Steve Matusch remembers his first day as a student on placement at Inco’s now defunct copper refinery, when he was studying systems engineering at Waterloo University. From the time he was a boy playing with Lego blocks, Matusch had dreamed of a day when he would build real machinery.
He walked across the plant floor at the copper refinery to a huge and complicated copper-stripping machine manufactured in Sweden and thought: “wow, this is what I want to build.” Today, the company over which Matusch presides, Ionic Engineering Ltd., is the technology leader in producing equipment like that piece he admired years ago.
“It was a lot of fun how that happened, when you come from here and all of a sudden we beat the big boys at some things,” Matusch said Tuesday during a walkabout at Ionic’s headquarters on Mumford Road in the Walden Industrial Park.
Matusch founded the automations system manufacturer and engineering consultant 13 years ago and business has been brisk.
Ionic employs more than 50 people in Lively and a second plant in Cambridge and has just announced plans to expand the Cambridge operation.
The company has outgrown 15,000 square feet in its Mumford Road plant and 10,000 square feet it rents.
The ground is being broken on an 18,000-square-foot integration facility in Cambridge that will give the company space to hire about 10 more highly skilled employees during the next few months.
Matusch’s company, which he owns with three partners, designs and manufactures automation systems that integrate robotics, taking manual and often dangerous jobs and replacing them with machinery.
This week, some of his engineers and highly specialized technologists are working on a mu l t i -mi l l i o n -d o l l a r automation system for a copper plant in China.
Many companies, local and abroad, are faced with competition to produce products cheaper and faster.
Ionic is the only industrial production robotics company in northeastern Ontario.
The Lively plant is so filled with projects right now, there is hardly room to walk on the shop floor, said Matusch.
In one area, a machine integrating eight robots is being built for a suitcase manufacturing operation in southern Ontario.
In another, a robotic welding system is being built to assemble components for scoop tram buckets for Carriere Industrial Supply.
Partner Eric Haapamaki is manager of electrical engineering and a “brilliant” electrical engineer, said Matusch.
“People come to us with a problem and we design the solution,” said Haapamaki. “So, we’ll often get a company that says, ‘ You know, we’re always having problems with this’ or ‘we really need to take this and do this, what can you guys do for us?’
“We go back, do some conceptual engineering, we do some up-front work, and then we come up with some design concepts that are eventually customer approved,” he said.
Ionic builds many prototypes and does a lot of custom work. “One thing we rarely do is repeat systems … and that’s part of the difficulty, part of the challenge,” he said.
Another challenge is finding the skilled workforce to build those systems, said Matusch, which is where the second plant comes in. It is closer to a larger workforce and serves the automotive industry in the Ki t c h e n e r /Wat e r l o o / C a m-bridge area.
Mining is a cyclical industry, and when it is booming, it is difficult to hire highly skilled engineers and technicians, said Matusch.
Haapamaki, who came to Ionic seven years ago out of university, is proud that his company helps young skilled workers get their start.
Ionic offers placements to College Boreal students in electrical instrumentation technology and on-the-job learning for bright professional engineers.
It’s a dream job for Haapamaki, who said he would have had to look for work in southern Ontario if Matusch hadn’t started Ionic.
Both men admit their work is downright fun.
Said Matusch: “It’s a little bit like playing with big expensive toys. It really is. It’s an extension of when you were a kid playing with Lego, only you do it on a much bigger scale.”
Matusch is proud of the fact that automation systems manufactured by Ionic are at work on each of the seven continents.
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