Small parts, big returns

Known as ‘the engineer’s machine shop,’ Vic West’s Prototype Equipment Design is the linchpin connecting wild ideas to ground-breaking new products — with revenues of 2.5 million.

In the 1997 movie Contact — based on the Carl Sagan book — an astronomer named Eleanor Arroway (played by Jodie Foster) toils away at a massive radio telescope array in New Mexico, listening for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.
The National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s aptly named Very Large Array is an impressive facility, but a similar array being built in Chile will dwarf it — and a Vic West company is manufacturing a tiny but vital component to this Super-Sized Array’s construction.
Prototype Equipment Design (PED), founded in 2001 by Montreal native Ray Brougham, was contracted by the National Research Council of Canada to produce a waveguide assembly used in 73 receivers critical to the success of the Atacama Large Millimetre/Submillimetre Array (ALMA) observatory. Canada is part of an international consortium contributing resources to the project — and the only nation to contract with private-sector businesses like PED to deliver the goods.
“Our reputation for being able to take on unique design challenges and manufacture machined parts with incredible accuracy and repeatability is a big part of why we were given the opportunity to be a contributor to this historic project,” says Brougham, the company’s owner and president.
From the outside, PED would appear an unlikely candidate for such a lofty initiative. Housed in a nondescript light-industrial building off Esquimalt Road, it looks like a place you’d take your car for repairs.
“For the first five years, we didn’t even have a sign out front,” admits Brougham, who started the company in his garage with only a single lathe and computer numerical control (CNC) router.

The part PED is making for the ALMA observatory project in Chile.
The part PED is making for the ALMA observatory project in Chile.

“Those were scary times. I really didn’t know what I was getting into. I was always into the hands-on stuff, but I wasn’t even paying myself, even after doing this for a few years. I just kept putting the money back in. About four years in, my wife said, ‘You know, next week I’m going to give you a paycheck, because you need to start making money.’ That was perfect advice because it got me on a new path toward growth.”
Before founding PED, Brougham moved to northern B.C. in 1976 and spent 20 years in the forestry industry before setting his sights on earning a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and seeking his fortune in Russia, of all places. “I was at the top of my game in forestry and needed to find a new challenge,” he says.
He didn’t wind up back home in the U.S.S.R., but he did find his new challenge at Redlen Technologies, a semiconductor manufacturer in Saanichton. He still works there a few hours a week as a consultant, and PED is a supplier to Redlen. Brougham’s wife, Lindalee, is a chartered accountant and PED’s chief financial officer. With her help, Brougham now oversees a staff of 20 at a profitable company that brought in $2.5 million in revenue last year. He never did finish the master’s degree, but that’s OK, he says. “My new interest is working on the business.”
PED worked on robotics technology used in stem-cell research at Starfish Medical, says Brougham, “and we’re getting involved with the Canadian military through Babcock Canada — the submarine resource group. It’s a big deal for us because we are the only machine shop in Victoria that can manufacture what they call ‘first-level’ components — parts that are critical to the survival of the boats.”
The waveguide assemblies PED is building for the ALMA observatory will be able to filter radio waves from the sky so the facility’s receivers “hear” only signals between 84 and 116 gigahertz. Ultra-precise machining of parts for these devices was paramount due to extremely tight tolerances: plus or minus only five to 10 microns on many components. (A micron is one-millionth of a metre; the smallest speck of material the human eye can detect unaided is 40 microns, Brougham explains, and PED is capable of cutting material as fine as 1,000th of a micron.)
Precision isn’t the only consideration. “Our main goal,” says Brougham, “is to take customers’ designs and make them manufacture-able from the perspective of price, repeatability, and quality. This is a very collaborative and rewarding effort.”
The process can be painstakingly complex, like when a client brings in something as basic as a “napkin sketch” as a starting point. Others will come in with a finished or near-finished product and say “make me another one of these.”
PED’s services can be costly, but Brougham has a defence. “Usually people come to us if they can’t seem to buy exactly what they want. We’re a last resort, so it is more expensive to go this way, though sometimes we can buy something off the shelf and modify it.”
That approach gets clients’ products off the shop floor and out the door as fast as possible so they can go and sell — and hopefully come back to PED with their next idea. Like a standard CNC shop, PED also takes fully realized plans and machines them as is, says Brougham, but “we are a little different in that we add an advisory component to the process. We aren’t trying to re-engineer someone’s product, but sometimes we’ll look at something and say, ‘this feature is really expensive to put in — do you really need it?’ And they’ll agree or disagree and then we’ll resume the process.”
Far from the laurel-resting type, Brougham is taking PED into the realm of advanced electronics. He recently bought and installed a new machine that uses robotics and cameras to automatically populate components on circuit boards, at a rate of about one part per second. He’s keen to expand even further, and you get the impression that he can’t wait to use the additional space to buy more advanced technology