Nov 28, 2023

Specialized success

These are seamless copper tubes that Nu-Tech extruded, then the plug end and the flange end are electron beam welded on each end of the tube. The tube is part of a set of matching tubes (usually in groups of 12 or 14) that are put vertically, side by side, into a glass coating machine. Sheets of glass pass by these tubes and they rotate at a very fast pace and in conjunction with magnetization, fine particles of the copper "sputter" off to coat the sheets of glass as they pass through the machine. These large sheets of glass are used in Smart TVs, smart phones, touch screens, etc.

In an era of fierce domestic and international competition, Nu-Tech Precision Metals of Arnprior, Ont., has built its success on providing what few others can.

Nu-Tech is a major North American manufacturer of seamless titanium pipe and tube, and it offers numerous specialized services to its customers in Canada and abroad. Recently, its international success was recognized with a 2016 Ontario Export Award, a development that puts the company alongside others in various economic sectors that are also deftly navigating the global marketplace.

Nuclear Pioneer

In addition to being able to produce standard and non-standard pipe sizes in just about any alloy, Nu-Tech is the sole supplier of zirconium alloy pressure tubes for Canada's nuclear industry.

"Our base business is the nuclear industry and from the company's start in the mid-1950s as the R&D division of a large American brass manufacturer, we’ve made all the pressure tubes that form the core of every CANDU (CANada Deuterium Uranium) nuclear reactor in the world," explained President George Legate. "As the nuclear industry requires intensive quality assurance and thus high overhead costs, it has made sense to diversify into other markets that have similar demands, namely the aircraft, defence, medical and electronics sectors."

Indeed, Nu-Tech was an industry pioneer in developing a process to extrude zirconium and titanium into pipes and other shapes. The company also produces titanium-clad copper and platinum-clad titanium conductor bars for corrosive environments. It has also gained worldwide recognition as a trusted manufacturer of fabricated and welded components using copper-based and nickel-based alloys, niobium, hafnium, tantalum, beryllium and steel. The firm's large machine shop and metal finishing department provide secondary operations such as cold drawing, honing, and centreless grinding.

Electron Beam Welding

In 1997 Nu-Tech purchased its first electron beam welder, and remains to this day Canada's only commercial electron beam welding facility, with the capability to weld tubes and pipes up to 30 feet long. The firm later added a second, larger welder, and to ensure ongoing reliability, both machines were completely rebuilt about eight years ago.

"It was essentially a full replacement of components, to make them like new," said Legate. "The process took about a year and involved shutdowns of the welders in stages. It was necessary as the maintenance of these machines is extremely specialized and there are long delays if there is a breakdown."

As Nu-Tech's website explains, electron beam welding (EBW) is a high-energy fusion welding process that uses an intense, narrow beam of electrons. Using high voltage, the electrons are accelerated to between 1/3 and 3/4 the speed of light, creating a highly concentrated energy beam. This narrow beam can be used to create deeply penetrating, narrow welds between metal parts.

Ongoing contract to EBW to repair suspension components for armoured personnel carriers.

Unlike other fusion welding processes, EBW permits the joining of similar and dissimilar metals and materials without the risk of contamination from oxygen or nitrogen.

Specialized Business

Being able to offer a range of niche welding capabilities has enabled the company to secure large projects involving both fabrication and the supply of raw materials. Legate gives one example in which Nu-Tech was awarded a contract to supply all the plutonium transport piping for a facility being built to convert plutonium into nuclear reactor fuel. Having the ability, he noted, to weld to nuclear standards allowed Nu-Tech to quote both the material, which was the majority of the order, as well as the welded components. "The fact that the client could source the entire contract with one supplier greatly assisted in securing the deal," he said.

Another example involves the supply of sputtering tubes made of pure copper. The heavy-wall tubes, 2 meters in length, are used inside vacuum chambers to deposit the circuitry of smart TVs and plasma displays. Legate explained that because copper is extremely thermally conductive and the surface finish of the tubes is critical, EBW was the only way to weld the finished machined components together. Nu-Tech employees extruded and machined the tubes, and then used EBW for assembly.

Since the company became a separate entity in 1960, there have been many changes, but Legate said one that stands out is the procurement of raw materials. "It has become extremely regimented, and quality control in general has really tightened up," he said. "This is the way the aircraft, defense and nuclear industries function. We have to continuously justify why we are using the suppliers we’re using and that our materials meet quality requirements of various industry and governmental agencies. While our high overhead costs and quality culture restricted our competitiveness and left us with diversification possibilities only in high-end markets like aerospace and defence, we are fortunate that these markets – along with our domestic nuclear market – are all extremely strong right now."

Nu-Tech won the 2016 Ontario Export Award in the Manufacturing & Resources category, medium size division. The awards are organized every year by, part of Annex Business Media, and are supported by HSBC Bank Canada, SYSPRO Canada, and many other sponsors. Legate said he appreciates the way the award helps secure new business. "In Europe, for example, we’ll get asked if we export a lot and how long we’ve exported," he noted, "and we say ‘Yes, we export all the time; about half our business is export to about 21 different countries, and hey, we just won this provincial export award.’ And so it's another thing to add to the mix in terms of our credibility."

In Legate's opinion, one of Nu-Tech's more important keys to success is having experienced employees.

"We have great applicants, we do a lot of training, and we want to keep people," he said. "We have great relationships with our employees, which means we can concentrate on growing the business. We have a full-scale ball hockey rink inside the plant and a fitness facility, and we run various events throughout the year to show appreciation for our workers. We make it a place people want to come to."

One of Nu-Tech's operators using one of two electron beam welders the company has in house. This machine is a 6 kW (kilowatt) machine with an 18 in. cube chamber with 10 in. diameter extension ports. It has a 32 ft. long capability.

Nuclear Pioneer Electron Beam Welding Specialized Business