ANCASTER, ONT. — Actlabs — Canada’s largest family owned laboratory — has opened its 200,000-square-foot global headquarters in Ancaster, Ont., to streamline its growing business.
The firm, which has provided analytic services for the mining industry for almost three decades, unveiled its $20-million facility in the Ancaster Industrial Business Park outside Hamilton on April 23.
After a sweeping tour of the state-of-the-art building on Bittern St., president and founder Eric Hoffman said the new facility brings the work previously undertaken in five buildings all under one roof.
“Now everything starts at the backdoor and becomes linear right through the lab, with a minimal amount of movement of people. So it should be a lot more efficient.”
Along with improving productivity, Actlabs will automate many of its processes and boost its services.
“We will be able to triple our local capacity and provide additional research and development opportunities to Actlabs and all of our customers,” Hoffman said.
And with the expanded services comes more jobs. The firm employs over 200 people at its Ancaster location, and Hoffman says this could double in five years, making Actlabs one of the largest private employers in Hamilton.
“We built this with expansion in mind,” Hoffman said in an interview.
Since its inception in 1987, the firm has grown from a small business based in Brantford, Ont., into an international company, with 30 laboratories across 14 countries. It has over 1,000 employees worldwide.
One of the reasons Hoffman, an economic geologist, moved to Ancaster a few years after founding Actlabs was to be closer to the nuclear reactor at McMaster University. Actlabs uses the research reactor to radiate samples to test for elements in a process called “neutron activation.”
This technique is so precise that it can measure gold in rocks or soil samples down to a couple parts per billion, Hoffman said during the tour.
He studied neutron activation combined with fire assays as part of his PhD dissertation, where he had to come up with a method that could detect platinum group element distribution for several of Inco’s mines. At the time, methods weren’t sensitive enough to spot platinum metal in nickel ore.
After graduating with his PhD, he joined a Toronto-based firm that formed a joint venture with McMaster University to start a business in neutron activation. A little under a decade later, in 1987, he commercialized the process on his own and started up Activation Laboratories, commonly known as “Actlabs.”
The firm’s biggest presence is in Canada, with 13 locations. Seven of these are full laboratories based in Ontario, of which six are near major mining areas such Red Lake, Timmins and Thunder Bay. This provides explorers and producers easy access to Actlabs’ services, which include geochemistry, metallurgy, assays and determining what exploration techniques to use.
“We are closely located to our customers — that’s why we are able to do the 24- to 48-hour turnaround, while some other competitors have to ship samples to other locations, and aren’t able to offer services like ours,” said Ariella Hoffman, a marketing and business development representative at Actlabs. She is one of Eric’s three children who work at the firm, along with her mother.
Some of Actlabs mining clients include Probe Mines, Premier Gold and New Gold.
Actlabs does all the geochemistry work for the Quebec government, along with work for the Geological Survey of Canada.
To balance the cyclical nature of the mining industry, Actlabs expanded its analytical testing and development services in Canada to the environmental, agriculture, life sciences, forensics and material testing markets. Internationally, the firm only provides services for mining, where it has been developing or improving technologies to help exploration and recovery. Hoffman says that Actlabs’ selective extraction, enzyme-leach and soil-gas hydrocarbon methods are good for finding deeply buried deposits.
“As people go look deeper and deeper for mineral deposits, we have the technologies to do that, whereas a lot of our competition — if it’s not at the surface — they don’t have the technology to do it,” he said.
Actlabs is one of the largest Canadian-owned, independent laboratories.
“Not that people haven’t tried to buy us,” Hoffman said. “We just haven’t been for sale yet.”
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