When walking around the new 90,000 square foot Plains Fabrication facility it’s easy to marvel at the massive, gleaming metal cylinders. It’s a lot harder to see just how much planning, effort and foresight went into this multi-million dollar facility and what it means for the 95 employees who work there.
The Calgary-based steel manufacturing operation produces pressure vessels and skid packages, mostly for in-situ oil sands production. Chester Nagy is the president of Plains Fabrication & Supply.
“SAGD and in-situ is where the market seems to be going,” says Nagy.
That’s a bit of an understatement. With around 40 Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage or “SAGD” projects in various stages of completion in Alberta and Saskatchewan it’s an area of oil production that keeps the shop humming.
Trends in SAGD production are benefiting the shop as well. As established players work out the kinks in SAGD the projects are becoming much more modular in their approach.
“It’s becoming much more cookie cutter,” says Nagy. “They’re building smaller plants and then they just repeat the plant over and over again. A lot of the engineering that you used to have done just isn’t required.”
It was in this manufacturing climate that Plains Fabrication decided to double down on a new facility. The company started incorporating lean manufacturing techniques seven years ago (a story we chronicled - http://www.productivityalberta.ca/blog/187/plains-speaking) but the 1930s era building they were in presented some major productivity challenges. Specifically, moving the units in, through and out of the building.
Plains deals with some massive equipment. These are not small structures, with the biggest being 100 feet long and weighing up to 100 tonnes. Unfortunately you can’t just slide a dolly underneath one of these units and toddle it off to the next workstation.
“We didn’t have the crane capability to be able to move those units in our old building,” says Nagy.
Reducing the amount of handling time was a key strategy in designing the new building. The work done by the skilled tradesmen who construct these units is important value-added labour, by comparison the time spent moving the unit from one place to another is a drain on productivity.
On a certain type of pressure vessel in their old facility handling time required about 10 hours of labour, two pieces of equipment and three workers to move the product from assembly to the paint process. However, the new Shuttlelift gantry system they’re employing reduces the workflow by more than half, taking approximately four hours of labour with one machine and two workers.
The intentional design allows Plains to do more with less. The fabrication space in the old plant was 90,000 square feet, the fabrication space in the new plant - only 50,000 square feet.
The new site has doubled Plains’ productivity and Nagy feels like they can improve even more.
“I was hoping the timing would be right, but the crystal ball was perfect. We moved in, in December, started in January and we’ve been flat out ever since,” says Nagy.
In fact, one of the large problems facing Plains isn’t productivity but a common refrain from a lot of businesses these days - finding qualified labour.
“The timing on this is absolutely perfect the only issue now is trying to find people. I didn’t believe it would happen this fast that we’re short of skilled workers. I could use another 15 workers today.”
One of the other big investments Plains made in their new facility was the blast and paint facility. This project didn’t come cheap but it means not having to ship their product off site to get it done.
You’re probably familiar with the process of sandblasting. Plains’ blast and paint area does the same thing but without sand. Instead they use a recycled steel slag. It’s a state-of-the-art facility and the only one of its kind in Calgary. They’ve even started subcontracting out this service.
Plains Fabrication has made a multi-million bet on productivity. With the coming in-situ oilsands development boom they’ve set themselves up for success. Still, Nagy is most proud of his team in helping him get their new building off the ground.
“I’m proud of the teamwork that went into the design and making it happen. It blows people’s minds what we’ve actually done here. It’s totally different from any other facility. This is what teamwork and the lean process can do.”