British Columbia-based Saltworks Technologies has made a splash on the international water-purification scene with a proprietary invention. The company’s patent-pending product, an ion-exchange membrane that enables selective removal of different chemicals, purifies industrial waste water to reduce its environmental impact. The membrane is in high demand from industries such as oil and gas, mining, food and beverage, waste-disposal landfill—even NASA. As the world’s fresh water supplies shrink, the need to purify, recycle and reuse water is swelling.
To meet this burgeoning demand, the company’s manually controlled membrane manufacturing process had to be automated. To overcome the challenge of scaling up production to satisfy global customers’ needs for greater quantities, top quality and fast shipping, Saltworks enlisted the help of the Digital Technology Adoption Pilot Program (DTAPP) delivered by the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP).
Company president Josh Zoshi and his partner CEO Ben Sparrow realized that the key to eliminating the manufacturing bottleneck was a quantum leap into digital technology. “To make the membranes commercially, we need fully automated high-precision production lines,” he says. “But that type of equipment is very costly and comes with a steep learning curve.” Zoshi and Sparrow were also venturing into uncharted waters “developing a product that’s never been made before on technology that’s never been built before.” With DTAPP’s advice, guidance and funding, the 45-employee enterprise adopted the right technology to customize industry-standard lines and become a global player.
Diving in with DTAPP
According to NRC-IRAP Industrial Technology Advisor Doug Conyers, Saltworks had considerable intellectual property invested in the product and process, so wanted to keep it in-house rather than outsource any of it. “They had the internal expertise to automate membrane-building for faster production and higher quality, but needed help with the digital controls, debugging and production processes,” he notes.
All aspects of the production line are now controlled digitally—monitoring, alignment, quality control and measurements. The data this generates provide Saltworks with critical information about successful runs or problems that they can use to fine-tune future jobs. And automation has increased productivity, yield and quality.
Conyers reports that when DTAPP started working with the company, Saltworks had a “laundry list” of ideas for various technology adoptions across the company. He points out that small businesses have to “pick their battles and do it right, since you can’t do everything you would like given your limited time, resources and funding.” The company had been shopping for an enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution, but adopting it would have been premature. Adds Zoshi, “DTAPP convinced us that we needed to take the time to collect more information before launching into an ERP solution, and we’re glad we didn’t jump in.” With this in mind, Saltworks decided to focus on eliminating the biggest constraint to growth by automating the membrane production line.
"Digital technology has enabled us to market our products around the world and compete against the industry giants."
Riding the results wave
According to Zoshi, the most important outcome of automating the membrane fabrication was delivering the type of speed and quality that clients expect. He reports that production capacity on the new line is a solid seven times higher than before, but anticipates it will eventually be 20 times higher. Speed is affected not only by how fast the line moves, but also by how much time it takes to configure it between jobs. The faster it moves, the more it yields and the greater the chance of meeting client requirements. Automation has also substantially increased quality and reduced defects along with their related high costs.
Within two months of implementing digital technology, Saltworks has seen:
production speeded up seven times, heading toward 20x
jobs created for two employees
“Digital technology has enabled us to market our products around the world and compete against the industry giants,” says Zoshi. “Very few companies can produce this kind of membrane, and thanks to DTAPP and our proprietary technology—our ‘secret sauce’—we’re one of them.”