Punching Above Their Weight
Small Ontario machine builder makes a virtue of being nimble.
A bit of advice if you’re looking for Allegro Industries Ltd. in Orangeville, ON: Don’t blink, you might drive right past it, maybe more than once. With tiny signage on a tiny frontage, it’s not what one might expect of a machine builder supplying some of the biggest names in Canadian food processing.
Allegro is a tight operation – typically about 14 employees, including 10 in the shop – with a lean supply chain that includes just one vendor for electrical systems and Festo Canada for all pneumatics. For one of its recent jobs – designing and building a custom crate de-stacker for a leading national brand – its shop compressor wasn’t large enough to test the pneumatic systems on the 9’x15′ machine. It had to rent a larger one.
Just as Allegro’s 29-foot frontage opens up to a much wider area in the back for manufacturing, there is more to the company than meets the eye. Like other small Canadian machine builders, it has focused on special customer needs to carve out a profitable niche in a marketplace overshadowed by very large OEMs.
In music, allegro means a brisk or rapid tempo. What Allegro lacks in size it makes up for in flexibility, as it demonstrated in meeting a particularly aggressive timetable for designing and building that crate de-stacker for the live cargo receiving area of a major brand-name food processing plant in southern Ontario.
Another machine builder had submitted a proposal to the plant management that included a delivery time of 40 weeks, says Allegro president and co-owner Erik Nielsen, who handles his company’s sales. “They said to me, can you do it in 16 weeks, or even 12?” They also wanted 99.9% availability. The plant runs two shifts a day, 7½ hours each. “If that machine is down for more than two minutes a day, it’s below 99.9%.”
This customer has decentralized production to serve markets from coast to coast. Managers at each plant have some latitude in making their own equipment investments that fit their particular operational needs and physical layout. This crate de-stacker “was a very, very customized piece of machinery,” says Nielsen. “If I build another one, I’ll be really lucky. It was basically up to me to decide what the value of the risk was worth for Allegro.”
Doing such one-off jobs is not worth it for many larger OEMs. “A lot of it is the size of the equipment being built,” says Willy Forstner, National Industry Segment Manager for Food and Pharma, at Festo Canada. “The larger OEMs tend to focus on much larger scale projects where they can use their skills and resources to supply complete lines. So there is always opportunity for outfits like Allegro.”
At the customer, the de-stacker is mounted on a large scissor lift. On each arriving truck, the 2’x3′ crates are arranged 12 high in double stacks of six each. Workers on the truck slide three such six-crate stacks onto the de-stacker, which is then lowered to the plant floor. The machine dissembles the stacks by lifting all but the bottom three crates, which are pushed onto a conveyor and into the plant. The de-stacker can process an average of 14.5 crates per minute, 875 per hour, or about 7,000 units of the cargo. Until this machine was built, the crates were unloaded manually and tossed off the trucks down to other workers, subjecting the crates and their live contents to occasional mishaps. The de-stacker eliminated two jobs on the floor per shift and makes sure the unloading process will always be as humane as possible.
Shortening response times
Having a lean supply chain – Nielsen has used the same electrical vendor, S. A. Controls, for 22 years – also helps Allegro meet very tight turnaround times, beginning with the initial quote. Within days of being offered the crate de-stacker job, Allegro’s engineering manager, Darcy MacCoubrey, had a preliminary design concept to share with the two vendors so they could work up detailed quotes.
“It was crucial for us to make sure that we understood the application and the environment that the machine was going into and then recommended the right products for the task,” says Forstner. “Once we established the components required, we then involved our customer solutions department.”
A project manager was assigned to work out the details of the crate de-stacker with MacCoubrey. Festo supplied a quote within two days that specified delivery of all components and the control system within 4-5 weeks. It covered a wide range of products, from DNC cylinders, DFM guided drives, and stainless steel to corrosion resistant CRDSNU cylinder assemblies – which feature Festo’s new self-adjusting, end-position cushioning – as well as an air service unit and stainless steel electrical enclosure.
The benefit of Festo is that they are more than just a pneumatic supplier; they are a true automation partner that can support both from the pneumatic side but also from the control requirements. Nielsen likes Festo’s solutions-based project support, its comprehensive catalogue – “they have every part we ever need” – and that Festo cylinders don’t have to have lubricated air, which is critical.
“In a food plant, the last thing you want spewing out the exhaust ports is lubricated air,” he says. “The people there are doing everything they can to create surgical air in that room where they are dealing with ready-to-eat produce. So that’s been a real bonus.”
Aesthetics also play an important part in the appearance of food and beverage equipment as most are subjected to frequent and aggressive wash-down processes, says Nielsen. Formerly, Allegro used multiple pneumatic vendors, but that increased the time to get the machine designed because of the extra meetings needed to discuss the project. Incorporating parts from multiple vendors also impacted the machines’ look, aesthetically and increased spare parts inventory, which is the opposite of what most companies are trying to achieve.
“Besides,” adds Nielsen, “the clean silver color of Festo cylinders matches the color of our mechanical structure, which makes the entire machine look clean – perfect for the food industry.”