Pace of Business is Brisk at Collingwood Tech Firms
As the coronavirus pandemic moves into its third month in Ontario, tech businesses are finding surprising resilience. Not only have they adapted to changing conditions, but business impacts have been low.
Robot production at full tilt
ARO Technologies is a hard company to describe. A Collingwood firm that will celebrate its 30th year in business at the end of June 2020, ARO handles complex electrical engineering work, including sensor and control integration. They also build custom machinery, including robots.
“More and more companies are looking to include robotics in production,” notes Rick Redpath, ARO’s founder and President. “The technology, cost and cost savings equation works. We’re finding ourselves doing a lot more robotics work locally than ever before.”
Robots are useful in completing tasks that require uniformity and precision, like applying just the right pressure when sanding speaker cabinets, and in managing tasks that are simply back-breaking—like the inspecting, stacking and palletizing rolls of automotive seat belting that they will do for local business VOA Canada Inc. “We are currently looking into robotic pelletizing, as well as pick-and packaging in the fruit industry,” says Redpath. “There are applications everywhere.”
Deemed an essential service provider thanks to their work in wastewater plant controls with Town of Blue Mountains and Clearview, ARO put health protocols in place internally right away and was able to keep all staff working. “It’s full steam ahead, barring supply disruptions,” laughs Redpath. “Supply chain is really the only issue. We recently installed the electrical, controls and sensors for Bay Growers’ new 17-room apple storage plant in Thornbury. Our switch gear delivery was delayed 6 weeks. Let’s hope suppliers get back on track soon—it’s the only thing that’s slowing us down.”
Satisfying pent-up engineering demand
Crozier Consulting Engineers is an engineering firm focused on land development. With offices in Toronto, Milton and Bradford, the Collingwood-based business is a going concern. When Chris Crozier, founder and CEO, came back from a leave of absence on April 3rd 2020, the firm had the corona crisis well in hand.
“Covid began to brew in early March and we formed a Covid commission right away,” explains Crozier. “Before office closures were mandated, 100% of our employees were working from home.” Crozier credits his IT group, whose advice the firm had acted on several years previous, for the quick transition. “With WebEx™, video conferencing and virtual private networking in place, we were already set up to work from anywhere.”
One positive thing that the crisis stimulated was the hiring of a CFO. Crozier had been in search of the right person for the position for two years. “I thought, with this thing coming on we really need to be right on top of our finances,” explains Crozier. “We brought Dean Elliott, previously at BDO, on board. It was a great decision.”
Another thing that didn’t go by the wayside is the firm’s social culture. After- 5 cocktail parties on Fridays moved online, as did Euchre games and book club meetings. In fact, Crozier employees have come out with a Covid Cookbook – a collection of great recipes inspired by old-fashioned home cooking. “Business is looking good,” says Crozier. “A lot of people in this area are feeling bullish about the post-Covid world. I think that people are going to get out of the cities in greater numbers and this is one of the places that they are going to come.”
Ground-breaking equipment hanging in the balance
Medatech Engineering Services Ltd. specializes in designing and building custom industrial equipment, especially for the mining sector. Their three areas of focus are drilling, industrial electric vehicles and control systems engineering. Known to some as the ‘ninjas’ of the engineering world’, the company breaks ground on many fronts, notably in drilling and in electric vehicle powertrain technology.
Going into the coronavirus pandemic, Medatech’s business was strong—the company has been expanding quickly for several years now. That level of business has not slumped, but the company’s ability to produce equipment did suffer during March and April 2020. “We’re very hands-on,” explains Robert Rennie, Medatech’s founder and President. “We don’t build the same thing every day—hardly ever, in fact, so there’s a whole lot of tight project management going on.” The company quickly adjusted to new ways of working and now most of the team is back, with new health and safety protocols in place, even keeping their commitment to bring on summer interns. “We don’t really know what the long-term effects will be, though,” notes Rennie. “We haven’t been able to travel, which is a key part of the business development process.”
Travel restrictions are a big problem for other reasons, as well. Medatech recently completed building a 100,000-pound geotechnical drill for dam remediation, a partnership project with electric utility Alabama Power. “The drill is quite a technological leap compared to anything that’s out there,” explains Rennie. “The drill is in Calgary, ready to ship, and they need us down there to train them on it,” explains Rennie. “But our guys aren’t going to quarantine for 14 days before and after a trip—that’s just not realistic.”
For Medatech, electric conversions are a growth area, especially for mining equipment. One area of interest is dump truck conversions for open pit mines. “We’ve been having a lot of conversations about diesel-to-electric conversions. Industrial diesel engines produce more CO2 than anything else in the world, so we see this as a game changer.” The company has an all-electric 24-ton Western Star 4900 XT ready to go for demos with Anglo American, Vale and Teck Resources in the States, Chile and here in B.C. but shipping is on hold. “We need to get in front of people, get our products in front of people,” states Rennie. “I hope that happens sooner than later.”