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Plainsman – Meet our Leaders: President Derek Duncombe

A Natural, Solutions-Driven Leader

Growing up playing hockey and captaining his team, Derek’s always been a natural, solutions-driven leader, and the determination, collaboration, and relationship building skills he earned playing hockey manifested in his work at Plainsman. Moving from the shop to the office in inside sales, after about four years, Derek became the inside sales manager running the order desk and liaising with the shop. In that role, he honed his managerial and leaderships skills while continuing to engage with transparency, honesty, and good, old-fashioned hard work. “Without your customers and suppliers, you are nothing,” Derek says, noting that his sales strategy has always been to “bend over backwards” for customers and to ensure that they “had high quality products on time.”

Growth Strategy: Thinking Outside the Box

In 2005, Derek invested in Plainsman, staying on as the sales manager, and mentoring under previous owner and president, Lee Makelki, as he transitioned into a VP role. Both Lee and Derek shared the same outlook and strategy for the business and worked closely together until Derek, along with Mike Kittlitz (VP of Sales and Business Development), Mark Lea-Wilson (Innovation Director), and Thomas Makelki (International Sales) united in a shared vision to buy Plainsman in October 2014. The new ownership group knew they needed to do something different to continue to grow and succeed, deciding “to think outside of the box and see where it took us.”

Almost immediately after taking on the leadership role as president, however, the economy tanked with the worst downturn in history, forcing the new ownership group to make some tough decisions. But Derek and his partners didn’t waver in their vision or goals for Plainsman, committing to running it with a consistent strategy: growing with customers, continually improving product, and expanding both reach and capabilities. Despite the recession, Derek has led Plainsman through an international expansion that’s secured loyal customer partnerships around the world in Colombia, Australia, Mexico, and the middle east, in addition to pursuing initiatives like United Energy, which combines heat and power technology to recapture energy for heating, and the Gridline Project, a community think tank that guides innovation. The goal, Derek says, “is to reach out to people we typically wouldn’t talk to, to get like-minded people together to say, ‘How can I help you? How can you help me?’ We are hoping for it to bring us work but we just want to open our connections with people, to get closer to the people in the field touching the tools. They have ideas that we are not going to come up with sitting in the office.”

Leading Plainsman Through the Economic Downturn

A big part of Plainsman’s success continues to be relationship driven. By working closely with customers, Derek and his team listen to their needs and their challenges, and problem-solve accordingly. Whether finding new ways to support customer operations, innovating products for specific customer applications, or utilizing robotics for both precision and capacity, Plainsman is growing to meet both market and customer needs. “We just do what we say and say what we do,” Derek says, “We put out a product that works and we are always looking at making it better. What leaves our shop is fully inspected and we are confident it’s going to work, and that our customers won’t have issues with it. We make sure we have the right stock because if we don’t have it on the shelf, we’re letting our customers down. If they put an order in and we tell them that it’s going to be ready for shipment on Oct 1st, it’s important to me it is shipped October 1st. Our customers know when they phone us that they are getting the right product, a quality product, and on time.”

With the results of the recent federal election and economic uncertainty, Derek is focused on strategic growth and communicating that Plainsman has unparalleled, in-house manufacturing capabilities with an agile leadership team. “The key right now, in this economy,” Derek says, “is to be small enough to be agile but big enough that customers send us work and have confidence in our abilities.” What that looks like at Plainsman Manufacturing, is a small ownership group that can sit down and make decisions in an afternoon while also having a hands-on approach to management and operations. “And we can do more than people think,” Derek says, “What we have here – in-house welding, robotics, our engineering team – surprises people. When customers come in for a shop tour, they often say, ‘I didn’t realize you could do that,’ or ‘I didn’t know you had the space to stock that.’ We can do things tailored to our customer’s needs.”  

Plainsman’s Culture: Coaching and Connection

Together, Plainsman’s ownership group guides their team toward both short and long-term goals, enabling and supporting Plainsman employees to engage with the business, to bring their own ideas to the table and see them through. The team at Plainsman knows their leadership intimately, and that’s intentional. Many employees have been at Plainsman for decades, not just years, which is a testament to Derek’s leadership style – he’s stoic and dependable, straightforward and fair. People know what he expects and trust him to make the best decisions for the company, particularly since he often employs a coaching approach to leadership: “I know hockey fairly well and its pretty easy to relate it to what we do here on a daily basis,” he says, “We have people who work well with certain people or in certain situations, so you always juggle that around. Revenue is tied to spending, just like in sports, the more revenue you have the more you can spend on people, machines, and inventory.”

Derek knows that people rely on him to make the right choice. “It weighs on me,” he says, “and I think of it nightly. We get along well here, we have a good team. I think everyone is aware that when things need to get done, you put your nose down and do it, but if we have a little time to enjoy ourselves, then we do that as well. These are trying times and the culture can take a beating. Ownership has stepped up and made sure that money stays in the company, while paying down some debt, and the majority of our people have kept their jobs. That is key. We take that as a win.”

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Problem-Solving is What We Do: Innovation at Plainsman Manufacturing

In today’s market, innovation is a buzz word, it’s overused and often meaningless. Everyone knows that innovation is the key to our future (we must innovate to survive) and the push for it is huge, but the demand for innovation – new ideas, new products, new methods – is largely unmet. At Plainsman Manufacturing, we don’t toss around the word innovation lightly, we’re serious about it. For us, it’s not just an abstract concept, it’s what we are: we’re innovators.

And, as innovators, we know that mistakes are part of the engineering process and we constantly seek feedback to discover patterns, to understand challenges, and to grasp the big picture so that we can develop solutions. Because the best person to design something is the person who has the problem. It doesn’t matter if it’s in our shop or in the field, that’s how we help our customers. They know what the problem is, and they might even have a good idea on how to solve it, they just need the expertise to get it right.

