Orion Plastics is on the hunt
This Alberta-based sheet extrusion maker has been killing it in that sector for a long time now, and the pandemic has allowed it to pivot into becoming a major supplier of N95 and 3-ply medical masks.
Named after the greatest hunter in Greek mythology, Orion is one of the brightest and most recognizable constellations in the night sky – so if you’re going to use it as the name of your company, you have a lot to live up to.
Orion Plastics Inc. might even be exceeding it.
The St. Albert, Alta.-based company has been doing business for over 20 years as a manufacturer of custom extruded plastics sheet products for the heavy-gauge vacuum forming industry. As one of Canada’s largest sheet extrusion companies, with shipping across North America and overseas, Orion has been killing it in that sector for a long time now, serving thermoforming companies, distributors, and fabricators that make hockey rink siding (including for the NHL), vehicle dashboards and interior panels, marine and recreational vehicle parts, garden and agricultural equipment, and more; and since the coronavirus pandemic broke, the company has launched into a second specialization as a producer of non-woven fabrics – in particular meltblown polypropylene (PP) non-woven fabric – for the manufacture of N95 and three-ply Level 3 medical masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19
Orion Plastics was founded in 1999 by engineer and entrepreneur Wayne Minion as a family business, and by 2011 it had grown to approximately $10 million in sales but without much profitability, and the Minion family was looking to wind down the business. Which didn’t sit well with a core group of employees. “My colleagues Greg Makar, Nuno Branco and myself had been with Orion almost since the beginning, and we grew up in the business together, invested a lot of sweat equity in it, and didn’t want to see it end,” said Stephen Moore, Orion’s president. “We bought the company in 2014, and very quickly doubled its sales: this past year was our highest in sales growth, and revenue.” Orion currently has about 60 employees – a number that grows every year – and operates from a 62,000-square-foot fabrication plant in St. Albert’s Campbell Business Park. The company has been ISO Certified since 2003, and is currently ISO 9001:2015 certified and Certificate of Recognition (COR) safety certified.
One key to Orion’s success, Moore said, has been maintaining the flexibility and service-oriented outlook of a smaller firm despite having become much larger. “Before us, the plastic sheet industry was being serviced by large suppliers that weren’t able to listen to what the customers’ requirements were,” he said. “We do listen; customer service is important to us. As we added more manufacturing capacity and more equipment and more employees, we’ve worked hard to maintain the same formula we had as a smaller company, and we work hand in hand with freight suppliers to offer aggressive pricing and on-time deliveries across North America.”
Second, Moore continued, Orion has the right people in place in the right jobs, beginning with the trio of owners. “I worked my way up in the business, from shop floor to management, and I’ve always tended towards a leadership role, which was a natural fit.” Moore said. “Nuno is the VP of Operations and is incredibly good at achieving operational excellence and building a team; and Greg is the VP of Sales and Marketing, and is a polished, incredible salesman and the public face of the company in many ways, which suits him. The three of us have similar values and work well together.” And the rest of Orion’s leadership team play key roles too. “Trying to get all 60 employees to march in order toward a common goal is very challenging, and our Plant Manager Ronald Kumar – who is a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt – is invaluable here,” Moore said. Other key personnel include Joseph Provenzano, Sales and Customer Support Manager; Lloyd Espiritu, Operations Coordinator; Deon Persaud, Production Manager; and Shaun Pregizer, Maintenance Manager.
Third, the company invests where it can to increase organizational efficiencies and decrease operational costs like natural gas and electricity. “We have one of the largest solar arrays in Edmonton and St. Albert on the roof of our building, and we produce approximately one million kW h per year of solar production,” Moore said. “We also undertook an energy efficiency review a few years ago that led to some key operational changes, including creating a new Metric Board System to track our actual outputs on each production line and completing LED lighting conversions across our plant.” Another important change was the installation of a new measurement system to determine overall equipment efficiency by tracking the uptime, downtime, and set-up time for each order. In the span of one year, Orion has saved over 382,000 kW of electricity (a seven per cent decrease) and nearly 1,300 gigajoules of gas (a 17.7 per cent decrease). “These savings not only help our bottom line and improve business competitiveness, they help us track and evaluate our progress, enabling data-informed continuous improvements to be made over time,” Moore said. “We have some of the tightest turnaround times in North America, and less waste means better time management and that helps us deliver our products more quickly and efficiently.”
