Smarter, affordable and local manufacturing for SMEs

Two men wearing safety glasses crouch to work on a piece of technology sitting on the floor in a lab.

Smarter, affordable and local manufacturing for SMEs

New Conestoga College centre will help businesses cut costs on the test bed
March 4, 2015

Try before you buy. That simple adage is particularly important in the world of manufacturing, where even a small change to the production process can end up costing millions of dollars in new equipment and training. While big companies have their own labs where engineers, technicians and other “makers” can mess around with new techniques, small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) usually do not, hampering their ability to stay competitive.

Greg Robertson has a solution. As Director of Applied Research and Innovation at Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ont., he is overseeing the creation of a new Centre for Smart Manufacturing that will allow local companies to test drive new manufacturing processes before writing a big cheque. “When we asked our local client base what was important to them, they said they wanted something practical,” says Robertson, adding that there are hundreds of SME manufacturers in the Waterloo region alone. “They want to take an idea and turn it into a reality.”

As an example, look at your smartphone. Many small screens are made up of organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs), which require less power and offer greater contrast than the older liquid crystal displays (LCDs). Unfortunately, OLED screens are hard to manufacture on a large scale because the backplane — the array of transistors that turns each pixel on and off — is prone to defects; the larger it gets, the more likely there is to be a flaw in the product. Today most TV screens are still LCD-based.

Working with two local companies, DifTek Lasers and Christie Digital, a team of students from Conestoga is testing out a new manufacturing process that could create TV-sized backplanes that are defect-free. Their top-secret material is being cooked up in a sophisticated, temperature-controlled furnace in the Centre’s Materials Lab, bought with funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). “When completed, the project could potentially change the way that OLEDs are manufactured,” says Robertson.

The Centre contains a lot more than furnaces. It’s actually a network of seven different labs, each focused on a different aspect of the manufacturing process. The Advanced Sensor Lab is home to infrared cameras that quickly check materials for defects, while the Manufacturing Robotics Lab has a programmable robotic arm that can test out new ways of assembling parts. The Manufacturing Prototyping Lab contains a high-end 3-D printer, allowing researchers to run through two or three plastic test versions of a new component in less time than it would take to make a single metal prototype.

But while helping out local businesses is a key part of Conestoga’s mission, there are other benefits. “By providing a more complete solution to our community, we’re also providing more opportunities to our students and faculty,” Robertson says. That means that some of the “makers” playing around in this high-tech sandbox today, may become the innovators who usher in new and better technologies of tomorrow.