Cottage country injection molder finds path to success
It's funny how things live up to their name sometimes. Take Ontario-based contract injection molder Niigon Technologies Ltd. After 10 challenging years and a recent $10 million revamping, Niigon (Ojibway for "the future") is finally securing...
It’s funny how things live up to their name sometimes. Take Ontario-based contract injection molder Niigon Technologies Ltd. After 10 challenging years and a recent $10 million revamping, Niigon (Ojibway for “the future”) is finally securing its own future.
It wasn’t easy – but then, Niigon has been unique from the word go. Situated on the shores of Georgian Bay, near Parry Sound, Niigon is wholly-owned by the Moose Deer Point First Nation.
The company was founded in 2001 with assistance from the provincial and federal governments and The Schad Foundation, a charitable organization set up by Robert Schad, founder and then-president and CEO of Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. Husky developed the 48,000-square-foot facility design and provided equipment, training, and managerial and technical support.
Behind the project lay a simple idea: to provide long term career opportunities in a community that had seasonal unemployment rates as high as 65 per cent. “In addition to creating jobs and developing work skills, Niigon’s profits would be re-invested in the community – to help build a child development centre, for example,” Schad said.
Given the expertise of Schad and his staff, Niigon should have been a slam dunk. But at first, it was more like an air ball. “Operating in a remote area isn’t easy, and Niigon ran into technical problems from the very beginning,” Schad said.
Topping the list of headaches were constant power failures and poor water quality. “For years, the facility averaged 40 power outages a month, many caused by falling trees, which meant 40 work stoppages a month,” said Steve Mason, Niigon’s general manager. “This problem alone prevented us from taking on new business.” The water situation wasn’t much better. “Initially, Niigon drew all its water from nearby wells, and it was full of minerals and not properly treated, resulting in molds plugging up due to scaling,” Mason said.
REVAMPING = REBIRTH
It wasn’t until Schad retired from Husky in 2007 that he was able to take a second look at Niigon. He didn’t like what he saw, but he knew what he wanted. “My goal was to transform the company into an efficient and profitable lights-out operation,” Schad explained.
To attain this goal, Schad and his team made a slew of changes at Niigon. One of the biggest? Solving the company’s power problem. “We invested heavily in an uninterrupted power supply, or UPS, and backup generators,” Mason said. “Now, when we do have an outage, our UPS provides enough power for us to run the plant until the backup generators start up. The system has the added benefit of conditioning the incoming power to provide the plant with consistent voltage.”
The water problem has been sorted, too. “The community now has full water supply with a treatment facility, and we’ve invested in systems in our own basement to further clean the water,” Mason said.
Other improvements include a new 25,000-square-foot warehouse, climate-controlled mold maintenance and storage areas, a state-of-the-art quality lab, and a new energy-efficient resin handling and storage system. “Part of the revamping process involved increasing capacity in all areas, including chilled water, tower water, and resin loading and storage,” Mason said. “Because we’re more remote than most processing plants, it’s important to have redundant systems in place.”
Other changes built on some of the facility’s existing strengths. “The building was originally designed to be one of the most environmentally-friendly of its kind – with 42kW photovoltaic solar roof panels, for example,” Mason said. “We’ve continued to improve in that regard, by adding a free cooling water system that takes advantage of the cold weather to chill our water about 200 days per year.”
Crucially, one potential challenge had been met successfully early on: the people. “There was a risk in introducing a new industry to an area that didn’t have a knowledgeable local staff,” Mason said. “Therefore, three years before the company opened its doors, a group of community members was sent to Humber College to train in injection molding, followed by two years at Husky to sharpen their skills. Today, three of those original trainees are on Niigon’s management team, and many other workers have been with the company from the beginning.”
With a staff of 22 full-time employees – more than half of whom live on the Reserve – Niigon is now emerging as a player in the PET preform industry and technical markets, and is hungry for other manufacturing challenges. “We’re closing in on our vision of becoming a fully-automated facility that can operate for 12 hours a night with no production personnel present,” Mason said. “With the strong team we have in place, and the recent technical changes we’ve made, the company is finally realizing its direction for the future.”