Viryl Technologies – From Medical to Musical

I’ve written a number of posts about Viryl Technologies and vinyl pressing companies that are installing the new WarmTone press (Microforum and Kaneshii), but it was this past week that I finally had the pleasure of meeting the team at Viryl and getting a great tour of their facility in Toronto, Ontario.  The facility where the WarmTone presses are manufactured and tested presents itself as a place where grass roots innovation is taking place.  It reminded me of the office of one of my university professors.  Books and academic papers stacked high with the apparent stability of a Jenga tower, but if you asked for the 1978 paper on social construction of reality from a postmodern feminist perspective, he could pick it out of a pile in the back corner.  It was clear that the success of Viryl has lead them to outgrown their current digs.  They will be moving to a much needed larger facility in the coming months.

 

I arrived at this beehive of activity and was greeted by Adam, a McMaster engineering student doing his second summer of work with Viryl.   I give a lot of credence to the perspective of students who have not yet been jaded by the 9-5 world of work.   Adam seemed genuinely excited to be part of the Viryl team.  And from my perspective, he really did seem to be part of a team.  While we waited to connect with Rob and Chad, Adam introduced me Marco Marquez who introduced himself as the guy responsible for pretty much everything technical.

 

“Applications and operations.  I’m kind of the blacksmith to the place.  I keep everything running.  I work with the clients.  If they are new to vinyl pressing, I explain all the characteristics of records.  How to make them flatter in the pressing process.  A lot of the clients we are dealing with now are new to vinyl.   I have to basically teach them everything.  There are a lot of baby steps along the way to make sure they get what they need.  But that’s how they learn.  And then I deal with companies that have been doing this for years.”

 

Marco let it slip that his attachment to vinyl also comes from being a DJ since he was fifteen. He also worked with Chad Brown at Acme Vinyl before  Acme shut down and they went their separate ways.  Once Chad, Rob and James Hashmi founded Viryl, they called on Marco to join them because of his experience with vinyl and possibly the DJ skills – he was coy about that.
Pink Vinyl Pellets
Pink Vinyl Pellets

Marco gave me a tour of the pressing process starting right from the bags of vinyl pellets that get loaded into the hopper. From my horseback riding days, these bags were reminiscent of the bags of oats we haulded around, but instead of feeding horses, the Viryl team is feeding our need for records.

Switch Over Disc
Switch Over Disc

While I watched, they did a switch over from pink to black vinyl.  This usually results in some pretty cool looking mottled effects that are sadly discarded unless they are unique enough to make it onto the wall displays around the factory.

Wall of Change Over Discs
Wall of Change Over Discs

In addition to the relative ease in changing vinyl colour, the WarmTone has also been designed for ease in changing stampers.  In the past, when press runs were in the thousands, stampers could be left in the presses for days at a time.  Now orders are often only in the hundreds so stampers may need to be changed multiple times in a day.  These change-overs can take a couple of hours on old machines, but only ten minutes on a WarmTone.

 

Marco explained the process of heating the vinyl pellets to create a vinyl “puck” that weighs about 200 grams.  Puck is a perfect description as the heated piece of vinyl which is ready for pressing is just a bit thicker and larger than a hockey puck.  The vinyl pellets pass through three electric heating zones to create the puck that is then placed between the two stampers where it is heated again and pressed for about ten seconds.  Rob explained that much of the pressing heat is created by “shear between the screw and the resin” while fans are active to constantly regulate the heat for optimal pressing.  The record labels are applied during the pressing process so no adhesive is even required.  The near-final record is then transferred to the trimmer where the excess vinyl is removed and the album is stacked.  These albums are then allowed to cool before they are packaged.

 

This video begins at the hopper, moves to the tubes that heat the vinyl pellets and create the pucks.  While my video skills are not great, you can see the puck being pressed between stampers then transferred to the trimmer and finally stacked.  What I found quite remarkable about this is the lack of need for operator intervention.  It is clear why one person can operate two machines without being challenged.
 

 

We took one of the cooled, freshly pressed albums from the stack and right on to a Technics turntable (you can hear one playing in the background of the video).

