Established in 2002, the Sudbury-based company designs and manufactures switchgear and process automation systems for electric submersible pumps used in oilfields around the world.
It also supplies a wide range of other products and services to companies that specialize in providing the “artificial lift” that is often required to bring oil to surface.
Brian Burton started the business following a long career in the electric submersible pump industry. Born and raised in Sudbury, Burton left home in the late 70s to look for work in Alberta’s oil patch. After a few years, he was offered an assignment in Libya and jumped at the opportunity. For the next 20 years, he worked a 35-day in, 35-day out rotation, eventually assuming management responsibility for more than 100 employees who
operated and maintained the submersible pumps that kept Libya’s oil flowing.
While still a bachelor, Burton often spent his 35 days off traveling in Europe, and began commuting between Canada and North Africa once he married
and began raising a family in Sudbury.
By 2002, he had had enough.
“I was away from home a lot and it was time to come back,” he said.
Reluctant to completely sever the relationship, his employer asked if he would be interested in supplying products and services required by the company. Burton agreed.
At the same time, he teamed up with an Edmonton-based colleague with expertise in designing and manufacturing switchgear and automation and control systems used for powering and monitoring electric submersible pumps.
Starting off with two employees in 2002, Subcoe now boasts 30 employees in three locations. The company designs and manufactures power distribution and process control systems in Edmonton and operates its procurement and industrial supply business in Sudbury.
With a customer base in Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan and Yemen firmly established, Burton is now focused on applying the company’s pumping expertise to the mining industry.
“We’re still in the early stages of addressing the needs of the mining industry, but we feel there’s an opportunity to cross-feed technology from the oil industry,” said Burton.
Subcoe has recently signed on as a Northern Ontario distributor for pump manufacturer ABS and also has a distribution rights in Eastern Canada for Weatherford International’s horizontal pumping systems.
“They’ve taken that submersible pump that goes down in the oil well and put it on surface horizontally. It’s really taken off,” said Burton. They can give you up to 5,000 psi of discharge pressure, so I think there’s an application in the mining and municipal sectors.
“With these pumps, you can move a lot more fluid much further than what you’d normally see at a mine, so you could have fewer pumps and less maintenance.”
Unlike conventional pumps used in the mining industry, Weatherford’s horizontal pumping systems are customizable and able to be adapted for specific volumes and distances.
“It’s a multi-stage pump designed to match the customer’s requirements,” explained Burton. “Every time you add a stage to the pump, you’re adding lift, so if one stage lifts the fluid 20 feet, two stages will lift it 40 feet and three stages will lift it 60 feet.
“Conventional pumps used in the mining industry are fixed. You can’t add anything if you have larger volumes or distances.”
Subcoe also has expertise in designing variable speed drives that impact on power consumption by eliminating electrical peaks.
“The cranking amps are very, very high to get those pumps going, so if you can keep those peaks down, you’re saving money,” said Burton.
Aside from its operations in Sudbury and Edmonton, Subcoe employs six engineers who work out of an office at the University of Varna in Bulgaria.
A Subcoe employee from Bulgaria introduced Burton and his partner to his colleagues at the university, and the company promptly brought several of them on board for research and development.
The group has developed a WI-FI monitoring solution that allows oilfield service personnel to monitor more effectively the performance of multiple electric submersible pumps from a central location on surface.
Subcoe’s Bulgarian R&D office is also developing a prototype for a harmonic filter designed to reduce the heat and distortion caused by variable speed drives.
The oil and gas industry and the mining industry are generally worlds unto themselves and rarely interact, but with one of the world’s biggest mining camps in Subcoe’s backyard and pumping expertise crucial to both industries, the odds are in favour of cross-fertilization.