In a crowded market, successful manufacturers quickly realize the benefits of offering top-quality products that can’t be easily duplicated. Elemex Inc., a London, Ont.-based architectural systems company, is a case in point, having developed unique technology and invested in automation to scale up production and boost quality.
Elemex manufactures and distributes various cladding systems throughout North America. Popular brands it distributes to the construction community include its Ceramitex porcelain ceramic panel systems and the Alcotex aluminum composite panel systems.
The company recently invested in a new CNC machine (a Breton Smart-Cut) in large part to produce Ceramitex, a breakthrough exterior building product developed in 2007. It’s a large-format panel made from sintered porcelain ceramic, an innovative material emerging in the North American exterior cladding markets.
“If we’re going to compete in today’s global economy, we have to do so with a product that’s unique and innovative, providing performance, durability, beauty and economic value. Investment in technology and automation plays a big role in achieving this,” notes company owner Philip Macdonald.
The effort is paying off, with other projects including some of the 2015 Toronto PanAm Games venues, the Strathroy Regional Hospital, Ajax Go Station, Vaughan Civic Centre Library and the Ottawa Medical Council. With each installation, Elemex expands its presence in the architecture, construction and contractor industries.
The new eye-catching Nordstrom retail store at Ottawa’s Rideau Centre uses the Ceramitex porcelain ceramic panel system. The architects, technicians and consultants worked closely together to understand the design vision and ensure it satisfied the Nordstrom Brand, according to Macdonald.
The façade followed a sleek design using flat panels in a bright, gleaming white with subtle polished accents that never stain, fade or discolour, he explains. The product is also incredibly durable, resistant to scratching, fading and extreme temperatures.
“We’ve taken large-format sintered porcelain ceramic panels and have successfully gotten them specified on numerous vertical applications. Sintered porcelain ceramic itself is a hard, scratch-resistant and graffiti-proof material and it really is impressive,” he says.
“The sintered porcelain ceramic sheets are formed under a huge amount of heat and pressure. It’s not like coffee-cup ceramic. It’s extremely strong and durable, and able to withstand the harshest exterior environments while retaining its incredible aesthetics.”
The panels provide a creative alternative to the more traditional stone offerings, which are typically available only in specific set sizes. Using a proprietary process patented in the US and Canada, Elemex was able to create a pressure-equalized, rear-ventilated rainscreen ceramic system that’s strong and lightweight enough for vertical walls, while providing flexibility of both form and function to architects.
“With a variety of panel sizes and widths available, we can produce a wide assortment of products giving architects the choices they demand,” Macdonald says, adding years of testing were required to ensure the panels meet rigorous requirements for structural performance, water resistance and fire safety. With Ceramitex perfected, Macdonald is focused on market growth.
“We want to fabricate Ceramitex here [in London] and ship the panels all over North America,” he says, adding the company is already familiar with the intricacies of global supply chains since raw material for Ceramitex is sourced from Spain, Turkey, Italy and other locales.
CNC machines boost quality
With another innovative product in its arsenal, the company has set its sights on production efficiencies and continuous improvement in process and quality. A few months ago, Elemex bought the new Breton Smart-Cut CNC machine—to replace the previous process of cutting panels by hand.
The team looked at waterjet and saw machines before settling on the Smart-Cut since the Breton technology is so established, Macdonald says. The machine enables faster cuts and design benefits such as mitered corners, not easily achieved through hand cutting.
“The Breton is a big leap for us,” he says. “We use it to cut out the panels to fit the frame. We see there is going to be strong demand [for Ceramitex]. The new equipment allows us to have a higher speed and higher quality than if we did it by hand.
“Right now we have superior quality in our products. For us to be able to mass produce panels, we had to invest in this type of equipment which provides cutting consistency while increasing production and yield efficiency, cutting accuracy, and improving overall quality.”
The panels are designed in AutoCAD and cut in the CNC machines. From there, Elemex fabricates its proprietary pressure-equalized framing system and mechanically affixes the panel onto the frame.
To meet demand and centralize its operations, Elemex is in the final stages of completing a new 35,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in London. The new plant will consolidate manufacturing, sales, and technical resources into one facility, creating a lot more efficiencies.
With these projects underway, Elemex is well positioned to leverage automation, product innovation and superior quality to expand across North America.
This article is part of the Industrial Edge Showcase, featuring news, strategies and technology updates from Canadian manufacturing leaders.