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Grace Under Pressure

Jan 19, 2002

by Ian McKinnon

Thixotech reaches #19 with its innovative manufacturing processes

The raw product, a mix of magnesium, aluminum and other alloys, glitters like metallic snowflakes under the bright lights of Thixotech Inc.’s manufacturing plant.

After applying a lot of heat and pressure through some large and expensive machines, the finished products can be found in everything from computers to heavy duty power drills, a testament to the durability, strength and versatility of magnesium.

“It’s more expensive than the cheap, plain vanilla plastics which your and my cell phones are probably made of but it’s less expensive than what they call engineered plastics, which are really sophisticated products,” says Neil Bowker, chief executive of Thixotech. “You can also make a very fine looking cosmetic part like the case for an LCD projector.”

The Calgary firm is a leader in North America in Thixomolding, a developing technology that is challenging plastic and die cast (metal) in some markets, such as higher end consumer electronic goods.

Bowker says his firm, named after the process of using a semi-solid mixture for injection into molds, is successful because the technology has numerous advantages.

Magnesium is light but strong. It excels in thin-wall applications, where tolerances are very fine, and enables complex molding, which allows customers to combine into one part what used to be two or three separate pieces. It also inhibits electromagnetic and radio frequency interference, crucial to digital products.

The downside of Thixomolding is its higher cost. The technology, originally developed by Dow Chemical Co., also lacks the trained workers, off-the-shelf products and educational infrastructure that support the mature plastic and die industries.

Despite the challenges and a recession, Thixotech is moving ahead rapidly. The number of employees is rising, doubling to almost 200 by the end of 2001, while sales in 2001 are expected to surge by a near identical amount to an estimated $14 million. The firm ranked 19th on Alberta Venture’s list of fastest growing companies.

Started in 1990 as a division of Amptech Corp., Thixotech was spun off in 1996 as a separate company and recently sold to an American firm called Zenith Group.

While Fortune 500 firms such as Black & Decker and Hewlett-Packard are current customers, entering the automotive industry is an important objective for 2002, Bowker says.

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“It’s an industry in which we can really grow,” he explains. “But it’s an industry where they want to see what other applications you have already done in that industry, so we have to get our foot in the door.”

Dave Ghosh, a former Alberta Research Centre materials expert who worked for six years with Amptech, says magnesium’s advantages should open doors for Thixotech in automotive applications.

“I think they have a huge potential,” says Ghosh, now a vice-president with fuel cell maker Global Thermoelectric Inc. “The auto makers are all looking at reintroducing magnesium and even going back to replacing some plastic parts because the plastics do not have enough strength.”

While the Calgary company is the only Thixomolder in Canada and one of a handful in North America, other firms are taking notice of its success.

Husky Injection Molding Systems of Ontario, a major maker of plastic injection molding equipment, is developing a line of Thixomolding machines that could hit the market this year.

Pierre Pinet, a product manager with Husky, says Thixotech is doing a good job of selling the value of Thixomolding.

“They seem to one of the companies that is really embracing the technology and trying to extract as much out of it as possible,” he says. “Having been in Thixomolding for quite a few years, obviously Thixotech is quite knowledgeable and they’re converting that knowledge to success. In the past they’ve been investing and now it appears that they’re starting to turn a profit.”

The quest for knowledge is far from over. Bowker says his company spends between one and 5% of annual revenue on research and has an internal mold design department. It is also working on a relationship with the University of Alberta’s engineering faculty to enhance development of the technology.

The Thixotech executive believes there is a lot of room for growth, both in terms of market penetration and technical know-how.

“I think it’s going from a technology that was being demonstrated to one that is getting in the mainstream of manufacturing methods,” says Ghosh.

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