Sidney manufacturer proves big things afoot on the Island

A massive coal stacker-reclaimer destined for North Vancouver is taking shape in a cavernous, non-descript hangar tucked into the industrial park east of Victoria International Airport.

The 231-tonne machine, which will sling and stack coal when its behemoth individual components have been manufactured and welded together, is a first for United Engineering, but it is also the legacy of a century-old staple of the Victoria manufacturing sector, Ramsay Machine Works, and an example of the kind of work that can still be done on the Island.

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Ian Maxwell, founder of the Ralmax Group of companies that includes United Engineering, said this kind of massive project was not on his radar when United bought Ramsay in 2015 and stepped into its Sidney space.

“But United Engineering needed to distinguish and define itself,” he said.

And with Ramsay president Greg Ramsay assisting with the transition and introducing Ralmax to Ramsay’s suppliers and clients — Ramsay continues to consult for United Engineering — it was probably just a matter of time.

In 2013, Ramsay finished work on a $20-million coal slinger, also destined for a terminal in North Vancouver. That project was used to move coal between stockpiles and vessels at the shipping terminal and translated into nearly two years of work for 60 people at Ramsay.

It also meant an estimated trickle-down economic impact of three or four times the $20-million pricetag when the number of subtrades and contractors were taken into account.

At the time, it was something of a statement from the B.C. fabricating and manufacturing industry that this kind of work could be done in the province, even tucked away on the outskirts of Sidney.

It also opened the door to work for Ramsay in the oil-and-gas and marine industries.

Maxwell expects this project, which will plant a flag for United Engineering, could do the same.

“This may only be going so far as Vancouver, but there’s no reason we can’t be building things for the oil industry here in Victoria,” he said, noting United has the advantage of access to Patricia Bay via the airport lands, and a laydown and assembly area at its Point Hope Shipyard where this stacker-reclaimer will be assembled, tested and then shipped across the Strait of Georgia.

The machine itself is simply huge.

When its components are finally put together, it will be 30 metres tall with a 47-metre boom. It’s so tall, Transport Canada will require a navigation light on the top.

Its three main components — slew bed or main body, frame and gantry, the platform that will move at the terminal — weigh a combined 231 tonnes.

Its size reflects the impact the project is having on the company.

It will represent an estimated 60,000 man hours for United staff — 45 workers toiling for 16 months — and a massive spinoff effect for subtrades, contractors and suppliers in the region.

And United could do with more hands on deck — the company is hiring skilled workers for a slew of positions.

Maxwell says people should not be surprised these kinds of projects can be tackled in the region.

“Victoria can do a lot of those things,” he said if the industrial companies are given the chance. “People don’t seem to get that if you can build a bridge in Shanghai and get it to Victoria, you can also get anything from Victoria to Shanghai.

Marcus Ewert-Johns, president of the B.C. Alliance for Manufacturing, agreed there should be no surprise at what B.C.’s manufacturers are capable of, but he did suggest most of them have either found a niche in the marketplace or have developed into one of the best in the world at what they do in order to survive.

“Manufacturing doesn’t get the airtime it deserves here,” he said. “We have been asking government for years for a strategy to help build the industry.”

He said a strategy might include an industrial land reserve to protect the economic drivers of the province, opening up immigration to deal with the large number of jobs that sit vacant, and incentivizing some industry to move from expensive areas such as the mainland to the Interior of the province to take advantage of cost savings, land and a skilled workforce laid off by the downturn in forestry.

On the subject of available land, Ewert-Johns said it sometimes feels like we have all “forgotten that you need to employ the people” and instead have simply moved on to building housing for them.

The problem and limitation in B.C., according to Maxwell, is the vision to see what’s possible and the way this province has used its industrial land.

Maxwell is the first to admit he has blinders on when it comes to land use — where some see the chance to build housing or retail space, he defaults to the chance to get to work by setting up a crane and a barge.

He believes there was a mindset at one point that industrial property, especially that around the water in this region, should be developed into things such as housing.

“I think that’s why a lot of property was developed on the water here, because people assumed we wouldn’t be manufacturing things anymore.” he said, adding many industrial land owners likely stopped investing in their properties because they didn’t see a long-term future.

Maxwell expects owners, under pressure to develop, became risk-averse. And when investing and modernizing stops, industrial businesses die.

While no one can turn back time and reclaim that developed industrial land, Maxwell, who has floated the idea of an industrial land reserve in the past, says that land can be used better.

“We have to recognize we have lost a huge amount of industrial land, so that means we have to use what’s left more effectively,” he said.

That means less pressure on industrial land owners to redevelop seemingly dormant parts of their sites, and building new infrastructure more intensely — which means building it higher rather than spreading it out.

“We have to intensely use property because it’s too precious not to,” he said.

Maxwell’s Point Hope will be put to full use later this year when the components of the stacker-reclaimer are finished.

The individual parts will be loaded on flat-bed trucks at United Engineering and rolled after hours along the airport runway to a barge at Patricia Bay. From there they will travel to Point Hope to be assembled and tested.

A concrete foundation has been poured at the north end of the shipyard for that reason.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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