Assembling the Right Team and Understanding the Problem

Everything we do at Plainsman is customer driven, which means that improvements, modifications, and new product design is ongoing – problem-solving is what we do. And while we’re tireless and methodical, we don’t use a prescriptive approach when it comes to research and development. Instead, we start with assembling the right team and understanding the problem. Ensuring that we have the right people on our innovation team is integral to a project’s success. When there is a challenging design problem, like with the PL5 centralizing couplings where a customer needed the coupling to fit with power rod tongs, we had a diverse team involved: all of our engineers, machinists from our shop, sales personnel, and the customer to help us diverge and then converge.

When it comes to those early brainstorming sessions where we’re conceptualizing, determining feasibility, and putting together early prototypes, we work quickly, learning as much as we can in as little time as we can. At this stage, feedback and field input is crucial to understanding the issue and coming up with solutions; here, effective communication is imperative. People make assumptions and we make mistakes; in fact, in the industry, the ongoing joke is that you can assume anything want in engineering. But at Plainsman, we write our assumptions down because we recognize that we can be wrong. We talk with the customer, get those assumptions checked, ask for verification.

Depending on the project, we’ll develop one or two prototypes simultaneously and perform lab testing (we call this verification and validation). We strive for Rapid Feedback Development Loops, so sometimes the customer is also involved in the lab testing. At that stage, we’ll tweak the design and do more detailed calculations before field testing the product. Every step of the way, we rely on feedback, working closely with our customers to adjust the design as needed. Sometimes that means we scrap a design because it’s not working as planned and start over, sometimes that means we modify it further.

Customer-Driven Innovations: The Shear Coupling

Many of our innovation projects stem from years of feedback, little improvement suggestions we’ve catalogued and noted from various customers, enough to warrant an exploration into modifying the product for efficiency and function. Other times, a customer will send the component back to us for our input on what happened. One of these customer driven innovations was for our shear couplings. The whole purpose of a shear coupling is to break when you want it to, not when you don’t. On this one, we noticed that most of the reported fractures were in approximately the same location, so we sent them out for forensic analysis and learned that the fractures were caused by bending and torque, resulting in fatigue.

Basically, you have some tension in the rod string, you have some torque from turning the rod string, and then there is an unknown amount of bending. All those loads combine to stress the metal, which has a specific strength, so if you over stress it, it’s going to break. The thing with fatigue is that it’s incremental over time, and it’s caused by fluctuating stress. In theory, if the mean and alternating stresses are known, fatigue life can be predicted, but in reality, all we know is how long the shear coupling was in use. We don’t have actual, real-time data about loading. So, not knowing magnitudes but knowing method, we designed the next level of shear coupling, our ToughTorq™, to be more resistant to fatigue caused by bending and torsion. We wrote a new material specification with more specific mechanical requirements for the material strength and ductility. We specifically chose properties to improve fatigue resistance and added sections of flexibility to allow the shear coupling to bend a little so it’s not resisting so much. A good analogy is it’s like fighting with your kids. If you resist fighting with them, they actually do what you want. Essentially, we’re making our shear couplings more accepting.

The next step was our WireTorq™ shear coupling which decoupled the bending from the torque – like a CV joint in your car or a ball and socket joint in your hip – and replaced the pins with a wire, so when you apply a torque and bending, it doesn’t go through the shaft the same way. This means that the combined stress is greatly reduced and the shear coupling essentially becomes stronger.

Customer-Driven Innovations: Spin-Thru Centralizing Couplings

Because wells are being drilled deeper and more horizontal, we’re asking the steel to do more work than ever before – meaning that we need higher strength materials. The ToughTorq™ PL5 centralizing coupling is a higher strength version of our PL5 centralizing coupling that was initiated by a customer’s request to operate continuously under higher torque. The ToughTorq™ can handle higher torque, but it basically operates the same as the PL5. The design goal for our new ToughTorq™ PLB centralizing coupling (under development) was to make a high performance PL5 centralizer capable of operating continuously under high torque that can be installed by power rod tongs. To test these innovations in the field, our international sales lead, Thomas Makelki took 3D printed parts to a customer in Australia to get onsite, comprehensive feedback. At the same time, we did a lot of work trying to figure out how those parts physically could be built. There was a lot of design for manufacturing for assembly (DFMA) and a lot of research into how to get it together before we sent it to the customer. On this project, having boots on the ground and meeting the end user in person helped us understand and hone the design – it was paramount to our success – especially since their feedback was the opposite of what we’d anticipated.

We Don’t Just Improve Our Products, We Also Improve Our Approach to Innovation

Our commitment to innovation includes improving how we innovate. In the fall of 2018, we sent a multidisciplinary team – our Innovation Director, Mark Lea-Wilson, two of our design engineers Jackie Kyriacou-Herman and Tyler Dyck, and our VP of Sales and Business Development, Mike Kittlitz, and innovation consultant, Steve Martens – to Mount Royal College’s Alberta Manufacturer Innovation Accelerator (AMIA) program to heighten our desire for innovation and growth, to clarify our innovation process and the tools that make it happen, to build peer relationships, and to improve project execution. In the four-month program we learned that you need to make mistakes faster. Mistakes are okay but you need to learn from them, and you need to move on to the next thing faster. We mapped it on different steps and processes from brainstorming to working the idea out and bringing it to market, and when we plotted it on a chart it was two months. We stagnated, flip-flopped, and questioned if we really wanted to follow this idea or something else. Seeing that was eye opening. We can do this faster. We need to. And that need is both the goal and the driver at Plainsman.

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