It's used at Xstrata's operations throughout Timmins, at the De Beers Victor Mine, and in various Sudbury mines, but Dave Sharp's patented conveyor belt alignment device is not mass produced in a factory.
Instead, Sharp goes home after a full day of work as a mine maintenance technician for Xstrata Copper's Timmins operations, heads into his machine shop, and assembles the Sure Align Tracker for his growing list of clients.
In fact, as the one-man operator of Conveyors Plus, Sharp uses much of his vacation time to install new units for clients and train on-site tradespeople on their general operation.
Throw in two athletic sons on the verge of becoming teenagers, a wife who participates in soccer, and a strong commitment to his young family, and Sharp is a very busy entrepreneur.
"I sell, I manufacture, and I install, so yeah, it's a lot of work," says Sharp.
“I have to do shift work, so when I go to bed at night, I'm exhausted.”
After 25 years of working on conveyors in the mining industry, Sharp has seen day-in and day-out the problems associated with belting systems.
Belt splices and rollers can slide the system out of alignment, and even systems straight from the factory can be prone to similar problems. Outdoor conveyors can be knocked off balance by something as simple as the wind.
What's more, some market solutions are inefficient, often installed on the bottom side or dirty side of the return belts. This leads them to inadvertently act as scrapers, accumulating muck and material. Many also hang 18 inches below the belt, creating clearance issues which can prove dangerous, as Sharp himself discovered after being struck in the head by a unit after grazing it with a vehicle.
In 2003, Sharp decided he could do better. After sitting down with his brother, John, a machinist, the two developed a working example of a conveyor system.
Using his hands-on knowledge of what needed to be fixed, Sharp developed his Sure Align Tracker device, which uses guide rollers to detect and adjust the belt as soon as it comes out of alignment by a quarter-inch.
What's more, the unit can be installed on the inside, or clean side of the belt, using tension and contact, rather than the hanging weight of the belt to help maintain alignment.
After getting permission to test out his invention in his workplace, Sharp soon found his employer placing orders for the device. The company continues to be a major client, and Sharp is currently due to install eight more units at Xstrata's Kidd Metallurgical Site.
"It's a really great product," says Yvan Grenier, who's worked as a millwright and welder with Xstrata Copper for the last 29 years. "It saves a lot of money, because a lot of belts get ripped, but his type of roller just lines up everything and doesn't rub on anything. It's amazing."
Since then, he's introduced changes to the device, including the development of a mounting bracket which fits all styles and types of frames. This helps as one unit should be installed every 80 feet, though the harsher nature of underground facilities.
These improvements have helped make him a popular draw at trade shows, which have been a major driver of his business potential.
Such experiences have brought him invitations to various United States factories and even a visit to speak with the Chilean government. A recent trip to a Las Vegas show resulted in five major conveyor belt companies offering to buy him out entirely, something which didn't appeal to Sharp's vision for the future of his company.
Depending on growing demand, Sharp already imagines the possibility of one day establishing a separate manufacturing facility, complete with full-time workers and a team of trained installation personnel.
In the meantime, he's contracting out machining work to local firms, and bringing in part-time helpers to build units for particularly large orders. A marketing and sales coordinator is also being hired to help push interest in his product beyond the Northern Ontario area.
"Pretty well every conveyor belt on this Earth has alignment problems," says Sharp. "I have a great product, and I think it's time to start focusing on the world."
Conveyor belt alignment biz rolling right along
Local entrepreneur's invention in use across Northern Ontario
Conveyors Plus owner Dave Sharp makes adjustments to his invention, the Sure Align Tracker, at a Timmins-area mine site.