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Niche plug leads to North Bay business expansion

Designing and developing a niche product for the diamond drilling market has Gord McLaren of North Bay on the move.
Gord McLaren, right, and Chris May hold up the McLaren Plug that was designed and developed for the diamond drilling industry.

Designing and developing a niche product for the diamond drilling market has Gord McLaren of North Bay on the move. Due to the success of the McLaren Plug, he’s had to find more space for an office and work area, hired an employee, and is hoping to add one more staff member.

“I started McLaren Mining Equipment a few years ago, mostly to do products for the diamond drilling market,” he said. 

McLaren worked in the diamond drill industry for several years before deciding to branch out on his own in a home office. As a professional engineer, he had built up several contacts in the industry.

One of those contacts asked if he could develop a product for him, for a very specific need.

“I was a bit busy and couldn’t quite squeeze it in. He came back and told me if I do it, I would own it. I just had to develop it, prototype it and test it,” he said.

His product was developed for a uranium mine in northern Saskatchewan that had experienced a flood. The ore has to be frozen before mining since the uranium is in sandstone, very fractured and full of water. Traditional mining methods can’t be utilized.

When the mine is built, tunnels are made underneath the ore body to allow drill pipes to poke holes in it and freeze the rock, by utilizing a chemical brine. It’s a long-term process and can take several years to freeze.

At the mine that was flooded, to save time and get the job back on track, drilling was taking place from the surface to freeze the ore body until the mine was repaired.

“My product is very niche, and not something you will sell to every mining company,” McLaren said.

“When drilling down, the pipe is left in the ground. My product goes down and seals off the end of the hole of the pipe. But, it allows them to pour concrete or grout through the pipe and then seal it off and do a pressure test, all on one trip, which is down and up.”

Prior to his plug, there was no engineered product. A chunk of steel could be used, which acted like a

physical stopper, and then additional products would be put down the hole, using multiple trips, before it was pressure tested.

“They tested it and hoped it held,” said Chris May, who looks after the day-to-day operations of the

company. “They just used off-the-shelf stuff and in order to finish a hole, maybe make three to nine trips and insert a seal followed by a stopper each time. There was no real guarantee there would be a good, positive seal on the hole.”

McLaren has been shipping products on a regular basis since last summer.

“We don’t manufacture anything. I view us as a technology company and I don’t want to get involved in the day-to-day manufacturing. There are fantastic machine and welding shops in town and I have a very good relationship with local people here,” he said.

The plug is a modular system where clients can pick and choose what features they want on it based on their application.

A number of other projects are coming out of the original plug, such as different sizes of the existing product, and scaling it down or up for different applications.

“We have also been approached by other drilling companies who heard about our success with this project,” McLaren said. “We are trying to take lessons learned on the first project and provide solutions to their problems. You get to play inventor and prototyper, but that can be stressful too at times.”

The plug took a fair amount of development and seven trips to the site, and it evolved through that process.

“When I first went there, I was asked to do this and this, but then they asked if other things could be added,” he said. “It is a complex piece of gear and does a number of functions so it also has to be deployed in a very specific manner.”

McLaren said the company may eventually branch away for the plug, and he recently received an email from a diamond drill company with a need for a different product. 

“It’s moving very quickly in a very positive way. I don’t know where we will be in a year from now. All it takes is one phone call, and saying, ‘we have this problem’ and things can change.”