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Rick Gibbs, president of Neutron Factory Works. (Ben Nelms For The Globe and Mail)
Rick Gibbs, president of Neutron Factory Works. (Ben Nelms For The Globe and Mail)

MANUFACTURING

Superheroes of manufacturing keep the gears turning Add to ...

Imagine thousands of pounds of molten metal in the ladle of a broken-down crane.

That’s the kind of problem Warren Geraghty doesn’t need. If a crane or furnace processing molten metal stops working, “we can actually get into real trouble,” says Mr. Geraghty, who is foundry manager at Robar Industries Ltd., a Surrey, B.C., manufacturer of pipe products and castings.

That’s where Neutron Factory Works Inc. comes in. Its staff of roughly 40 includes electricians, millwrights, mechanics, refrigeration technicians, welders and software experts, making the company a one-call problem solver for manufacturers in British Columbia. Among its clients are a steel and rubber fabricator, a pharmaceutical biotech firm and commercial fishing boats.

Robar Industries relies on Neutron to keep its foundry running. An employee of Neutron, which is based in Delta, B.C., spends two days each week at the foundry doing routine work, but Neutron is also on call 24 hours a day for operational emergencies.

While new installations and upgrades are a significant part of Neutron’s business, what is unusual about the company is its focus on keeping production going. Its customers are concentrated in B.C.’s Lower Mainland, and when a client has a problem, Neutron staff can usually be there within an hour, says Rick Gibbs, co-founder and president.

Customers “can lose literally thousands of dollars a minute” when things break down, he says.

Pacific Bolt Manufacturing Ltd. in New Westminster, B.C., first called Neutron several years ago to fix a major equipment breakdown. Neutron had the plant up and running in a couple of hours, says Trevor Borland, owner of Pacific Bolt, but what impressed him more was that the company set out to find the cause so the problem wouldn’t happen again.

Neutron isn’t the cheapest option, Mr. Borland says, but if you spend 20 per cent more and the equipment doesn’t fail again for four years, it’s worth it.

More than half of Neutron’s business is in service, maintenance and emergency response. As they do at Robar, Neutron employees may spend time at a customer site each week to deal with routine issues and maintain equipment. Many factories are too small to hire full-time employees to do that, says Mr. Gibbs.

Neutron’s unusual business model partly reflects the nature of manufacturing in the Vancouver area. It’s very different from Ontario, Mr. Gibbs says – “95 per cent of business here is small business.” It’s not practical for factories with 20 to 200 employees to keep in-house experts.

What Neutron does isn’t always easy. “I’ve often compared it to running through a burning building and someone throws a Rubik’s Cube at you and you’ve got to solve it,” he quips.

Mr. Gibbs got his start as an electrician in Alberta in the mid-1990s. He then moved to Vancouver and started his own business. He began working with two other firms, and they formed a joint venture, Neutron Technologies, in 1999. “We saw an opportunity to do a better job by bringing all these skill sets under one roof rather than subcontracting everything,” says Mr. Gibbs, who became president in 2006. The company was renamed Neutron Factory Works, and today Mr. Gibbs and James Gibson are equal partners.

The company expects revenue of $5-million to $6-million this year.

Neutron encourages employees to learn new skills, and pays for training. “A lot of our electricians can weld,” he says. “A lot of our refrigeration technicians can do electrical work.”

Neutron’s trucks have specially designed shelving that allows them to be stocked with the tools needed to resolve problems.

If Neutron doesn’t have the right person available, Mr. Gibbs says he will call another contractor rather than keep the customer waiting.

Mr. Borland of Pacific Bolt says Neutron sometimes suggests improvements, too. They have helped the manufacturer cut energy use 15 to 20 per cent, Mr. Borland says, and safer, cleaner machinery boosts productivity.

“There’s a lot of good contractors out there that do aspects of what we do,” says Mr. Gibbs, but such a range of in-house expertise is rare.

“We believe our model will benefit the manufacturing sector and communities elsewhere in Canada,” Mr. Gibbs says, but he adds that doing it requires a network of strong personal relationships. “Our vision for expansion would include partnerships with well-trusted local contractors in other areas.”

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