The Leap from R&D to Manufacturing

The ubiquitous Albertan pump jack is a bit like an iceberg. The top of it goes up and down but underneath there are two kilometers of steel going up and down right along with it.

Moving that massive weight costs oil well owners big money in electricity and presents a massive opportunity for Canadian Control Works. Based in Edmonton with eight employees, this company’s flagship product is the Enersaver. It turns the kinetic energy of the downstroke of a pump jack into electricity and sells it back to the grid.

If you’ve ever driven a hybrid or electric vehicle with regenerative breaking, it’s the same idea. Instead of just losing that energy to the atmosphere as heat it’s put to use. The Enersaver saves around 20 to 30 per cent of the electricity consumption on a given well.

By David Gray’s estimation there are 300,000 tonnes of steel doing this dance every day in Alberta. Gray – a lifelong utility guy who’s built like a football player – loves talking about his product.

“We sell a device that allows you to use significantly less electricity in such a quantity that it pays for itself typically in about a year.”

The Enersaver and all of CCW’s products (they also manufacture regular pump jack controllers) are manufactured in Alberta at their shop in South Edmonton. Gray loves their location.

“This is the best place on the planet to do oilfield R&D. Within a mile around us we can get anything made that we could possibly need. We can have guys turn out custom parts in an afternoon. We have guys that know everything about petro-geology, we have guys that know everything about artificial lift systems, it’s really an amazing conglomeration of experience and knowledge specific to the oilfield with that Alberta farmboy attitude, where you just find a way to make it work.”

CCW started off as an innovative little R&D company. An innovative little R&D company that is a big fan of rapid prototyping. The idea for the Enersaver went from being on the back of a napkin to field testing in 18 months.

Michael Lesanko is the head of product design. A while ago he was at the Oil Sands Symposium where he was doing a presentation on the Enersaver and in the audience were PhDs from Berkeley, MIT and Caltech. Lesanko, who grew up on a farm overheard them talking about ideas and products they had worked on where it was seven years in software design and four years in prototyping.

“Napkin to running prototype in 18 months. They ask how? I go, I didn’t sleep much and no one told me I couldn’t do it. I didn’t realize it was supposed to take 8-12 years,” says Lesanko.

When you innovate that fast however there are bound to be some bumps.

“Our innovation flow was: that piece caught on fire, that’s bad.”

Their continuous tinkering and improvement has meant a massive drop in their cost to manufacture an Enersaver. Their original product cost them $30,000 to build, now they’re down to roughly half that.

A big part of that is their supply chain and finding products within their supply chain which can fulfill many functions in a variety of products.

“The part count has to be as low as possible. We have to be able to use that part in product A, B, C, D and E,” says Lesanko.

As a small manufacturer with high labour costs, CCW stays laser focused on using on what they call off-the-shelf goods. The products they use might be for cars, offshore oil rigs or for the solar industry but they do their best to repurpose and use what’s easily available. It’s an interesting position: they are custom manufacturers trying to do as little custom manufacturing as possible.

These small manufacturers have big dreams. Our interview with Gray had to be cut short because of a conference call with some venture capitalists and Gray speaks of having $50 million in the bank to turn it into a serious company.

With the just-make-it-work mentality of Albertan farmer, an innovative product and a commitment to continuous improvement CCW and dozens of little manufacturers like it are why Alberta’s economy promises to lead Canada’s economy forward.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Sandquist

Read more posts about: Uncategorized