In the last six to seven years, Prairie Machine & Parts (PMP) Mfg. Partnership has grown tenfold. Additionally, in the last four years, the company has doubled its work force and increased its operation’s square footage considerably, according to President Murray Popplewell. Considering the recent recession, most companies have not reported this level of growth, but, as Popplewell attests, PMP is nothing like the rest.
“We offer customers the complete mining solution,” he says. “We are small enough to respond to our customers’ needs, but we’re large enough to get the job done the right way.”
Popplewell explains that when he and Gary Redl founded PMP in 1977 to manufacture and repair heavy industrial equipment, their first goal was to build one machine. Today, the company is close to putting its 50th machine in the field and has rebuilt and repaired countless others.
“The company has exceeded our goals far greater than I ever expected,” Popplewell says.
A Continuous Pace
In recent years, much of the company’s growth is due to the expansion of the potash mining industry, as well as PMP’s ability to serve that market. PMP’s newest machine is a flexible conveyor – the Flexiveyor with Robotram technology – that PMP adapts to the needs of each mine.
The Flexiveyor enables mining operations to haul ore out of a mine at a continuous pace and convey the cars around corners and out of the mine, Popplewell says. The cars are connected in a way that allows them to convey in a certain pattern that is efficient and safe for the particular mine in which the Flexiveyor is working. PMP has about 20 Flexiveyors working in the potash industries in Australia, England, Mexico, New Mexico and Saskatchewan.
“We’ve been working on this machine for about 20 years – we built the first one in 1991, and as soon as we finished it, our engineers turned to us and said, ‘We think we can make it even better,’” Popplewell says. “We continued to perfect it until we were comfortable putting it on the market, but we gave that first prototype to one of our customers to try out. I said, ‘If it works, this is how much we’d like to be paid for it. If it doesn’t, just forget about it – no charge.’”
That first prototype must have met the needs of that customer, because it is still in use in the field today. With the growing strength of the potash market, PMP acquired a new building and is rehabbing it to become the manufacturing center for the Flexiveyor; that operation will be ready in June, Popplewell says. He notes that each conveyor is 300 to 500 feet long, so PMP needed more space for its production.
Built to Fit
Every mine is different, but PMP has been successful in adapting its products and systems to the needs of a particular site, Popplewell says. For example, the company added sonar capabilities to some of its products, which has aided in the machines’ ability to adapt to each mine’s lay out and challenges.
“The sonar bounces off the mine walls to ensure the machine’s computer understands where it is,” Popplewell says. “Mines don’t have flat and clean surfaces, so the sonar helps to keep the machines from slipping and falling. Additionally, if material falls from the mine roof, the sonar can steer the machine around the loose material and the cars attached to the machine will follow. It also helps with collision avoidance.”
PMP added that technology to its machines a couple of years ago, he notes, and so far the company has been “very happy with the results.” Retrofitting a piece of equipment is well within PMP’s skill set – the company’s in-house capabilities include engineering, manufacturing, testing, installation and commissioning services.
The operation also developed a support conveyor to follow the Flexiveyor, as well as an extensive range of other support equipment.
PMP’s comprehensive product offering also includes the:
- Xcel series of miners;
- Belt Storage Magazine for use in continuous haulage mining;
- Belt Winder, which is a driver for the belt for use with the Flexiveyor;
- Xcel forklift; and
- Xcel bolter.
PMP offers custom manufacturing and steel processing services to produce items to meet customers’ exact needs. Its custom items have included heavy-duty gearboxes, a belt fitter for improved roller maintenance, compactor rolls and shuttle cars.
“We spend a lot of time fitting our systems to the most mines that we can,” Popplewell says. “As mining advances, we have to provide new support equipment, so we always are listening to our customers’ needs. We are one of the only manufacturers in the world to make a complete mining system. Not every mine needs a complete system – some only need one part of it – but our capabilities offer added value.”
PMP’s work force – about 180 people at this time – deserves much of the credit for the company’s success, Popplewell stresses. The operation is based in Saskatchewan, he says, which primarily is an agricultural area that yields a hardworking population with strong work ethics. The company’s ability to hire employees from that base has been a boon to its business.
“We have an employee base that cares, and their strengths are supplemented by our ISO certification, which helps us manage in a way that we can ensure quality,” Popplewell explains. “We offer five different trades – engineering, welding and fabrication, machinists, industrial mechanics and the sales, marketing and procurement team. Those five areas cover our business, and they help us to manage quite easily.”
Popplewell is confident PMP’s work force will enable its continued growth, but PMP doesn’t want to grow at a rate it can’t handle. “We will grow how our customers encourage us to grow,” he says.
For example, he notes, PMP didn’t have a strategy to enter the South African market, but a customer asked the company to supply it with equipment in that location. PMP will continue to go where it is needed in the market, Popplewell says, and it will wait until new products are appropriately mature before introducing them to the market.
PMP sees a lot of opportunity in the U.S. coal market, and has a three- to four-year backlog of orders for the global potash market, which is keeping the company busy.
“This is a capital-oriented business and you need a lot of facility space to be competitive, and our location in Saskatchewan is helpful with that,” Popplewell says. “We have one distributor now in Australia, and we will set up different distributors to market to other geographic areas.
“I am just happy with how far we’ve come,” he adds. “We have people with hardworking ethics who can handle any situation, and a good management team to keep it all in line. All of this will help us continue to succeed.”