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North Van robotics company to level up business with $2M federal boost

Novarc Technologies makes robots that can automate welding of pipes used in many industries, from oil and gas to shipyards

A North Vancouver robotics company has received $2 million from the federal government to scale up its cutting-edge business and expand into new markets.

The local company has developed a unique spool-welding robot, which essentially automates the process of welding of pipes used in a variety of industries, to make that process faster and more efficient.

Working with the robot welder can increase productivity by three to five times, said Novarc’s CEO Soroush Karimzadeh, and dramatically cut down on the number of welds that need repairing. Using the robot can also allow less experienced welders to do the work that only a highly skilled and experienced welder would usually be capable of performing.

That’s important, said Karimzadeh, because a lot of experienced welders are hitting retirement age, bringing about an expected shortfall of about 400,000 skilled welders in the next few years.

Tucked away in a business park near the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing, Novarc’s technology may not be well-known to the general public. But in the global manufacturing market, there’s a big demand for the robots, said Karimzadeh.

The company’s customers are typically engineering procurement construction companies or mechanical contractors who fabricate pipes for end users, ranging from oil and gas industries to water and wastewater contractors and shipyards.

So far, the company has installed 80 of its robots throughout North America, the United Kingdom, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Australia and China. Each robot costs approximately US$500,000. But customers can expect to make that back in between six and 18 months, said Karimzadeh.

The company currently has a workforce of close to 100 employees. Karimzadeh said Novarc expects to add 50 more employees as the federal grant helps scale up the business into new markets.

“We’re targeting Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia,” he said.

The company is also hoping to advance the technology used in the welding robots with artificial intelligence, which will allow each robot to learn from others using the technology.

The local company got its start in 2013, when Karimzadeh, an electrical engineer with a background in industrial automation and business, joined forces with co-founder Reza Abdollahi, an engineer with three decades of experience in robotics.

The two came up with the pipe-welding robot after realizing customers were trying to automate that process, but there was nothing available in the market to meet the demand.

One of North Vancouver’s most well-known companies, Seaspan Shipyards, was also an early investor in Novarc, putting $1 million into the Novarc as part of its commitment to support industrial partners under Ottawa’s national shipbuilding program.

The robot welders have since been used in Seaspan's Vancouver Drydock operation in ship repair, said Karimzadeh.

“So, when a ship comes in, and they want to, for example, replace the ballast water management systems, and there’s a lot of pipes required to be replaced, they will use our robots to fabricate those pipes,” said Karimzadeh.

Earlier this month, North Vancouver MP Johnathan Wilkinson announced the federal government would contribute $2.065 million to Novarc to further develop its business. The funding is being providing through the Pacific Economic Development Agency of Canada’s business scale-up and productivity program.

The company has been ranked by the Globe and Mail newspaper as one of the fastest growing companies in Canada.

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