Wabash Mfg. Inc.
Issue Summer 12
Most businesses wouldn’t think of locating in an area where roads are scarce, but in the mining and oil industries a lack of infrastructure is the norm and rough terrain is expected. Perhaps the merciless paths wouldn’t be an issue if the work were contained onsite, but with materials constantly moving in and out, the means of transportation has to be reliable to the point of over-compensation.
Since 1981, Wabash Mfg. Inc., the result of a merger between Ron Riopel Welding and Westlock Machine Shop, has been doing just that by building trucks and tanks that can handle rough, remote roads. The founders, Ron Riopel and Ernie Hunt, who own Wabash, strategized that by combining forces they could manufacture and repair oilfield equipment in the Westlock, Alberta, facility while the Rainbow Lake, Alberta, facility focused on installation and servicing at the highly active Rainbow Lake oilfields of Northern Alberta.
Eventually, the company pulled back from its direct oilfield services and established plant fabrication of custom-designed, oilfield-oriented truck-mounted tanks and related equipment as its driving force. In the last few years, it has added the mining industry to its client list, to which it supplies tanks, trucks and high access platform lifts. The company’s growth strategy is simple: to give customers exactly what they need.
“Our strength has always been and continues to be our ability to understand and supply the customers’ wants and needs, while ensuring quality and compliance,” explains Dave Mortensen, general manager. All of the equipment is custom-built by Wabash or imported from another manufacturer and modified to the customers’ specifications. However, when it comes to tanks and trucks, the mining and oil industries have similar needs.
“The oilfield sector we serve is similar to the mining primarily in that our initial consideration is to the longevity of the product,” Mortensen says. “When things are new there are seldom many complaints, but eventually everything needs service and repair, so Wabash always bases its design and layout on ensuring that mud, ice, heat and other destructive inevitabilities are considered to minimize failure points as well as ease of repair.”
This is where the advantage of being an Alberta-based business becomes evident. Wabash builds equipment to be used in the mountainous terrain and harsh winter weather of its native province. The company has proven that its products hold up to its home base’s demands, so building for milder conditions is not an issue. Basically, if the product works in Alberta, it can pretty much work anywhere.
“We are fortunate to have an ace-in-the-hole in that we live in one of the most severe environments right here,” Engineering Supervisor Dan Hunt explains.
“Our customers in northern Alberta work in incomparable climate issues, so if we build to that standard, that means our products work extremely well in other places.”
Learning the Trends
Building from that strong foundation, the company monitors trends in each industry to better meet its clients’ needs. In the mining industry, for instance, Wabash has developed a line of lube and fuel transport and delivery products that address miner’s particular needs.
As environmental concerns and regulations have grown, Wabash developed secondary containment features to reduce the possibility of spills. The designers and engineers also go into minute detail regarding proper weight and center-of-gravity positioning, “due to the fact that most of the products we produce are used in the worst-possible conditions in the most inhospitable areas on the planet,” Mortensen says. “Even with the very comprehensive training and safety program our customers have implemented, it is not unheard of that road conditions and other semi-uncontrollable scenarios can create hazardous situations that we strive to consider when designing each product.”
In the oil industry, consolidation has resulted in a smaller customer base of larger companies. Although every piece is still built to order, Wabash has had to respond to new trends in this changing landscape.
“The equipment is getting much bigger lately than in the last few years, and a lot of technical changes with how oil companies are getting oil out of the ground and other things they are doing require more capacity,” Hunt explains. “Also, they are hauling the products much farther than before. They extract their light oils and may drive hundreds of miles to blend it with the heavy oil. Historically, they were only traveling 50 or 60 miles and now they drive hundreds of miles to get the right product blend so it can be more sellable.” Another change results from the chemicals used to extract oil: The coatings and materials used on Wabash’s products must be more corrosion-resistant today. Keeping all these demands in mind, Wabash works closely with each client to give it exactly what it wants.
“We are a solutions company,” explains Marketing Manager Blaine Harder. “Our customers are coming here and asking us to design a product that will work in their specific application, and that is our goal.”
From the time a customer calls Wabash to the time a product leaves the plant, the manufacturer performs most of the work in-house. The technical sales staff creates quotes based on customer specifications. The order then moves to a design team that creates a 3-D model for the client to review.
Wabash keeps an extensive inventory of several components and practices just-in-time delivery for the rest of them. “Other than severely oversized components, we are able to process all of our material on site and distribute it to the particular department for welding, painting, assembly or completion as required,” Mortensen explains. “When the project is complete, we have a rigorous testing and certification program which each unit is required to pass. Operator’s manuals are created, checked and supplied with each unit according to the client’s individual safety and training programs.”
The product is then commissioned and Wabash trains as many technicians as the client requests. Most clients make their own delivery arrangements, but Wabash has supplied this service in-house, as well.
“It has been to the customers’ and our very significant competitive advantage that all phases of the process are completed on site,” Mortensen explains. “This eliminates costly transfer costs, off-site subcontractor waiting times and the opportunity to pass the buck.”
The relationship, however, doesn’t end with the finished product. Mortensen says Wabash Mfg. Inc. has never been the cheapest option on the market, nor has it ever strived to be. Instead, the company focuses on meeting the customers’ exact needs before, during and after the manufacturing process. Wabash maintains full repair, service, inspection and recertification departments.
“Without after-sales support that carries on for the duration of the product life – or the clients’ company life, for that matter – it does little to promote loyalty from the customer and their continued confidence that Wabash is prepared to carry through with their commitment,” Mortensen says. “This has been a very important portion of the complete package we are able to provide the customer.”