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Metal biz in the home stretch

New machine used on steel first of its kind in the West

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Terry Vanstone, manager at the Russel Metals location on St. James Street, said the company’s new machine will benefit the whole manufacturing sector.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Terry Vanstone, manager at the Russel Metals location on St. James Street, said the company’s new machine will benefit the whole manufacturing sector. Photo Store

Mississauga, ONT.-based Russel Metals has more than 60 large metals service centres around North America, so there has to be a reason it's invested more than $10 million since 2008 in new equipment at its Winnipeg centre on St. James Street.

Russel Metals is the sixth-largest company of its kind in North America, with annual revenue of more than $3 billion.

The company supplies metals of all shapes and sizes -- with varying degrees of further processing -- to end users and original equipment manufacturers in the building trades, the energy sector and manufacturing.

The Winnipeg shop is all about the region's manufacturing sector. Its customers are the bus makers, the agricultural equipment manufacturers, the trailer and RV companies -- more than 1,200 customers in total.

At the company's 125,000-square-foot shop on St. James Street, a new piece of equipment is being unveiled today that will level and stretch 0.6-centimetre thick pieces of coiled steel.

It is the first time this technology has been introduced in a Western Canada service centre.

The effect is the steel plates will have all of the give stretched out of it -- the 12-metre by 1.8-metre sheets are actually stretched an extra inch -- so when they are cut, shaped or processed in any way the sheet won't pop up, creating errors in the cut or damage to equipment and generally slowing down production.

Russel Metal's CEO Brian Hedges said over the past decade the western Canadian market has been the growth area for his company, including the energy sector in Alberta and the resource and manufacturing industries in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

"The manufacturing base in Manitoba is one of the few healthy ones in Canada," Hedges said. "Ontario is shrinking but Manitoba has always been good. It's got the ag equipment and buses and all kinds of things. We think it is the healthiest manufacturing area in North America."

He said Russel Metals is happy to throw money at a good market with good people.

Terry Vanstone, the longtime Winnipeg manager at the St. James location (Russel Metals has a small centre in Fort Garry and a warehouse on Inkster Boulevard), said, "The company would not make this kind of investment if it didn't think it was going to able to generate some return on that."

The 77,111-pound machine integrated into its cutting line is in addition to another major equipment upgrade in 2008.

Vanstone said he's pleased and proud his shop gets to roll out the new technology.

"This is not a really sexy industry," he said. "It makes the staff proud when we keep going up one rung on the ladder to get better technology to produce better products."

That is the kind of cycle Ron Koslowsky, of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, says breeds increasing excellence in the industry.

"That is bang on with what we think needs to happen -- investing in new equipment to be more current and relevant," Koslowsky said. "This is what's called being meaningfully unique."

Vanstone said in the past, Russel Metals and its customers just learned to deal with the challenges of cutting heavy steel that might buckle a little in the process.

But he said the new machine -- which took about a year to make at Braner USA Inc.'s Illinois plant and eight weeks to install -- will add productivity and efficiency to the manufacturing industry in the region and allow Russel Metals itself to provide more value-added processing to the massive coils of steel brought in from mills across Canada.

Since Russel Metals' customers are the manufacturers themselves, it's good news for the whole sector.

"This deals with supply-chain development," Koslowsky said. "You're only as good as the companies that supply you and the companies you sell to. If we can develop within our companies in Manitoba a better supply chain, more efficiency, better quality, new technology... that positively ramps up the value of the product and services and give us a competitive edge."

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 4, 2013 B6

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