Pushing The Envelope

Robert Cohen of Soo Foundry & Machine, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., knows a thing or two about serving his community. The roots of his company dateback to the end of World War I when it was known as Northern Foundry, an active business on the city’s busy waterfront, producing shell casings for the war effort, mining equipment, and marine parts. It’s more than just a community business for Cohen, though; it’s also a family business. In 1958 brothers Wilfred and Jack Cohen, who were involved in the local scrap metal business by supplying cast iron to the foundry at the time, bought the company, and the foundry ran until 1977. From then on Soo Foundry, while maintaining its active role in the local manufacturing scene, grew its machining and fabricating business. The steel industry has always been the cornerstone of Soo Foundry’s business, and it remains that way today. In 1980 the company reorganized with Wilfred selling his 50 percent to the other shareholders and semiretiring.

In 1982, following the retirement of his uncle and death of his father, Robert Cohen took over as president and has been running operations in a new location ever since. A couple of years later a subsidiary, Traders Steel Warehouse, began operations, and in 1998 the company purchased Northern Fluid Power, which serves the hydraulic and pneumatic cylinder industry. However, it was in 2005 that the company took its expertise in metal and part production to a new level by expanding its capabilities to include custom CNC machining, fabrication, and even on-site fieldwork.

Working in Northern Ontario
"There is an ebb and flow to the manufacturing industry here in northern Ontario. This means that we need to be able to do work for the steel or hydro industry one day, and the mining industry the next,” said Cohen. “The equipment we have in the shop gives us the flexibility to produce parts that are small, very large, and everywhere in between.”

To meet the specific needs of industry in northern Ontario, which includes the utilities, steel, pulp and paper, and mining sectors, the company has had to bring in equipment that can handle large parts.

The company’s large horizontal lathe can turn parts with clearances of 158in. swing over the gap, 104 in. over the bed, and 74 in. over the saddle. Its vertical lathe has an 84-in. swing, 60 in. under the rail, and is fitted with a hydraulic tracer attachment for profiling.

When combined with conventional equipment such as lathes with up to 36in. swings, radial drill presses, a vertical slotter, a horizontal boring mill, and milling machines, the machine shop can handle a variety of part sizes and volumes.

The fabricating shop is outfitted with a plate shear, press brake, plate rolls, and an assortment of field machines, ensuring that all the work can be done in-house or on-site for short lead-times and quick deliveries. The company also employs CWB-certified welders. 

High-definition plasma cutting and oxy/gas torch cutting can both be performed in the shop as well.

In 2008 the company built a new shop serviced by 44,000lb and 120,000lb cranes with 55ft of clearance under the hook.

"The addition of this heavy-duty crane was a game-changer for us,” said Cohen. “This is just something that not every shop in the area can boast about. It has allowed us to take on contracts that were not possible earlier in our development, and has even led us to adding new equipment, such as our Fermat boring mill, to take advantage of these capabilities.”

It’s this kind of lifting capacity that also enables Soo Foundry to bring in large, specialty jobs such as repairing a 45ton slag pot (see Figure 1). 

Large-part Boring
A recent addition to the machine shop is a Fermat WF 13, a five-axis CNC boring mill. This table-type mill has Y-axis travel of 137.8 in., X-axis travel of 177.2 in., and a table that can handle up to 33,000lbs.

“This machine has a very large work envelope, and that allows us to produce parts in sizes that we were previously unable to do,” said Cohen. “When we added the crane to the shop, we knew that a large piece of equipment was now in the realm of possibility for us, but we weren’t necessarily looking at a CNC boring mill specifically.”

However, thanks to the addition of the boring mill, the company can better serve its customers, especially those in the hydroelectric sector. Over the course of the Past two decades, work for the hydroelectric industry has become of major importance to Soo Foundry, with energy clients from British Columbia to Newfoundland relying on Cohen and his team.

“We have become pretty well-known in the energy sector for our in-house expertise,” said Cohen. “We have a lot of knowledein the shop that is specific to this industry, and we have done work for a lot of projects all across the country.”

While the recent economic downturn affected Soo Foundry like it did so many other manufacturers, Soo’s ability to serve multiple industries has helped it to rebound. While admitting that the past few years have been rough, Cohen said it’s his company’s flexibility that keeps it busy.

“It’s exciting walking through the shop from week to week and having completely different jobs running,” said Cohen. 

“This is the challenge we face being a manufacturer in northern Ontario, but it also enables us to do work across many industry sectors.”

Community Manufacturing
One way that Soo Foundry helps to give back to the community is through internships for students from Sault College as well as high school students. By bringing in an average of two apprentices per year, the company helps train the next generation of machinists and fabricators, while hoping to attract young people to the company.

“We have employees that have been with us for decades, and turnover is actually quite low. We were forced to lay off people during the recession, but we’ve worked really hard on bringing them back,” said Cohen. “We lost customers over the past few years who ceased operating, but our focus remains the same. We want to be known for producing the parts and projects that not every shop can do, and being a proud member of the Sault Ste. Marie business community.”