1990s, privately held Kudu Industries has grown to be the second-largest maker of progressing cavity pumps in the world. At 340 employees, the company also has manufacturing capability in Lloydminster, AB, and is in the midst of opening a manufacturing facility in Romania. Output is an average of 5000 pumps annually, along with related equipment such as driveheads and power units.
Mills credits lean manufacturing principles with helping Kudu focus on driving out waste and adding value, which included bringing more outsourced manufacturing capability in-house as a result of reducing in-process inventory and increasing shop floor space.
Mills also credits a close working relationship with Richmond, BC-based industrial equipment distributor Thomas Skinner & Son, calling the company’s expertise “crucial” in helping Kudu Industries stay abreast of productivity enhancements in everything from machine tools to tooling inserts. “They’re in our manufacturing facility once or twice a week,” Mills explains, adding that working with a company with broad Western Canada coverage means what works for other companies can possibly benefit Kudu and vice versa. “One thing that comes to mind is that they started us on tool management systems, the automated vending machines for inserts and other tools,” Mills says. “It gives us assurances that we can keep running in the face of tool breakage or other emergencies; it keeps much tighter control of expensive inserts and tooling, and it streamlines ordering and billing.”
Kudu acquires two or three pieces of new capital equipment a year, on average, and keeps them around five years to maximize resale value and minimize maintenance costs. New to the company is an Okuma MA-600 HB horizontal machining centre, a sister machine to an existing model at Kudu. The 26,000 kg (57,200 lb) workhorse features a 1,000 x 900 x 1,000 mm work area (39.37 x 35.43 x 39.37 in.), a 630 x 630 mm rotary pallet (24.80 x 24.80 in.), and a 50-taper spindle with 0.004 mm (0.000160 in.) positioning accuracy and 0.0015 mm (0.000059 in.) repeatable accuracy.SMT
Ed Robertson is a contributing editor and manufacturing journalist based in the Detroit,MI, area.
For more about on-machine verification, read about Renishaw’s probe on the Okuma machine.