Calgary Custom Manufacturer Gets it Right by Listening
Calgary’s Plains Fabrication and Supply has been successful over the company’s 24-years spent manufacturing mostly pressure vessels and pressure piping. Their products largely wind up in the oil fields of northern and southern Alberta, though they have occasionally landed in far flung oil producing locales in other parts of the world.
Touring the new Plains Fabrication and Supply 90,000 sq. ft. shop located on Venture Avenue, near the southeast edge of Calgary, it becomes readily apparent that the pride, commitment and quality are the main focus of all employees throughout the company. Plains is a business that has been built on the efficiency, innovation, and co-operation of a group of dedicated owners, employees and industry connections.
Anyone not impressed by the sight of a team of welders assembling a 12 ft diameter x 60 ft long pressure vessel is either plain jaded, or works on the shop floor and is accustomed to seeing them put together all the time. The vessels, when packaged and finished, are bound for the oil sands.
On its own, the pressure vessel is like a work of art, for the precision steel work and oblong shape. Pondering the know-how and skill involved in its assembly is fascinating, and this is just the smaller scale of the pressure vessels and piping packages that Plains has been manufacturing since 1988.
Currently, the fabrication company is going through a marked period of growth and re-organization, hence the move to a new plant on Venture Avenue. While the company is expanding, its aim is to become as efficient and eco-friendly as possible.
It all started in the late 1980s, when current President and CEO Chester Nagy along with several others founded Plains Fabrication and Supply from the ashes of a preceding company. Nagy and the fellow founders decided to correct the mistakes of its forebear and invested in building a newer, better, smarter manufacturer.
So, from 1988 until 2010, the Plains shop resided in the Ramsey Saddleview Industrial Park, near the Stampede Grounds in the heart of Calgary. Plains has successfully moved on from that location and they have never looked back. The main reason for the move was Ownerships ability to realize the Ramsey location was no longer a viable option if the company was to grow and improve its production techniques. The shop was getting too small for the volume of production. Also, the inner city location was creating its own difficulties, and the result was the company turning away as much work as it was taking in.
To Nagy, the partner who owns the largest stake in the company, a change needed to be made.
The goal of the Ownership was to take the combined experience of its employees and industry to build a plant that allowed the company to produce a superior product using the most efficient and effective manufacturing techniques.
We were facing the ever growing problem that we were simply not able to ship the size of the product from the Ramsey location, explains Herb Hammer. There were too many restrictions. Even the simple cost of moving some of the equipment we built from the old shop to the new shop was 10’s of thousands of dollars just to move it to the city limits.
Tom McCaffery, General Manager, adds, “In the old facility everything had to move in one direction, and once it was in line it had to stay there even if there were issues preventing it from moving to the next phase of production. Everything had to go in and come back out the same door. There was no way around it. Here, in the new facility, the guys on the floor have the flexibility to move the product, but the goal is for it to only move when it’s absolutely necessary. The less we move it, and the more we feed the plant to continue the required work, the more successful the job becomes.”
There are multiple assembly bays in the new, massive Plains building. Each has a similar set-up and is configured the same way with identical electrical wiring and tool stations. Not built just for the sake of spectacle, the extra space helps prevent common work delays in custom steel fabrication, and allows Plains to have complete flexibility to make changes if the situation calls for it.
“If there is a change or long delay the product can be moved outside very efficiently so we don’t end up with large vessels or skid package consuming valuable space with employees waiting for issues to get resolved. We have to be flexible enough, that if that job stops, we need to be able to move everything to continue production regardless of an individual package that may need a drawing approval.”
Adopting a Lean Production Philosophy
While at the Plains facility, one often hears the word “lean” when describing the new operations. They are referring to lean production principles, a model highly-influenced by the Toyota Corporation. It focuses on maximizing efficiency, not in terms of skimping to keep prices as low as possible, but to attain peak workflow potential, avoid wasted time, and reduce material waste.
The drive towards the lean model was kick started by Chester Nagy, who was inspired by reading about other successful companies that instituted the principles. If Plains was to become truly lean, it would need a new facility. But in designing that facility to be as efficient as it could be, Nagy again followed the lead of other lean companies and sought the input of his entire company, making employees party to the planning and design of the new building. Who would know better about what happens on the manufacturing line than the people who actually work there?
“A lot of the input was from the guys on the shop floor and in the office, trying to design the workflow to be the most efficient that it could. Part of lean is trying to eliminate waste. The less we can handle a product, the more work we can do on the spot. We’ve been able to eliminate hours and hours of handling. Now it’s just a matter of moving a project down one station or leaving it in one station and doing multiple tasks in that one spot,” explains Hammer.
Unlike a typical factory, being a custom steel manufacturer presents its own difficulties when it comes to achieving the best efficiency. “If we were just making widgets all day long, we could just stand back, look at the process, analyze it, and make improvements based on one design and one product, but each vessel we build is different from the one we built the day before. Each customer has a whole new set of specs, so it’s a complicated process to try to make lean work in the traditional sense,” says McCaffrey.
“We’re continuously working on improving scheduling, or trying a new assembly system, and it all evolves from our staff on the floor and in the office. We live in this perpetual system of looking for potential issues and working as a team to see what we can do to get better and improve. It’s a positive and empowering place to be.”
The quest to cut down on waste goes well beyond workflows. It permeates into the little things, like how they began composting lunchroom waste at the recommendation of the company’s Green Committee.
More importantly, though, Plains practices recycling and material waste reduction on an industrial scale, proving that an operation of its size can successfully introduce green methods. The new state-of-the-art blasting technology instituted at the new plant has dramatically reduced the amount of industrial waste by replacing old sandblasting methods. A self-contained blasting chamber prevents dust from going into the atmosphere. The blasting materials have changed as well.
“In the old facility we used silica sand to blast,” explains Hammer, “We would use it once, then have to dispose of it, so we would have to have somebody come in and take all the sand away. Now we use steel slag to do our blasting that we can re-use up to 250 times. We have a 45-gallon drum that gets trucked away for recycling every two or three weeks and we don’t have to worry about putting thousands of pounds of sand every year into the land fill.”
It adds up. They estimate that they have reduced their yearly waste to the land fill by over 100 tons from the old facility.