 

According to Marco, “We take a test album every ten to twenty pressings to make sure everything sounds OK and then we adjust certain parameters through the settings on the computer interface to constantly make improvements.”

 

As Rob Brown the COO of Viryl explained, “When you get even a brand new vinyl press that uses the old technology, its first pressings are going to be its best, and then it is only going to go down hill from there.  With our presses, because we constantly are adjusting the process parameters, the pressings are only going to get better.” [Note: Chad Brown is the CEO while James Hashmi is the CTO]

 

I asked both Rob and Marco what was different about the WarmTone compared to presses that are fifty or more years old.

 

Marco jumped in.  “Its the data.  We’re constantly monitoring everything.  If there is a fault, we know immediately what it is and can fix it.  With the old machines, they had gages, so you don’t know what is happening between gage one and gage two.  If there is a problem you have to stop the press and try to figure it out.  The numbers were just a range.  Ours are exact.”

 

Rob added, “With old presses if you changed something the only feedback you got was how the record looked or sounded after it was pressed.  With ours we can change a variable and see immediately what the impact is on say the cooling water temperature, or the mold cooling time.  Whatever downstream effect we want to look at.  We are getting to the point where these data outputs can be used to adjust the inputs automatically and to inform engineering process changes.”

 

Seems like Rob and Marco were describing a press with some artificial intelligence, or at least a significant learning capacity.

 

It hit me that this was applying the best of digital technology to improve analogue record albums.

 

I saw first hand how Viryl was doing this.  Rob Showed me the interface that was being used to monitor and adjust the press on site, but also the online interface that was monitoring every WarmTone installation worldwide.  For the data-geek, this is Meca.  Every aspect of every process was being monitored in real time.  If there is an issue with a press in Australia, the corrective changes are made available to other WarmTone owners through service contract packages used to support Viryl clients.  It became very apparent how this dark data mining within an ever expanding WarmTone community will lead to continuous pressing improvements.  I can see an incentive for vinyl pressing companies to actually encourage their competitors to also purchase WarmTone presses because of the knowledge community Viryl is building.

 

The support starts before the presses are installed.  Marco goes on site to help the purchasing company ensure that they have all of the necessary infrastructure to efficiently run their new presses.  Viryl helps with project management software and making connections with appropriate contractors.   In addition, once a press is purchased, the new vinyl pressing company can start to use the press at the facility I visited.  They provide the stampers and Viryl will start to run production pressing so the company has a catalog ready once their WarmTone is ready so they are fully up and running.

 

On the business side, Rob told me that they have ten presses in the field right now.  They were installing three the week of my visit – two in the UK and one in New Orleans, plus installations and sales coming in Atlanta and Australia.  One of the more significant sales was to Independent Record Pressing in New Jersey.  They have one up and running with three more on the way.  These are replacing older Hamilton machines.

 

“That was our first big displacement of older machines” Rob told me.

 

“Hand Run Records in Dallas is running really, really well.  They are putting out about eight to ten thousand records a week running twelve hour shifts.” Rob added.

 

One of these presses can be built and installed in about sixteen weeks, but this is mostly for plants that have existing presses that will be displaced by the WarmTone.  It takes a bit longer with brand new installations because of all of the support infrastructure that is required.

 

Rob told me that most of the founding team at Viryl had worked together at a medical devices company that manufactured MRI coils.  Through a succession of growth and company buy-outs, the division that Chad, Rob and James worked for eventually transferred to the US.  Rob explained that the transition was very gradual so they had time to talk about their future.  They knew they were all interested in starting their own business and tossed around ideas that at times included a brew pub.  They eventuall got some significant financial support from AXYZ a Burlington company that manufactures CNC routers and saw potential in building a new vinyl pressing technology.  After Chad’s experience with Acme, he would only join in this venture if they agreed to build a completely new press in every aspect.  It appears they have done this very successfully.

 

I asked Rob, off-the-record, whether the company was in the black yet.  He was happy to go on the record and report that their most current financials are cash-flow positive since the full launch in January 2017. – Or “in the black”, just like the vinyl coming of these WarmTone presses.  It seems like the Viryl team has successfully made the transition from medical to musical, but I suspect there may have been a brew-pub stop along the way.