Conrex Steel’s new 3,500-ton hydraulic press from Macrodyne Hydraulic Presses was installed in 2021 and helps the shop form thicker material and produce larger tank heads. Images: Sonya Messier
Conrex Steel has a long history of serving the tank head and heat treating industries. Today, the company has over 100,000 sq. ft. of production space across two locations in Toronto and Kingston, Ont., each with their own unique story of longevity and transformation. Weld Fabrication Makings
The Toronto location originally was launched in 1948 under the National Welding brand. It was founded as a manufacturer of heads for tank cars and diesel tanks. In 1964, the shop was purchased by Lukens Steel, a U.S. company dating back to 1818. For almost 40 years, the company existed under the name Canadian Lukens Steel until it was purchased by Falvo Steel in 1993, when its name changed to Conrex Steel. One year later, Conrex was purchased by its current owner Canerector Inc., and has remained one of its legacy acquisitions. Last year, Aberfoyle Metal Treaters and Teffline Coatings became part of the Conrex Group.
"Part of the reason why Lukens Steel purchased National Welding was because of the duties associated with cross-border shipments, so the company saw the need for a Canadian presence," said Larry Harrison, president, Conrex Steel Ltd. "They expanded our Canadian operation and invested in different machinery and products. Since we were bought by Canerector, we’ve really honed in on three or four different products including conventional heads, multipiece heads, spheres, and some special forming and custom work."
The Kingston shop originally was called McKelvey & Birch, founded in 1898. However, it wasn’t until the onset of the Second World War that this shop really established itself by providing deep drawing for heavy artillery. After the war, the shop branched out and became C.E. Macpherson, which focused on pipe manufacturing with rolling capabilities and eventually led to the production of dished heads.
Conrex Steel eventually purchased the shop and renamed it Conrex Kingston and focused efforts on conventional hot and cold form dished heads in sizes up to 84 in.
Conrex has around 50 employees across its operations. Between the two shops, it has 20 tons of trains and a transfer cart system, one of a kind in North America, that acts like an electric 4×4 carrying up to 120,000 lbs. It is used to carry dies and thick material through the shop and into the yard. The Toronto shop sits on 8 acres while Kingston has 5 acres.
Harrison estimates that there are approximately 36 tank head manufacturers in North America. While Conrex has a long history in the industry, Harrison wanted to see how the shop could set itself apart from its competition.
"When I started at the company four years ago, I needed to answer the question ‘What is our competitive advantage?’" he said. "I spent the first couple of months visiting all of our top customers in North America. When I came back, I was able to sort out three things that our customers identified with Conrex: excellent lead times, quality, and customer service. After really understanding our strengths, I wanted to focus on maintaining the strengths while pushing our limits. And because of this, and significant investment in the last couple of years, I believe that we are among the top companies within our industry."
One of the ways that Harrison tried to set Conrex apart was pushing it towards becoming a one-stop shop. In the last two years, the shop focused on expanding capabilities based on customer feedback.
"I would always ask our customers, ‘What else can we do for you?’" said Harrison. "Feedback included adding elbow forming; pressing thicker, bigger circles; and cutting holes. I took these notes and conferred with the engineering team to find out what we needed to do to deliver."
Almost any head the shop manufactures eventually requires someone to cut a hole in it as an access point for whatever they were using it for. With upgraded robotics, Conrex is able to cut holes in the heads for its customers.
Customer feedback helped the shop focus on upgrading various aspects of the tank head manufacturing process.
"We perform robotic cutting, which makes bevelling very precise, which is something unique," said Harrison.
"And because of our upgraded robotics, we are able to cut holes in the heads. This was something that no one else seemed to be offering. Almost any head we manufactured would eventually require someone to cut a hole in it as an access point for whatever they were using it for. Because these heads are used for pressure vessels, it’s not that easy to do, especially if the head is not already set up. Some customers were forced to do it manually and work in confined spaces. Adding this capability has been well received."
