Five years after Kevin McWhirter relocated his robotic welding business to Timmins, Autonomous Welding Inc. (AWI) is still one of the city’s best kept industrial secrets.
The company specializes in designing, building, and servicing robotic welding machines, which automate highly specific, repetitive welding tasks for customers.
But 100 per cent of AWI’s clients are located outside the Timmins area, by at least 300 kilometres in any direction, he said.
“The way our business is structured, all customers have always been remote customers anyway,” said McWhirter, who relocated to Timmins from Fergus to be closer to family in 2017.
“We were always travelling to support them, so it didn’t really change that model for us a lot.”
Still, the international welding technologist would love to secure more work closer to home, especially in the region’s burgeoning mining sector.
Currently, AWI services clients in Ontario, British Columbia, Québec and the U.S., primarily in power generation and the military, as well as for companies that manufacture fuel tanks and pressure vessels.
For one recent project, AWI designed a turnkey robotic machine that welds boilers big enough to heat entire buildings. The customer, which has clients in Canada and the U.S., sells boilers anywhere from 500 pounds up to 7,000 pounds, and AWI’s robotic solution is able to weld them all.
The detailed design element of the work is what intrigues McWhirter, who’s had stints with some of the industry's leading robotics firms previous to venturing out on his own.
“Personally, I really enjoy designing the machines, and I really enjoy the hands-on part of building it and coming up with concepts and the ideas of how to process, let’s say, a certain part,” McWhirter said.
“How can we make this work flawlessly and improve the customer’s efficiencies and still maintain or improve the quality?
“And that’s one of the things that I really, really enjoy, and thinking of innovative ways to do stuff.”
For the last two years, AWI has operated out of a 3,000-square-foot industrial building in the east end of Timmins, which is big enough to house its equipment and the machines it builds, while also leaving room for expansion as the 10-year-old company grows.
Along with McWhirter, AWI employs one other full-time employee, as well as one part-time worker. A third full-timer was laid off during the COVID pandemic as business slowed, but McWhirter is hopeful of hiring a salesperson in the near future, who would help bring in additional business.
“A lot of our business is word of mouth; past customers that are going on to their second or third machine,” he said.
Building a machine for custom welding work is a multi-stage endeavour.
AWI does all the design and fabrication work in house, and once a machine is complete, it’s put through its paces to ensure it’s working to customer specifications before it’s sent to its permanent home.
“We actually bring customers’ parts in and we set it up to test all the parts and make sure the machine’s actually able to produce the parts properly,” McWhirter said.
“Then once that’s done, we will ship the machine to the customer, we will go on site to the customer, and then we’ll get that machine up and running.”
This approach enables AWI to get the machine working quickly, reducing downtime and boosting customer confidence in the technology.
“Most of the machines we’ve been installing, including some very large machines, we’ve been able to install them within a week and have full production on the customer’s floor within a week," he added.
Although activity hasn’t returned to pre-COVID levels, interest in AWI’s services is again picking up now that companies are once again reevaluating their budgets and capacity for big projects, McWhirter said.
Even if companies aren’t ready to commit to purchase, he said, AWI can guide a discussion about how automation can smooth out processes and keep production running smoothly.
“We are experts in welding processes, but we’re also experts in robotics and building robotic machines,” he said.
“If it’s automated welding, we can definitely help with it.”