Red Deer: Manufacturing Innovation

When Nick Efston was looking to develop a prototype for his company’s vertical-axis wind turbine, he did not even bother putting together an estimate on how much it would cost to hire a private facility to build the project. He already knew the job would be far too expensive.

We would have had to bring in all these people and have dedicated engineers. We didn’t actually quote it out because we knew it would have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Efston, president of Toronto-based Mobismart Mobile Off-Grid Power and Storage Inc.

On the recommendation of Robert Reive, the Calgary-based owner of the intellectual property behind Mobismart’s turbine design, the company connected with Red Deer College’s Centre for Innovation in Manufacturing (CIM). Together, the two organizations collaborated in a successful application to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada for a $25,000 grant to help build and test a prototype at CIM.

Mobismart went into the centre with two basic questions: Could the turbine, designed for deployment in remote or temporary locations, begin moving at wind speeds of three metres per second, or roughly eight kilometres per hour? Could it hit its power production target of four kilowatts?

Over eight months, the company worked with CIM to finalize computer-aided design (CAD) drawings and build a working prototype. Test benchmarks were completed at the college and the finished model is now headed to Toronto, where it will be set up outside Mobismart’s manufacturing centre for testing in real-world conditions. Efston expects to begin commercial production shortly after these final tests are complete.

This process would have likely been more difficult without the services of a facility like CIM, Efston says. While the three-year-old Mobismart is already an active business — it sells and installs solar and wind power systems — it would not have been able to develop its own unique turbine design without additional help. Having the support of a government grant and access to CIM greatly lowered the cost of doing the necessary research and development work.

“We probably could have got it funded, but it wouldn’t have happened as quickly. We would have had to do other things to get the funds to do it first,” says Efston. “It would not have come to market as quickly as it did.”

Red Deer College president and CEO Joel Ward with students in the Centre for Innovation in Manufacturing. Photo courtesy: Red Deer College

CIM began operations at Red Deer College in 2009. The college is located in the southwest area of Red Deer, not far from the Queen Elizabeth II Highway that has traditionally made up the western border of Alberta’s third largest city, which sits roughly halfway between Calgary and Edmonton.

CIM opened its doors with funding support from Red Deer College, the provincial government, and the federally run Western Economic Diversification Canada. Small- and medium-sized enterprises looking to develop new products routinely turn to CIM for an array of support services, including design engineering, 3D CAD modelling and prototype fabrication. Every year, the centre accepts around 30 projects like Mobismart’s vertical-axis turbine, according to Naveen Anand, Red Deer College’s director of applied research and innovation.

Notably, CIM does not take an interest in the intellectual property of its clients’ projects. It is a fee-for-service facility that draws upon $4.2 million in equipment, including an industrial-grade 3D printer, and metal forming and cutting machinery.

The use of 3D printing allows the centre to quickly and affordably produce multiple iterations of a product, and its metal-working machinery allows it to create final prototypes for more extensive testing. However, CIM can also leverage the resources available elsewhere on campus to support its work.

“Being at Red Deer College, we also have access to equipment that is housed in the School of Trades and Technology,” Anand says. “For example, if we needed to use carpentry tools or welding equipment, all of that is possible. So, the overall value proposition for the centre becomes quite compelling.”

CIM’s support for entrepreneurs extends beyond designing and fabricating prototypes. As well as helping companies through the process of developing a new product, the centre can also help connect its clients with potential industry partners or provide advice on business management and marketing issues.

Anand recalls one central Alberta welding shop that had its staff drop from 100 to 30 during the recent economic downturn. The college was able to offer advice on how it could diversify its business from oil and gas into construction. Other companies have turned to the college and its Donald School of Business for help in drawing up business plans.

“We’re able to ask them questions. That idea looks interesting, but do they know if it has a market?” Anand says. “We can at least seed those kinds of thoughts.”

“We are seeing more and more clean-tech projects come to the centre. You can see the economy is diversifying.”
– Naveen Anand, director of applied research and innovation at Red Deer College

Oil and gas is a major component of the regional economy, and alongside agriculture, it is one of the main drivers of local manufacturing, explains Kimberley Worthington, executive director of the Central Alberta Economic Partnership (CAEP).

“There are a lot of local operators that manufacture almost every component that’s needed in oil and gas,” she says. “We see the good in that, but when the economy goes down, it impacts us as well.”

Being constructed for the 2019 Canada Winter Games, the Gary W. Harris Canada Games Centre will bring Olympic level features to Red Deer College. Photo courtesy: Red Deer College

Worthington sees signs of increased economic activity in the region.

“I think that speaks to the need for diversification,” she says. “And the Centre for Innovation in Manufacturing can lend its hand to help diversify the economy by supporting new entrepreneurs in developing the products they want to get to market. Diversification will help central Alberta, and Alberta on the whole, weather those peaks and valleys much better.”

Economic diversification has been a cornerstone of the CIM’s mission from the start, and projects like Mobismart’s wind turbine over a hint of what form it could take in central Alberta.

“We are seeing more and more clean-tech projects come to the centre. You can see the economy is diversifying,” Anand says. “I would say we’ve had an impact on that.”

He expects the number of clean technology projects to only increase as the college invests in campus sustainability improvements, such as a combined heat and power unit. A new alternative energy lab, expected to be completed in spring 2018, will only further increase the expertise available on campus to support new clean technology projects at CIM.

“There is manufacturing here. The entrepreneurial spirit around here is not focused entirely on agriculture or oil and gas,” Anand says. “The hybrid economy is emerging.”