ARCHIVED - Aluminium researchers deliver high-performance solutions

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September 07, 2007— Ottawa, Ontario

We've come a long way since snowshoes were handmade from sinew and wood. Today's high-performance snowshoes are made from modern, lightweight materials like aluminium. But using materials in new product applications often requires new processing technologies – each raising new challenges.

In the heart of Canada's "aluminium valley," a Quebec-based manufacturer of aluminium needed answers. His company — a top Canadian provider of aluminium parts for a wide range of consumer products — was facing technical problems while trying to produce the perfect snowshoe frame. Something was making the tubing break during the thermal hardening process. It didn't happen every time and there was no obvious cause.

From left to right: Mr. Jean-Paré (President and CEO, Alfiniti Inc.); Dr. Ahmed Rahem (Group Leader of Forming Processes, NRC-ATC); and Dr. Mario Fafard (Laval University professor and Director, REGAL)
From left to right: Mr. Jean-Paré (President and CEO, Alfiniti Inc.); Dr. Ahmed Rahem (Group Leader of Forming Processes, NRC-ATC); and Dr. Mario Fafard (Laval University professor and Director, REGAL)

That's the scenario that led Jean Paré, the president of Alfiniti Inc., to the NRC Aluminum Technology Centre (NRC-ATC) in Quebec's Saguenay region. This $57 million centre offers Canadian manufacturers the technical support, expertise and lab facilities to develop or perfect metal transformation technologies. Helping Canadian small and medium-sized enterprises overcome R&D challenges in the aluminium business is the mission of the NRC-ATC and the technology cluster partners.

The first step was to systematically observe and measure all aspects of Alfiniti's heat treatment process over several months and determine the precise conditions that were causing breakage. The company could provide neither the manpower nor the money for the job.

Helping Canadian aluminium manufacturers overcome R&D challenges is the raison d'être of the NRC-led aluminium technology cluster.

Thanks to NRC partners, Paré didn't have to wait long before several experts signed an R&D agreement to find affordable solutions for his company.

NRC-ATC teamed up with two universities — Laval University and the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC). Both are part of the Centre de recherche sur l'aluminium called "REGAL," a network of universities and industry partners that runs a far-reaching research program on aluminum production and transformation. Mario Fafard, the director of REGAL, recruited a Master's student from Laval to conduct the first stage of research. On-site at NRC-ATC, he studied the impact of Alfiniti's heat treatment on the structural integrity of cold-drawn aluminium tubing, and determined the optimal time and temperature required to prevent breakage and maintain product strength.

A second Master's student in engineering at UQAC is currently studying Alfiniti's oven. His research will help to adapt the oven to ensure it consistently offers the ideal hardening treatment.

Thanks to the project's success to date, a third phase of R&D has just been launched. It will maximize the entire production process, from the cold-drawing of seamless tubes to the bending and thermal hardening process.

Alfiniti Inc. is already reaping the benefits. The company now understands far more about the challenges of metal transformation and how certain processes affect a metal's structural integrity. The changes made to its thermal hardening process have cut production time in half and increased its productivity by more than 10 percent, giving this small firm a distinct Canadian competitive edge.

Snowshoe and snowshoe frame
Snowshoe and snowshoe frame

"You've got to bring in the right resources at the right time to address the manufacturer's problem," says Ahmed Rahem, the group leader at NRC-ATC. "We're really pleased that the team we brought together did such a good job."

Although the total cost of the research approaches $200,000, Alfiniti has borne only a fraction of the bill. Almost three quarters of the investment was covered by the NRC Industrial Research Assistance Program, an industrial research grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and a federal R&D tax credit.

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