Western Machine Works is a Pacific Northwest machine shop that works in the paper, industrial, marine, wind generation, and hydropower markets and specializes in fabricating nonstandard and difficult-to-locate parts. As utilities begin to increase the tempo of their repairs after the COVID‑19 pandemic, Western Machine is engaging in more and more hydro-related work. Hydro Sales Engineer Rob Adams tells us more.
Hydro Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Rob Adams: I have a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering and gained experience in the industry by working on gas and steam turbines for several utilities. I started in the nuclear field, working as a steam and gas turbine engineer for Portland General Electric. In that role, I worked at three different nuclear plants, primarily doing steam turbine repairs; I built that expertise for about 12 years. Then, I moved over to hydro, still working for Portland General Electric and worked as a hydro maintenance engineer for 12 years. More recently, I took a position with Western Machine Works and have worked with the company for about a year and a half.
Hydro Leader: Please tell us about Western Machine Works.
Rob Adams: Western Machine was founded in 1985 with a focus on repairing rolls and other critical equipment for the pulp and paper industry. Leveraging that experience, the company has expanded into other heavy industries, such as marine, wind, and hydro. It is great to start with a company that has a solid reputation of doing quality work, not just for pulp and paper but also for the renewable sector. We are currently an original equipment manufacturer–approved wind turbine main shaft repair facility for North America. We provide metallization and repairs of various wind turbine brands. We are expanding our machining capabilities for hydro as well.
We are also fully equipped to repair, refurbish, and manufacture hydro components and parts. A significant part of my role is growing Western Machine’s hydro business in the Pacific Northwest. We are the primary machine shop for various hydro consulting firms and contractors. These companies fit Western Machine’s business model, capabilities, expertise, and work ethic.
Another important service that Western Machine offers is trucking. We can take away the stress of having to arrange freight from the customer. Using special fixtures, we can carefully move equipment up and down the West Coast.
Hydro Leader: How many employees does the company have?
Rob Adams: We have about 48 employees. Something distinctive about Western Machine is that we’re one of the only machine shops in the Pacific Northwest that has a swing shift. With consecutive shifts, we can maintain momentum on critical-path projects, reducing customer downtime.
Hydro Leader: Would you tell us about one of your recent hydro-related projects?
Rob Adams: A public utility in the Pacific Northwest needed to rebuild a Kaplan turbine of about 5 megawatts (MW). The Kaplan turbine hub came to us through one of our hydro contractor partners. Our team manufactured new bronze bushings, trunnion followers, and coupling bolts. The turbine head, which had been manufactured overseas, had concentricity issues. In order to make sure that everything lined up, we performed additional line boring to the bushing bores. We also installed a new mud ring that required rolling to the contour of the runner hub. We completed the project, sandblasted it, painted it, and had it ready to install in about 3 weeks, which meant that the utility did not need to extend its outage window.
Here’s another example of Western Machine’s hydro-related work. When I was with Portland General Electric, we had a 5 MW 1920s-vintage turbine shaft that had broken in half because of fatigue failure. Fortunately, we had an older forging that had been purchased a long time ago as a spare shaft. Western Machine actually took the 1920s-era drawing, used it to make a new computer-aided design (CAD) drawing, and machined a shaft from our spare. This resulted in the correct fit-up, including the thrust bearing and turbine runners. Western Machine had to make some modifications to ensure that the .040‑inch thrust clearance was adequate. Western Machine removed about 4 tons of material from that spare shaft to get everything to fit correctly. We dynamic-balanced the runner-shaft assembly, and it was one of the smoothest startups I’ve ever been involved with. When we did our testing for vibration, it was it was less than a mil and a half. I highly recommend that utilities dynamic-balance component assemblies if possible.
Hydro Leader: It sounds like one of Western Machines’ specialties is creating parts for nonstandard or older machines.
Rob Adams: That is correct. Western Machine is experienced in fabricating parts from drawings for old hydro units that you cannot get parts for anymore. We recently worked on a 1 MW Kaplan turbine whose gate-shift ring was cracked. Western Machine was able to fabricate a new ring, and everything set correctly. We did that in record time—in just a couple of months.
Hydro Leader: Given that there are a lot of hydro facilities that date back 100 years or more, is there a fairly large market for fabricating parts that are not otherwise available?
Rob Adams: Yes; a lot of the utilities in the Northwest go through the experience of being unable to get parts and having to make them. Western Machine has experience manufacturing parts, with or without the original equipment manufacturers’ drawings. Another great attribute Western Machine has is an engineering staff that is able to reverse-engineer components and generate CAD manufacturing prints. This is a valuable service given the variety of older hydro equipment with limited print availability. We are currently working on new trunnions for a Northwest utility. A local foundry will be providing the castings, and Western Machine will install the composite bushings and will precision-machine all the parts to the final dimensions.
Hydro Leader: Has personnel recruitment been an issue for the company?
Rob Adams: Absolutely. Part of the challenge for Western Machine is that the repair business lends itself to unique manual machines that require skilled operators. To create employment opportunities, Western Machine has established relationships with local community colleges and trade schools and hosted job fairs, mentorships, and apprenticeships. On the positive side, the retention rate of our work force is high because of our great working conditions, camaraderie, and the spirit to do whatever it takes to meet our customers’ demands.
Hydro Leader: What is your vision for the future?
Rob Adams: Western Machine is looking at expanding our capacity. As we continue to diversify our services into other industries, we are exploring a variety of options to add new equipment and optimize our production flow. The ownership and management team support the financial requirements of growth and recently approved the purchase of a large lathe and the relocation of several key pieces of equipment in our shop to add capacity and increase efficiency.
Machine shops like Western have a bright future with hydro. Utilities have deferred repair and refurbishing projects during the pandemic. Now, we are seeing an increase in requests for quotes and invitations to bid. Western Machine is currently working on several quotes and proposals for various utilities and contractor partners.