Wine racks designed by Niagara manufacturer Hamill Machine Company
Diversity is key. It’s a philosophy that has kept a Niagara manufacturing company going strong for the past two decades since its current CEO Bob Benner took over in 1998.
Hamill Machine, a Niagara Falls based small manufacturing facility, is currently expanding from 4,000 square feet to 9,000 square feet. In an era where cities are constantly looking at ways to move away from manufacturing to something sexier like the hi-tech sector, Benner says there is still plenty of work for manufacturing companies that are comfortable with going outside of the traditional sector space.
“We invested $30,000 into 3D software during the last recession so that we can be ahead of the curve when the recession ended,” explained Benner. He said 20 years ago he didn’t even have a computer at the shop. The company also made a conscious decision to stay away from the steel and auto market because, as Benner says, “it’s feast or famine”.
In 2008 when times were tough across the province, especially for small and medium sized businesses, Benner and the team at Hamill focused on thinking of new areas they could get into with the skill set and machinery they already had. “We diversified enough to maintain sales at that time,” said Benner.
Two key projects stand out for Benner. One is a wine barrel rack they originally designed for Two Sisters Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake. “It was simply a case of studying what currently existed and looking to improve upon it,” said Benner. The company ended up designing and building barrel racks made out of aluminum as opposed to the traditional steel. The racks are based on wheels; the barrels don’t touch each other which allows them to easily be turned regularly as is needed for red wine. When the rack was installed at Two Sisters it was the only one in Canada. Hamill has since had orders for their product from wineries in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, eastern Ontario, British Columbia and the United States. The success of the wine barrel racks has caused Hamill to design and build a beer keg rack as well.
The second significant project was born out of a request from a farmer in Brantford who asked Benner if his company could design something that could cut his product faster. Hamill developed a microgreens harvester that cuts product fifty times faster than the old way. The Harvester can cut up to 1,800 trays per day with little to no waste. Like the wine barrel rack, the microgreens harvester was a springboard for Hamill engineers to design both a microgreens washer and dryer. The products have been sold in South Africa and all over the United States.
Benner sees the cannabis industry as the next big opportunity for a company like Hamill. The rapid growth of that sector will certainly have companies looking to more efficiently prepare and distribute their products.
Hamill has 15 employees in total and are looking to add more engineers. To help cultivate top young talent Benner works closely with Niagara College taking on apprentices, speaking to students and promoting the trades. He also takes on high school students to help them gain experience and expose them to different career opportunities.
He said the small manufacturing companies that are left in Niagara work very well together. “We help each other out and send work to each other,” he explained. “There are other companies that do things we don’t or specialize in certain areas we don’t and vice versa.”
“The way I look at business is one in 10,000 get really rich. The rest of us make a living,” Benner explained with a smile. “Sometimes I’m up and sometimes I’m down but as long as we are innovative and working hard we’ll be fine.”
Good advice from someone who’s proof positive that philosophy works. Smaller and adaptive manufacturing companies are alive and well in Niagara.