When the nuclear reactor at Chalk River, Ontario, was forced to shut down because of a leak of radioactive water, there was widespread concern in the medical community. The reactor produced about a third of the world’s supply of medical isotopes required for cancer and heart disease tests around the globe. The predicted shortage would leave patients waiting for these life-saving tests.
Liburdi Automation, a pioneer in automated welding systems and materials science, was the go-to company called to fix the leak so the reactor could go back into production. The Ontario-based manufacturer has built an international reputation for innovative engineering and punching far above its weight in terms of technology.
“You’re not sending people in because of the danger, so the repair had to be handled remotely and done with robotics,” Rob Pistor, Managing Director of Liburdi Automation, explains of the Chalk River project.
“It was a materials issue with corrosion; the reactor vessel was aluminum, and we came in to analyze the problem and develop a robotics repair solution based on our experience with rocket ships. The vessel that was corroded was very similar in shape, size and material to aerospace fuel tanks, and we had a lot of experience constructing aerospace tanks.”
The Liburdi team developed a completely automated remote operation with customized robotics and welding procedures to bring the reactor back in service in less than a year. The project’s ingenuity was acknowledged with a Canadian Supplier of the Year Award and accolades for innovation from the Canadian Nuclear Society.
In other words, it was no small feat.
“Usually, we’ll get a call with, ‘My plant’s down, I’m offline and losing $1 million a day – come and repair it,’” Pistor says of the more typical client request. “But when I asked Atomic Energy Canada Limited, ‘how much money are we losing a day?’ This time, the answer was, ‘people’s lives.’ We were especially motivated and working crazy hours to get this back online.”
That was back in 2009. Today, the Chalk River facility continues to be a leader in nuclear research, including the small modular reactors that produce energy to support urban power grids.
And the fuel and energy industries remain a key focus for Liburdi, which celebrated 40 years in business in 2019 and received the 2019 Export Award of Excellence from the Organization of Canadian Nuclear Industries for its delivery of leading products and services to customers in China, South Korea and Europe.
The company started out developing custom Liburdi Automation Welding Systems – LAWS – for fully automated welding applications in the turbine, aerospace, nuclear, industrial and automotive sectors. An acquisition added a second division, Liburdi Dimetrics, to offer orbital welding for applications like medical devices, nuclear power generation, and tube and pipe for construction. In orbital welding, everything runs on a track around a pipe. The division’s main product is a track system made of gold anodized aluminum for high precision and durability.
There is also a third division under the Liburdi name, Liburdi GAPCO (The Great Atlantic Pacific Construction Company). This is the construction arm for turnkey projects in the nuclear and oil and gas markets.
In other words, the company’s range of services and expertise goes full-circle.
An exciting example currently underway is the Future Growth Project in Kazakhstan, considered the next major expansion of oil production by approximately 84 million barrels per year. The initiative is part of a partnership with the Republic of Kazakhstan and Chevron Corporation to produce and market crude oil, liquefied petroleum gas, dry gas and sulfur. The goal here is to keep existing plants full via the installation of a central pressure boost facility.
“It’s the largest petrochemical project on the planet,” Pistor explains. “We’re building the petrochemical modules for processing sour gas.” Liburdi has a construction crew onsite to implement more than 800 welding joints, which Pistor calls, “the most critical aspects of the project in terms of joint integrity and safety.”
The company is also heavily involved in the refurbishment of nuclear plants across Ontario scheduled for the next 10 years, along with construction of nuclear plants in Asia as more countries look for clean energy options. Most nuclear plants are constructed with gold track systems, which Liburdi is well-positioned to deliver.
“In nuclear, many of what the industry calls ‘class one components,’ that are responsible for the primary nuclear coolant, run on gold track systems for the highest quality and integrity,” he says.
What makes Liburdi stand out from competitors? A unique approach. “We’re a very engineering-heavy company that likes to do a lot of things in-house, including a lot of research and development,” Pistor explains. “While we’re a robotics company that builds robots and machines, our driving purpose is to solve materials problems. What does the material need, what’s the best process for it, and what’s the best way to solve this material’s issue with the appropriate level of technology?”
Think back to the radioactive leak from the aluminum vessel in Chalk River and how much left-brain thinking took place to engineer the best solution. Clearly, it’s been an interesting career for Pistor, who started with Liburdi as a co-op mechanical engineering student in 1990, attracted by “the whole concept of a company being about materials and the ‘materials take you anywhere’ approach,” he shares. “Even at that time, Liburdi was into aerospace, gas turbines and all sorts of different fields that as a young engineer, I saw a lot of opportunity [in].”
He’s helped the company grow ten-fold and recently expand into a new centralized welder facility in Ontario, doubling the size of its former location with more land available for future growth. This facility includes a fully automated inventory control system to manage hundreds of thousands of parts and components that Liburdi manufactures.
“The nuclear industry requires a lot of support components and we’re stocking a lot of mission-critical parts that are needed in the refurbishments going on in Ontario,” he explains. “Having solid supply chain logistics for that is key, so this building is a major step forward.”
Looking ahead, Pistor sees the most business growth in automated welding services, particularly as the construction industry matures. The predicted shortage in skilled trades that we’ve heard so much about will be offset by orbital welding products and robotic systems.
And that’s a good thing.
“We’re attracting a new generation of people who are more comfortable with technology, with programming the weld, instead of actually getting down underneath a pipe and crawling into confined spaces to do the work. People are more interested in using technology where traditionally it was raw human power.”