A business ally
Centring in on the benefits of Canada’s innovation centres
May 20, 2015 - With a yo-yoing Canadian dollar and the lingering uncertainty of the industrial sector, the need for manufacturers to pursue innovation has never been more pertinent. These days, there is pressure for manufacturers to be innovative, stay innovative and, of course, stay cost-competitive. Hoping to help achieve that goal, a number of innovation centres have popped up across the country recently, boasting state-of-the-art equipment, technology and skilled support personnel for manufacturers.
The risk in risky business
“For virtually every manufacturer in Canada, R&D budgets are tight. There are often tight margins, and companies are struggling to keep pace and compete,” says Evan Butler-Jones, applied research lead at the Innovation Centre for Advanced Manufacturing and Production at Canadore College.
Better known as ICAMP, the 8,500-square-foot centre is structured as both a technology showcase and working lab for local businesses. It hosts a variety of technologies onsite, such as several 3D printers, CNC machines, 3D scanners, a scanning electron microscope, as well as a 12-seat 3D theatre for design visualization, and rooms for designing, testing and prototyping.
“We found that because of the [fast pace] of advancement in manufacturing technology, investing, learning and adopting those technologies is both expensive and high risk,” he says.
He points to 3D printing, 3D scanning, robotics, machine vision, and machine learning algorisms as some examples of these trends.
“New offerings come onto the market several times a year sometimes. They all tell you their technology is what you need for your business. And if you add to that, new materials, increasing use of composites, advances in data analytics, all of these different things can make it difficult for R&D and production managers to keep abreast of what’s happening,” he says. “Essentially what we’re doing is supplementing — we are de-risking the innovation investment.”
Butler-Jones says what makes ICAMP so successful is the fact that the centre is industry-driven. In fact, the senior leadership team spoke to various businesses and manufacturers to find out what they needed when the centre was in early development.
“A lot of our clients now incorporate our centre regularly into their own R&D process, whether that is to use the equipment, use our team, or both,” he says. “It allows them to come in and get up to speed on this technology without having to make the capital investment in their own company.”
Jannatec Technologies is an electronics designer and manufacturer for the mining industry, and has been working with ICAMP for approximately the last year and a half.
“From my point of view, if people [at the centres] have the right training and knowledge, you are able to use [them] to really streamline the product development cycle,” says Stephen Podrucky, Jannatec product designer.
He says that by working with ICAMP, the company was able to turn certain phases of its development cycle from months into weeks for several projects. “It’s been a really great resource for us, so I would recommend it to other manufacturers who are interested in innovating,” he adds.
Strength in its people
Founded in 2003, the Composites Innovation Centre Manitoba (CIC) has already worked with more than 130 companies, estimates Mike Hudek, vice-president business development and operations.
This “one-stop shop technology centre” supports a variety of businesses in Western Canada, he says, specifically through engineering support in the design and analysis of composite components, material process selection, and prototype manufacturing, testing and evaluation.
“When manufacturers approach us, we make sure they’re connected to the right person on our team,” says Hudek. CIC has about 30 employees broken into groups with different specialities. Once the appropriate contact is determined, the parties work together to outline the scope of the project, including the deliverables, timeframe, budget and eligible funding.
“Many of the small- to medium-sized companies I meet may not even have an in-house engineering or technical capability,” he says. “Sometimes it’s because they’ve had to downsize and remove those positions [...] or maybe they aren’t able to justify a permanent position in that area. In this case, we can be a central resource for multiple companies so they don’t have to cover the full cost of that worker.”
As a result of working on multiple projects with different clients, Hudek believes that shared-service personnel, such as those working at CIC, can often end up developing skills at a faster rate than a manufacturer’s internal R&D team. He gives this example — a given worker at CIC may go through the design process numerous times annually from working on different projects, while an internal team at a manufacturer may go through the same process once every five years, let’s say.
Ready, set, action
PaperNuts offers a unique solution to fill the empty space inside boxes — its title product boasts an alternative to Styrofoam and other starch-based peanuts, bubble wraps and air bags. The company went to Niagara College’s Niagara Research several years ago for additional R&D support when it needed to develop a new paper stand to sustain its 800-pound paper rolls. The Industry Innovation Centre at Niagara (IIC@N) implemented a solution by identifying machine deficiencies and improving the production machinery.
Since then, the company has turned to IIC@N for assistance with other projects involving machine, production and dispensing efficiency.
“Each time we do a project together, it’s been successful,” says Scott MacRae, president and founder of PaperNuts. According to MacRae, the company was able to save “a lot of money and time” by working with the centre.
Two months ago, the college marked the official beginning of the construction of its new Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre, an establishment that exclusively serves the manufacturing industry. With support from a $4.2-million provincial investment and a $1.2-million donation from Walker Industries and the Walker family, the centre will provide more than 15,000 square feet of lab space for hands-on applied learning, innovation space for companies to work onsite, and office space for students and industry staff.
“On behalf of our family and our employees, we are incredibly proud to invest in Niagara College through its Achieving Dreams Campaign,” says Sheila (Walker) Bonapace, a Walker Industries’ shareholder. “For businesses like ours that depend on skilled workers that our college educates and trains, it’s important that we support this campaign. The future of our region depends on it.”
Construction of the centre aims to be completed by early 2016.
The art of collaboration
In a world where companies are often fighting to stay ahead of the curve, it’s important to learn how to join forces with industry peers, says Butler-Jones. “Without sharing your trade secrets, there is a lot of value in working together and in gaining the knowledge that needs to be gained,” says Butler-Jones.
According to him, finding ways to share information, work together and keep up-to-date on technology is critical for all businesses.
“Most of us are too small to compete locally on our own without help of some sort. It just seems to be the reality, and we need to be able to rely on partners and collaborators to move things forward.”
This feature previously appeared in the May 2015 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.
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