Building the local economy
Moncton-based APEX Industries looks for homegrown talent to support global growth.
“One of the founding principles of this company in the 1960s was to provide an opportunity for good jobs in the local community. And that hasn’t changed. That is still part of our motivation today,” said Keith Parlee, President and CEO of APEX Industries, at the keynote address of this year’s DEX Expo in Moncton, NB. For Parlee, the purpose of the company is to employ people to do interesting, innovative work.
The over 200-person company is situated in Atlantic Canada and is a significant employer in Moncton, offering a wide range of job opportunities both on the design and operations side.
“We’ve been through a declining employee base for the last few years,” explains Jeff Dude, Group Manager, Product Development & Automation Group. “This year, however, that curve has finally shifted and going in the other direction.”
Being in Atlantic Canada can present some challenges, due to a less dense population base but Parlee and Dude are confident that APEX is poised for growth.
The company has five separate and distinct business groups servicing aerospace, construction and building (distribution), steel doors and frames, contract manufacturing and product design and automation.
“Atlantic Canada is a smaller area to do business, but a lot of our work remains here for our Group. We have customers in Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and right here in Moncton. And we serve a variety of markets, although we have done a lot in the food processing market,” Dude says of the newest group to join APEX, the product design and automation group, of which he is the manager.
This group was originally founded by Dude in 2003 as a turnkey machine design solutions company called MotionFab. For 10 years, the company remained small servicing the local geography. Dude realized, though, that expansion would require more capital and a larger footprint so, in 2011, he and his partners decided to become part of the APEX organization.
“Our niche has been where you can’t buy a process off-the shelf, whether it’s a depositor or applicator, or whatever you need,” Dude explains. “We think we can do it…and we do really weird things around here. Interestingly, most of our clients have stemmed from projects with the NRC-IRAP.”
One of the more notable of those projects stemmed from a very unique local challenge, smoking herring. On the East Coast, smoked herring is extremely popular yet the process for making this fish remains somewhat traditional.
Dude explains that the full cured process still includes lighting smudge fires on the floor and putting the herring on wooden drying canes or rods and hanging them up in smoke houses. In many cases, a forklift is the most automated piece of equipment involved in the process. In conjunction with one of its clients, APEX’s engineers are designing and building equipment to automate putting the herring onto the rods/canes and feeding them onto a line.
“That’s the kind of stuff that we have been doing,” Dude says. “It’s hard because every cane is different, every fish is different. It’s been really good for us and we’ve been able to support a lot of local companies get novel and custom processes started. We have really grown from these high risk ideas.”
However, Dude does caution that custom machine design, albeit very cool, is somewhat challenging when it comes to profitability. When something goes wrong, it usually goes really wrong. He adds that you are always starting a project with total uncertainty and hopefully remain in budget, but that can be hard to predict from the very beginning. However, the team has been successful in some areas with it.
“The real winner is the end client, who will use the developed products or machinery to drive success, hopefully for years to come,” Dude explains. “It was a real mindset shift for us.”
Dude believes that, as designers, APEX brings something different to their customers – getting involved at the idea stage and helping to figure out the necessary processes. For the most part, there are many companies that are able to design a machine to customer specifications. However, a customer must specify all capabilities such as whether the build needs to be five axis or how much travel is required.
“We are typically handed an end-product and told, we need to figure out how to make this,” Dude says. “Our involvement is in how to do that. And that’s one of the challenges. Once something is defined, it’s a lot easier to say how much it will cost to design and manufacture this machine. Our challenge has been figuring out how to come up with these ideas, prove out the concepts and then accept the liability of getting them implemented and making them happen.”
The biggest and most impactful changes to the Group is the work being done on developing their own intellectual property and equipment designs. The team’s emphasis has shifted to focus on the optical side of the business and they are currently working on developing ophthalmic lens solutions.
The turnkey coating solution was designed to go into an industrial equipment manufacturing application and is intended for a full automated approach to coat the back of prescription eye lenses. This project has demonstrated the need and expectation for 24/7 operations.
“What’s unique is we did all the process work on how to coat the lens, how does it work right through to how to implement it,” explains Dude. “We are using loader technology to control positioning, igus lubricant free bearing structures, DC motors, motion controls, Siemens controls… there’s a lot in the machine. And now we have a distributor right in Hartford, CT, and we have systems in labs across the U.S. We are here in Atlantic Canada but we are dealing with companies like Luxottica and Maui Jim. It’s kind neat for a small Canadian company.”
In January 2017, the company was chosen for a federal Accelerated Growth Service initiative, a program that coordinates government support for high growth companies in areas such as financing, advisory support, export and innovation services. Parlee thinks APEX is an interesting choice for this program and believes they will able to accomplish a five to seven year business plan within the next three and a half years.
“For me, that’s living out our purpose,” he explains. For example, Bombardier has been one of the company’s big clients for years. Over the past few years, the build rates fluctuated causing stress on the business. But now, APEX is seeing this business come back strongly. Much of the growth the company is seeing is for work outside of the region and any opportunity to expand locally, across Canada or internationally, is welcomed.
“You don’t find as many machine designers down here,” adds Dude. “What we’ve found is that we are growing people locally and that is a lot of fun. Almost all of our staff is out of the local community colleges and universities and, for us, that’s very rewarding.”