Packers Plus opens Edmonton manufacturing centre

November 1, 2013

The idea for the newest Packers Plus Energy Services Inc. facility was born somewhere in the air between Calgary and Houston.

Company president Dan Themig was passing time on a flight by watching episodes of How It’s Made, a television show that reveals how everyday items like nail clippers and straight razors are manufactured. Inspired by the high-tech engineering ingenuity on display, the executive phoned his managers with some advice on building the company’s new factory in Edmonton: embrace automation.

Packers Plus would go on to invest over 10,000 hours of engineering into crafting the unique automated set-up producing its open-hole multistage frac stimulation tools. Human hands are still needed – between offices and the factory floor, the 20,000-square-metre building houses 200 workers – but the orange robotic arms doing much of the manual labour call to mind an automotive assembly line.

Capable of building 240 tools per day, the automated assembly robots form the core of the production process. They are fed by a computerized storage and retrieval system that tracks an inventory containing up to 6,000 crates. Constantly learning and adapting, the system is intelligent enough to change how it stores items based on demand – popular items near the front and less-requested items farther back.

The final step in the process involves testing the tools at pressures of up to 10,000 pounds per square inch. Four or five staff members monitor the two torque-and-test robots, compared to 15 employees working in the manual testing area. The automated system can handle about 26,000 tools in a month, while the manual system might process 1,800 in the same time, according to Marlon Leggott, manufacturing director.

Like many other businesses in the Edmonton area, Packers Plus has struggled to attract and retain a skilled workforce. The new facility has been designed to address those concerns as well. The office area is brightened with colourful designs on the windows, and the hallways are laid out in jagged, asymmetrical lines meant to mimic the pattern of a frac. Employees have access to a yoga room and fully equipped gym. There is even a recreation area containing televisions and video games.

The struggle to find staff in the area is also part of why the company was so motivated to use automation in the plant, Themig says. Given the high cost of labour in the area, he’s doubtful the company could have justified the economics of a large-scale manufacturing centre in the area otherwise.

“It’s very difficult to scale up in a labour market like Edmonton,” Themig says. “If we couldn’t automate it, there would probably be cheaper places [we could build a facility] than here.” The traditional view says that automation steals jobs from hard-working men and women. Themig turns that argument on its head and suggests that without automation, the province would lose more manufacturing work to other parts of the world.

“Some companies manufacture in China and ship to Canada,” he says. “We manufacture in Canada and ship to China.”