MRO Magazine

Scoring for Hockey Stars

In the hockey equipment manufacturing plant in St-Jean sur Richelieu, Que., there is an exquisite appreciation of the relationship between good maintenance and high production.


April 1, 2004
By Carroll McCormick

In the hockey equipment manufacturing plant in St-Jean sur Richelieu, Que., there is an exquisite appreciation of the relationship between good maintenance and high production.

“We are at the service of production. Everyone knows that if we don’t produce, we’re going to the Orient,” says Stphane Duclos, the maintenance and building manager for Sport Maska Canada Inc., a subsidiary of The Hockey Company of Montreal, the world’s largest marketer and manufacturer of hockey equipment and apparel.

“Maintenance cannot become an issue for production,” adds Michel Ravacley, vice-president, global operations. “The pro doesn’t care if we have a maintenance problem. He wants his equipment.”

St-Jean sur Richelieu is about a half-hour drive southwest of Montreal, and home to the largest of The Hockey Company’s worldwide manufacturing operations. In the 138,000 sq ft facility, a workforce ranging from 250 to 300 men and women make hockey skates, sticks, helmets, and goalie and other hockey equipment.

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Many products, emblazoned with the famous brand names of CCM, JOFA and KOHO, roll off the loading docks for regular folk. The plant also has a special pro shop that handles orders for hundreds of professional hockey players.

A stroll up and down racks stacked high with hundreds of pairs of custom-made skates — boxed, labelled and ready to ship — yields a who’s who of hockey player names: Pittsburgh Penguins owner/team captain Mario Lemieux, Philadelphia Flyers right-winger Mark Recchi and Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo, to name a few.

Then there are bags of player and goalie sticks, made just so, and the finest goalie equipment money can buy. The plant handles hockey equipment repairs too; in one bin sits New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur’s red, black and white goalie pads waiting for attention.

The plant is divided into several production areas, such as skates, sticks, injection molding and goalie equipment. The skate department runs two eight-hour shifts a day, five days a week. The injection department runs 24/5 and the other departments run 8/5.

SMALL MAINTENANCE TEAM

The maintenance team is fairly small, since many of the 250 pieces of machinery and equipment in the plant are low-maintenance sewing machines. Too, says Ravacley, “The maintenance people we have are very experienced and work faster than the younger workers.”

The team includes one electrician who divides his time among three of the company’s Quebec plants and a distribution centre. The St-Jean plant also has four sewing machine mechanics, three industrial mechanics and one electronics technician.

As maintenance manager, Duclos has overall responsibility for maintenance at this and Sport Maska’s other Quebec facilities, operating with an annual budget of about one million dollars in St-Jean and several million a year altogether.

Six maintenance team members cover the day shift, two handle the evening shift and there are always two mechanics per shift in the injection room. “They set up machines, take out and put in molds and do maintenance,” says Duclos.

The facility has procedures for the maintenance operations under its ISO 9001 protocols; the plant is currently upgrading to the ISO 9001 Year 2000 version. The maintenance department has been using a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) for years, and is currently running PlantPro 7, a software package developed by Quebec City-based Interal.

The plant’s maintenance workers, some of whom have worked here for decades, know when to do regular maintenance, so Duclos does not generate weekly schedules with the CMMS. He does write down what the staff have done each week, though.

For special maintenance requests, the foremen fill out forms with an explanation of the problem, what needs to be done, and when — such as now, in one week or two weeks, or in a month.

Duclos, who is in the process of reorganizing his CMMS, waggles the CD for PlantPro 8 — the latest version of the software — in front of him and explains, “I want to take the sewing machines out of the CMMS.” They require virtually no maintenance and gobble up space that he wants to fill with more important maintenance tasks. “We are putting the machines that give us trouble on the CMMS so we can do better maintenance,” he says.

Preventive maintenance is important, according to Ravacley. “Our highest-quality products are made here. We have to have the quality. Maintenance is part of that. They are connected.” Teardowns and major repairs are done during two three-week shutdowns every Christmas and summer.

150 DIFFERENT OPERATIONS

The skate production area is a lively place. Over the course of 150 different operations, scores of employees — women outnumber the men — work with incredible concentration and speed to turn fabric, leather, plastic, composite material and metal into skates at dozens of stations that cut, sew, stamp, press, form, glue, heat, cool, punch holes, inspect, sand, nail, rivet, lace, label and package.

There are plenty of shoe-shop size sewing machines, but a few years ago, Sport Maska bought a dozen computer- and camera-controlled Orisol sewing machines that do the work formerly done by 50-60 employees. Each time a set of pieces for a skate boot is layered up on a template and fed into the machine, a camera photographs it and the computer uses the image to guide the sewing needle through a complex pattern exactly one millimeter from the edge of the materials.

The Orisol machines are maintenance-intensive, demanding a lot of calibration and cleaning of the thread parts, so much so that the company has sent three of its workers to Israel for a three-week training course on them.

There also are a few bewildering-looking machines that seem to come straight out of a Borg cube in the Star Ship Voyager television series. Here, workers fit partially assembled skate boots over steel moulds. The machines then ingest them and sew the sides and back of the skate to the plastic bottoms. These customized beasts, which probably exist nowhere else on the planet, require plenty of maintenance. According to Ravacley, you cannot buy skate-making equipment — shoe-making equipment must be modified for the application.

“Most machines we make ourselves, so our mechanics know what to do,” says Duclos.

Near the skate production area is a 10 ft by 20 ft maintenance room for light maintenance and parts replacement. It is stocked with a workbench, tools and drawers filled with thousands of tiny parts. If a sewing machine breaks, its operator calls a radio-equipped maintenance technician, who responds immediately.

Other tasks are done in the 1,500 sq-ft main maintenance room, equipped with a familiar assortment of welding and machining equipment and other tools, assembly and disassembly stations, and spare parts.

Although the spares inventory seems quite large, the plant relies mostly on next-day deliveries from several large suppliers in Montreal. Also, there is enough duplication of machinery that Duclos can shut one down while waiting for parts without causing a production bottleneck.

In the hockey stick production area, stacks of cream-coloured aspen shafts wait to be mated with polyester, glass fibre, labels and blades, and then be finished bagged, labelled and delivered. During our visit, there was a shipment of specially made sticks for centre Shaun Van Allen of the Ottawa Senators ready to go.

The plant also has injection molding machines for goalie stick blades, giant, maintenance-hungry, injection/press hybrids that apply polyester resin-impregnated glass fibre twine to the sides of shafts, machines that measure the flexibility of the shaft stock and then sorts it, shaft cutters, sanders, painting stations and more.

Stick production was moved to St-Jean from a plant in Drummondville, Que., during the Christmas 2002 shutdown. “We moved all the equipment from there to here and started working right away. That was a big challenge. The first six months of 2003 were tough.” Duclos recalls.

Helmets and all the plastic bits and pieces for the other gear are made in the in
jection molding room. Most of the action happens behind protective shields and inside massive, turbine-shaped machines, although their rather static appearance is deceptive. These busy machines require round-the-clock attention by two mechanics.

The goalie equipment room is a great place to get your hand stuck inside a new NHL-calibre blocker, or to admire the fine craftsmanship that goes into making of goalie pads for the big boys, but maintenance in this room is small-ticket in comparison to the rest of the plant. The highest-maintenance items remain the complex, labour-saving machines that that help to maintain the operation’s survival in Canada.

Duclos’ job is to make sure success and survival are assured.

Senior contributing editor Carroll McCormick is based in Montreal.