An engineer’s tale

In this month’s executive Q&A, NAM spoke exclusively to Van der Graaf (VDG) owner and president Alex Kanaris. Learn more about what brought this electrical engineer to the world of industrial drum motors and his view for the mines of tomorrow.

Edited by Donna Schmidt

Thanks for your time, Alex. Please share a little about your background. What brought you to mining?
I am an electrical engineer by trade. I designed the first industrial drum motor in 1985; I started working on it in 1982 and it took 2.5 years to complete. That first design now hangs on the wall in my office. Right now, I hold 26 total patents in my name, all related to drum motors.

In my early experience, I worked for an electric motor company and freelanced with motor manufacturers for motor design. At that time, industrial conveyors were only driven by external motor and gearbox. My idea was to move all drive components of a belt conveyor inside the roller or head pulley.

How did your product line-up begin with mining, or other applications? How has mining changed that line?
VDG’s entry into mining began in 1992 when a coal mining company in West Virginia requested an explosion proof drum motor. At that time, the max drum motor VDG manufactured was 10 horsepower and this application required a 50 horsepower. We designed the 50 hp, explosion proof and MSHA-approved drum motor for underground coal mining applications. Currently, VDG designs and manufactures drum motors up 500 hp to cover other mining industry applications.

Mining, much like the other industries VDG has serviced – including aggregates, food, airports, postal, parcel, and warehousing – the factors required to calculate the horsepower of a conveyor drive depends on the length, width, incline, belt speed and load of the conveyor.

You have retained a global presence since your inception. How important is that to you to maintain?
This is very important. We need more companies to start buying conveyor drives made in America.

As we keep growing, today we have three manufacturing plants, one in Toronto, Canada, and two in Michigan. We pay close attention to our manufacturing process, using all high-tech robotics, and we do everything in-house from material to final product. All in America. And we focus on the design and manufacturing of drum motors that provide optimal performance, reliability, and maintenance-free service-life.

What are the trends you see driving mining’s future?
The political situation has affected mining a lot. We have had good results in the past, but with the current administration imposing new regulations and with the rise of interest rates, we have seen some decline in the industry.

What role do you see yourself personally, and VDG, having in mining’s future?
My role is to educate the mining industry about the benefits of using drum motors over a traditional belt drive in belt conveyors. With the VDG drum motor designed for 80,000 hours of continuous operation without maintenance, and consuming 1/3 less energy, it is an optimal/ideal solution for all types of belt conveyor applications.

With 250 employees, we’re currently covering 5-6% of the demand. We have lots of room to grow. Everything that’s required to go into our products is manufactured here in our plant without subcontracting. This gives us the benefit of meeting delivery time, and with our inhouse engineering team, the ability to adapt new designs quickly.

Anything else you can add?
As an engineer, I have a saying: If you want me to sit behind a desk and manage, you’ll gain a bad manager and lose a good engineer.

VDG’s manufacturing decades: a look back
In 1948, Meine Hendricus Van der Graaf opened a small shop in Vollenhove, Netherlands. He specialized in repairing equipment that was used to extract water from strategic territories in Netherlands and pump it into the sea in order to create farmland and property for families to build homes. The young entrepreneur recognized that the friction clutch, an important component for the operation of these pumps, was in demand, and therefore started manufacturing friction clutches.

After World War II, industries in Europe experienced significant incline and growth; development and manufacturing of mechanical equipment of all kinds were in high demand. Meine H. Van der Graaf embraced this trend and became a subcontractor, manufacturing parts and components used by submarines and helicopters. The agricultural industry in the Netherlands was also gaining strength as well as the need for power transmission equipment to drive belt conveyors.

In response to industry demands, Mr. Van der Graaf started designing and manufacturing gearboxes for belt conveyors, eventually expanding production to include the manufacturing of electric motors and variable-speed pulleys.

In 1961, the company included the manufacturing and production of drum motors.

Shortly after, Van der Graaf developed and started manufacturing granulock couplings that helped to increase their market to other industries.

In 1985, another young entrepreneur, Alexander Kanaris (currently president of Van der Graaf in Canada and the U.S.), with the assistance of Mr. Van der Graaf, established the manufacturing facility in Toronto, Canada, and in 2009 expanded manufacturing to Shelby Township, Mich. Today, over 270,000 square feet of manufacturing space in the U.S. and Canada utilizes the latest technology and CNC equipment.

With sales representatives and distributors worldwide, Van der Graaf has been positioned strategically to provide world-class conveyor drives and service. With fast-growing recognition for drum motors, Van der Graaf has focused primarily on designing and manufacturing drum motors.

Initially, the drum motor was designed to serve the agricultural industry. Today, Van der Graaf drum motors are manufactured to power conveyors for a wide array of industries including mining, aggregate, postal, parcel, agriculture, food processing, warehousing and airline baggage conveyors, from 3.75” to 36” diameter and horsepower from 0.11-500 hp.

With continuous improvements through research & development, and in-house manufacturing in the U.S. and Canada using cutting-edge production technology and automation, VDG ensures product quality, fast delivery, and after-sales service.