Toronto machine shop maximizes multitasking
Kelk has become globally recognized as a leader in electronic measuring equipment for steel and aluminum rolling mills, paper mills, and mining applications. The company was founded in 1953 by George Kelk, an engineer by education who previously was involved in the aerospace industry. Instead of remaining in this field, he decided to use the knowledge he acquired in strain gauge technology to develop sensors for the steel mill rolling industry.
Kelk has grown over the years, developing many sensors, but has remained focused on custom and high-precision production of load cells and other specialized opto-electromechanical equipment and components. In 2013 Kelk Corp. was acquired by Vishay Precision Group (VPG) and became Vishay Precision Group Canada.
“What differentiates the Kelk brand from our competitors is that our products are very robust,” said Stefan Georgiev, production manager at VPG Canada (Kelk) in Toronto. “A steel mill runs 24/7, and if the equipment fails, an hour of downtime can be catastrophic, costing anywhere between $60,000 and $100,000 in losses. If a mill decides to go with low-quality components, they cannot expect reliability. We offer high-quality and reliable parts for these mills. It is really a niche market we are working in, and this is why almost all our products are custom-built. Our best year was 2019 when we produced the highest number of load cells and optical systems for the steel mill rolling sector. We are really focused and specialized in this industry.”
Although the company’s sensors are used in steel mills all over the world – it exports 98 per cent of all production – the company’s headquarters are in Toronto. This location houses its head office, engineering, research, sales and services, as well as manufacturing.
The company’s machine shop with its seven CNC machines and five manual machines is relatively small compared to other operations. Over the past few years, the company has invested in new equipment to ensure that it is up to standards and can produce high-quality parts. The machine shop mainly produces load cells and parts for optics and electronics used in sensors and systems for steel mills.
“We’ve really been focused on updating the machine shop,” said Jimmy Glamcevski, machine shop manager. “We have always needed manual machines for repair of returned products or for fine-tuning parts, but they lead to painstaking and time-consuming labour. Since most of our products can be machined on a CNC, we have upgraded most of our machines to the latest and high-quality ones. We recently purchased an Okuma horizontal lathe, as well as a double-pallet vertical machining centre and a horizontal machining centre, and we are currently looking at adding another vertical machine. It’s been a slow but necessary process.”
When considering new machines, Kelk has focused on operations and specifications. It is not just about one brand or one type of machine; the shop needs to have many options to ensure that complex and custom components can be produced efficiently. The industry is very specialized, and according to Glamcevski, there are very few companies that produce the parts that Kelk does. The company produces only one or two finished parts per week, but those parts have tight tolerances and specifications.
When it comes to producing the load cell, the part comes into the shop as a very large forging, which is part of one of two families, either circle or rectangle. These forgings then need to be roughed, removing the scale. The shop primarily works with stainless steel, 17-4 PH, 420, and sometimes AISI 4340. Once the parts have been roughed, they are moved to a vertical or horizontal machining centre, depending on the features and specifications.
From there the parts move to a horizontal mill for deep-hole drilling, which Kelk specializes in. Many companies still use gun drilling, as did Kelk until about five years ago. After the shop invested in a machine that was precise enough to do deep-hole drilling, instead of spending 20-plus hours performing gun drilling operations, it could output one or two parts on the machine per day. At the end it uses a burnishing tool to enhance the surface quality.
“In these deep holes we are installing our strain gauges, so surface quality is very important,” said Georgiev. “Some of the slots have 60 or more strain gauges installed, and if one gauge fails, then everything fails. So, the most important feature of our machine shop is productivity, precision, and reliability. We produce load cells that can range from 300 kg up to 7,000 tonnes’ capacity, which is exceptionally high. However, when we are producing small load cells or small components, we need a machine that makes sense for those parts.”