If you took a walk downtown this past summer, you probably strolled past a number of metal fabrication projects that escaped your notice. You may have seen the impressive buildings going up in ICE District, or the expanded patios of Jasper Avenue’s numerous restaurants and bars. Every single one of these projects rely on metal fabrication, a quiet yet essential aspect of Alberta’s economy.
Metal fabrication, the process of building structures and materials from raw metal products, in some cases, literally builds Alberta and its economy. Everything, from the smallest metal bracket custom-made in a shop to the gigantic metal structures in the oil sands, has relied on metal fabrication. While it grew with Alberta’s oil industry, it has always existed a little outside of that sector. As a result, metal fabrication in Edmonton has changed numerous times over the decades to succeed in the face of new challenges.
“Being so close to Fort McMurray and the oil sands means that the city of Edmonton has been built around the industry,” says Mike Muirhead and Jesse Rudiger-Aasgard, owners and founders of Edmonton’s Forge North Services. “Big roads, large industrial districts, and access to customers in all directions make Edmonton an ideal place for metal fabrication. Industrial work and tough winters breed a certain kind of mentality – we are a city of heart and hustle.”
That “heart and hustle” is in the numbers, too. Alberta is the third largest metal manufacturing and fabrication sector in Canada. The Edmonton region is home to 40 per cent of Alberta’s total manufacturing. In 2014, Albertan metal fabricators exported $4.3 billion worth of products while “60 per cent of the sector’s output was shipped to customers in the province,” according to a study by the Government of Alberta. Even three years ago, much of the industry was still focused on the oil and gas industry. Today, companies are changing their focus to innovate and develop to the new status quo.
Part of that new status quo is a change in what customers are looking for. GC Custom Metal, which was founded during another period of economic uncertainty, has seen the boom and bust cycle that has hit Alberta’s economy over the decades. Their secret to change is to think outside the box.
“We have actually grown during the downturn by expanding what we do,” says Darren Schmidt, GC Custom Metal’s CEO and general manager. “Being a small business, we can afford to be flexible, so we introduced machining into our offerings. So while it has affected our bottom line, our top line is growing.”
Beyond expansion, other shops have changed how they approach their client relations to succeed, listening to the new demands coming from a new economy. According to Michael Rachul, general manager of Special Metal Fabricating, the past few years have seen a shift away from scheduling to cost.
“Customers are now looking for a more economical way of producing what they need [and] want,” he says. “In the past during the oil boom, they were more worried about getting [the product] on time, or more importantly, as soon as possible. Now it seems to be a bit more thought out and trying other ideas to help save money for them and their customers.”
For Muirhead and Rudiger-Aasgard, economic difficulties were part of the game when they first opened in 2014. “Forge North was born in a very poor economy and has since operated in less-than-favourable economic conditions,” they say. “These lean times have caused us to operate in a lean manner, meaning we eliminate waste and redundancy wherever possible.”
The secret, according to the team at Forge North, lies in customer service and communication. “Requesting fabricated items can be intimidating and when people don’t feel comfortable, and details can be lost in translation,” they explain. “We have found that a friendlier approach to customer service allows for comfortable communication and mutual understanding of what the end product will look like.”
Rachul agrees. “We have increased attention on customer service and really asking the right questions up front with clients so they know what they are getting, and there are no surprises both for them and our team.”
Focusing on customer service has also helped Rachul’s company get leaner in lean times. “We have made changes [to] the design stage so, when it does hit the shop floor, the guys are spending less time asking questions and [more time] actually fabricating and knowing that when they are done, it is done correctly the first time.”
The recent construction boom in Edmonton has been a great help to local metal fabrication shops. GC Custom Metal was hired to develop custom metal brackets for the Enbridge Centre, which used the original bricks from the Kelly Ramsey Building that once occupied the same lot. Forge North has worked closely with many restaurants along Jasper Avenue, creating patio extensions that contribute to the development of [Edmonton’s] downtown core. Special Metal Fabrication has enjoyed a close relationship with CN and EIA, both of which have continued demands for professional, local metal fabrication.
Looking to the future, each company says there are many ways to help Edmonton’s metal fabrication sector maintain its success, namely through education, prioritizing local industry and encouraging sectors that will require metal fabrication.
“Edmonton, as a municipality, makes up a large portion of its industry, and we feel that the city could be more dedicated to local fabrication,” Muirhead & Rudiger-Aasgard note. “In terms of provincial and federal government, we would like to see more development grants offered to new entrepreneurs.”
Since metal fabrication equipment can be quite expensive, grants to help with those upfront costs can help young companies find their niche.
Rachul says local and provincial governments should take a hard look at the existing industries. “Because we have EIA and the CN rail yard, I think both the City of Edmonton and the Alberta Government should be really promoting accessibility,” he says. In looking to the future, Rachul hopes that metal exports will grow. “Historically we have been an oil province, but with greener innovation across the globe, we, as an industry, have changed to accommodate these products. [It] is no longer just provincial clientele, but international as well.”
Schmidt notes that there is a cost of being on the cutting edge, particularly when it comes to finding the right people for the job. Looking at his own company, Schmidt says expanding worker training, and education at schools like the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT), could help the industry become more versatile. “Alberta’s sector is still heavily focused on heavy metals while we have moved towards lighter metals,” Schmidt says. “Finding the right people has become very difficult. We sometimes find people with the right experience and expertise, but we have mostly had to find good people and then train them in-house.”
Edmonton’s landscape has been changed to meet the needs of its manufacturing sector and, in turn, metal fabricating shops both old and new have helped build the city. As it looks to the future, the industry will continue to rely on innovation and flexibility, all with a lot of heart and a lot of hustle.