The shop presses everything from military-grade HY100, clad materials, stainless steel, and carbon steel. It can form from 3/8- to 6-in.-thick material. To get into some of the thicker materials and bigger heads, the shop installed a new 3,500-ton hydraulic press from Macrodyne Hydraulic Presses in November 2021, the biggest head press in North America, according to Harrison. This new press can process heads that are 1.5 to 7 in. thick with internal dimensions as much as 196 in.
"We are constantly building dies to solve our customers’ challenges and use this press as much as possible," said Harrison. "We also put in a joggling machine in Kingston to create an offset so that heads can fit into a shell; it crimps the outside part of the head making welding more efficient."
Conrex focuses on manufacturing different types of tank heads. The most conventional head is a single-piece head that leaves the shop in one piece. Segmental heads are multipiece heads that are often too large to be shipped in one piece. The head segments are formed, fit-up, and tack welded. Once they are assembled, they are inspected, the tack weld is removed, and they are shipped in pieces. Conrex has also had a long history producing spheres specifically for the oil and gas fields.
"We really wanted to bring spheres back into play," said Harrison. "At one point in our history, we were one of the two largest sphere formers in North America. However, when the sphere design changed from the classic orange peel design, we set our sights on once again becoming leaders in this arena."
The orange peel designed required field welding, which was very expensive, oftentimes costing five times what it would to weld in the shop. This led to customers wanting fewer pieces requiring less field welding. The soccer ball design offered that.
"We had to modify our equipment in the shop, reconfigure presses and gantry cranes, so that now we can make the soccer ball sphere," said Harrison. "What that does is two things: It creates a new revenue stream for us and adds longer-term business."
Standard heads take anywhere from six to eight weeks to manufacture. Multipiece heads can take up to 12 weeks. However, spheres can take upwards of six months to produce.
Based on customer feedback, Conrex now produces large, smooth flow elbows. These are being trial fitted in-house.
"If there is a dip in the economy and we have a good mix of that type of revenue, we won’t feel it as much as some shops, where they’re all in one segment and have to lay off people," said Harrison.
Conrex also is focused on taking care of existing equipment, ensuring machine longevity. Right now, the shop is installing a new CNC table, which Harrison said is essential to the shop’s growth, especially since he believes that companies that fail to upgrade and invest in new technologies could find themselves becoming dinosaurs in the marketplace, and eventually obsolete.
The shop recently has taken on a number of unique projects. For example, it completed a sphere for the underside of a submersible that performs readings from the ocean floor. It’s a thinner sphere than what the shop has ever manufactured before.
"Being thinner meant that it was hard to fit-up, especially because it had such large pieces," said Harrison. "We needed a lot of support to assemble and tack weld it to ensure that it met all specifications. Same with the soccer-balltype caps we are making with our new robotics. We had to work through the process but the whole shop was really excited about it. It was unique and that makes it fun. We even manufactured a 6-ft.-wide elbow that we could walk through. It was an engineering feat, but again, the challenge made it exciting. We love stuff like this."
Conrex has some exciting projects on the horizon, including one that Harrison was tight-lipped about, only saying that it involves artificial intelligence and that this was an opportunity to expand into a new market.
"It’s important to diversify, whether that’s water treatment, cryogenics, military, or nuclear," said Harrison. "In North America, we have a huge opportunity to continue developing and staying current with what’s being done in Europe. We continue to invest and develop and find our place on the world stage. We are constantly evolving both from hardware, software, equipment, and people. That’s really what it’s about."
Associate Editor Lindsay Luminoso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Conrex Steel, www.conrexsteel.com
The shop put in a joggling machine at its Kingston facility to create an offset for heads to fit into a shell. It crimps the outside part of the head making welding more efficient.
Canadian Metalworking / Canadian Fabricating & Welding
Toronto, M1R 0A1 Canada
See More by Lindsay Luminoso
Lindsay Luminoso, associate editor, contributes to both Canadian Metalworking and Canadian Fabricating & Welding. She worked as an associate editor/web editor, at Canadian Metalworking from 2014-2016 and was most recently an associate editor at Design Engineering.
Luminoso has a bachelor of arts from Carleton University, a bachelor of education from Ottawa University, and a graduate certificate in book, magazine, and digital publishing from Centennial College.
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