Fourth, Orion chooses – and uses – its material suppliers carefully. “We have rail access, and we import raw materials from around the world,” Moore said. “Different resin and specialty additive suppliers are best suited for different applications, and the secret isn’t working with the cheapest suppliers, but with those that have the best balance of attributes: cost, quality, performance, and deliverability.”
Finally, Orion follows the 80-20 rule. “During our restructuring, we focused our efforts on the top 20 per cent of our customers – they were the best in the industry, having just weathered the financial crisis in 2008-2009 and come out stronger,” Moore said. “We still stick to this principle today, focusing on our core customers and exceeding their expectations, instead of trying to be everything to everyone.”
Powered by all of these tailwinds, Orion entered the new decade going strong. And then the world changed. “The first three months of 2020 were business as usual for us, but then as the pandemic took hold we had a reduction in business, like many manufacturers,” Moore said. Unlike many manufacturers, however, Orion occupied a position of strength. “We have a very strong economic moat around our company, and a lot of working capital,” Moore continued. So, when the Alberta government activated its Bits and Pieces Program – created during World War II so that businesses can submit unsolicited offers of products and services to help others during an emergency or disaster, which the pandemic plainly was – Orion was able to invest for a quick pivot into servicing mask makers. “There was a demand for N95 and 3-ply medical masks, but Canada was short of meltblown PP non-woven fabric because that infrastructure was off-shored years ago,” Moore said. “We were given an order to produce masks, so we reshored it.” The company bought three meltblown PP non-woven lines and flew them to its plant, where they were assembled between April and June 2020. “While we were waiting, we built an 8,000 square foot Class 8 cleanroom for production and in-house testing equipment to verify a PFE and BFE rating of 98 per cent,” Moore said. “The machines were commissioned in July, and we’re now making N95-grade material for mask suppliers throughout Canada and are also working on developing the holy grail of masks: the N99 for the European Union.”
Like many plastics processors thrown into the deep end of mask making, it’s been an adjustment for the Orion staff, which was increased by 12 workers to take on the new workload. “Learning about the medical industry in general has been like drinking from a firehose, and working with medical grade meltblown PP is very difficult if you don’t know what you’re doing,” Moore said. “We developed our process with help from ExxonMobil, LyondellBasell, and our additive suppliers, and our product is much better than the meltblown PP tested coming from China. Although this has been a small part of our business, it’s rewarding to be part of the solution, and we’ll support the government in making masks as long as necessary. And I see us having long-term relationships with some of our new mask supplying customers going forward.”
And as pandemic restrictions have loosened, Orion’s traditional end-markets have come back to life. “Vacuum forming is still the core part of our business, and is now doing better than ever,” Moore said. “We supply to the RV and marine among other sectors, and when the economy reopened and no one could fly, everyone wanted to go camping or boating.”
Whenever it is that the crisis finally ends, Orion’s owners, management and staff will likely look back on the pandemic as marking a breakthrough into a new echelon. “We were doing very well before, and we’re still doing very well, but now we’re now looking at partnering with our customers to do things that are even more amazing – including with automobile electrification – so the sky is the limit,” Moore said. “We’re very aware of disruptive technologies like 3D printing and additive manufacturing, and we’re building these into our future business models; and I’m a member of the TEC Canada global networking and leadership development program, which Orion can draw on. Put it all together and we’re a big challenge for other players in our sector to compete with. We think the name Orion says a lot about us: it’s ‘the Hunter’, which is a great thing to be if you’re in the plastics industry.”