College innovation centre opens doors for SME digital technology adoption

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Red Deer College


Opening doors to greater productivity, growth and profits for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) is one of the key roles that Red Deer College's (RDC) Centre for Innovation in Manufacturing (CIM) plays in the province of Alberta and beyond. RDC has more than 500 industry engagements. These engagements include digital technology solutions, consultation, problem solving and networking.

Behind one of the doors is the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP), with which Red Deer College (RDC) has been engaged for almost 20 years. NRC-IRAP Industrial Technology Advisors (ITAs) work hand-in-hand with the college, local government and industry to identify and address SME needs; help them overcome challenges and identify opportunities; improve productivity, product quality and speed to market; and introduce them to experts in various areas. "NRC-IRAP support has allowed us to create opportunities for firms that help them innovate and generate efficiencies that lead to greater profits and opportunities," says Eric Kokko, RDC's director of Applied Research and Innovation.

RDC also operates the Central Alberta Regional Innovation Network (CARIN)—a communications conduit and networking tool in the province's rapidly growing manufacturing sector. "This came out of a million-dollar RDC investment to have senior manufacturers cold-call SMEs and ask them what we can do to help," says Kokko. "Now, through thousands of ongoing email communications, CARIN not only helps raise awareness about resources available to SMEs, but also provides ongoing problem-solving and connector services to the industry."

RDC's Centre for Innovation in Manufacturing (CIM) is an excellent resource for SMEs.

With more than 1400 subscribers, CARIN facilitates innovation and new product development aimed at diversifying and growing businesses. The network supplies mentors who understand SME issues and make pertinent suggestions for addressing their problems and eliminating barriers to growth.

This and other programs combined with findings from market research have helped the college identify companies' needs and determine which enterprises would be willing to commit the resources to effect the necessary changes. With support from the Digital Technology Adoption Pilot Program (DTAPP) delivered by NRC-IRAP, Red Deer College was also able to identify which companies would be receptive to adopting digital technology and committed to making a change. Indicators that a company is ready for such change include willingness to do an internal assessment of their operations or procedures, being prepared to invest some of their own funds, and assigning an in-house champion to work with RDC and NRC-IRAP on implementing the changes.

Digital technologies: power tools for SME success

RDC students and faculty help SMEs with rapid prototyping on 3D printers.

When SMEs turn to the college, they are usually looking for technology solutions; help with improving shop-floor and business operations; operations assessments; productivity plans; prototyping; and customized training. And through RDC and its broad network, their needs can be met.

"We're constantly fielding questions from SMEs about where they can get a product tested, find highly qualified specialists, identify training courses, attend local lunch-and-learn sessions, connect with NRC-IRAP resources and the like," adds Kokko. CARIN is a powerful instrument that helps RDC enable SMEs to find references, consultations and advice via email and phone.

"The NRC-IRAP ITA network is also a powerful tool for the industry," says Kokko. "In addition to experts in digital technology adoption, process improvement and other manufacturing efficiencies, NRC has one of the best databases and library-searching capabilities in the country."

RDC's Centre for Innovation in Manufacturing (CIM) has tens of millions of dollars invested in state-of-the-art equipment and infrastructure to support SMEs in prototyping their manufacturing concepts. "Many of the devices and innovations created in Canada and exported around the world are coming from innovative Alberta companies," he says. While Red Deer is home to around 400 manufacturers in industries ranging from medical devices to satellite receivers and fishing lures, the CIM is the only centre of its kind in Alberta.

NRC-IRAP support has allowed us to create opportunities for firms that help them innovate and generate efficiencies that lead to greater profits and opportunities. — Eric Kokko, director of Applied Research and Innovation, Red Deer College

By leveraging its assets such as CIM, the college has helped a variety of enterprises with digital technology adoption. Here are some examples:

  1. A drill-bit manufacturer needed a model of one of its drill bits to take to trade shows. RDC used its rapid prototyper to build them a lightweight version.
  2. The local inventor of an insulating tray for children's lunch cases needed a model to take to China to set up production. RDC prototyped the lunch case.
  3. A central Alberta convention, trade show, agriculture, entertainment and sports facility needed an efficiency study and design change for temporary animal pens that are installed and dismantled for various shows. Because the pen gates are large, bulky and awkward, several workers who handle them had been injured. RDC engaged two students in the design change as part of RDC's annual Design competition.
  4. A company that manufactures portable satellite receivers used mainly by forest firefighters was looking for ways to produce new moulds so they could expand the business to campers, trailers and mobile homes. RDC reviewed the advantages and disadvantages of using the rapid prototyper for their production needs and met with a provincial government technology development advisor (TDA) to discuss other manufacturing options. In the end, the most costeffective approach was for RDC to prototype the new moulds.
  5. A medical device manufacturer developed 3D drawings of a clamp for use in trauma situations— specifically gunshots or stabbings—that clamps the wound shut and stops the bleeding. The inventors needed prototypes for evaluations produced quickly. RDC used the rapid prototyper to generate more than 20 iterations that helped the inventors manufacture and get it to market quickly. The device won the 2012 ASTech Foundation Award (Outstanding Science and Technology Start-up Award, Innovative Trauma Care).

Embark Enterprises, Sundre, Alberta

RDC's 3D printing allowed Embark to prototype its revolutionary replacement canine stifle joint.

Five years ago, Alberta veterinarians Neil Embleton and Veronica Barkowski began working on a revolutionary approach to the surgical treatment of canine stifle (knee) joint instability. Rupture of the cranial cruciate ligament in dogs is the most common small-animal orthopedic disease requiring surgery. According to Embleton, the invention—unlike current surgical techniques—provides immediate stability to the knee joint and is less invasive than techniques that require osteotomies (cutting of bone).

With a long history of providing surgical services to small-animal veterinary clinics in central and southern Alberta, Embleton and Barkowski had the expertise to make this work. The challenge was to get the idea from a gleam in the eye to a product that they believe will become a mainstream cruciate injury repair method globally. And Red Deer College played a critical role in making the dream take shape. "If I had contacted them from the beginning, I would have saved myself at least a year," says Embleton.

When Embleton presented his needs to the college's Centre for Innovation in Manufacturing, they assigned a team of engineers, faculty and students to help him develop prototypes to test on cadavers. "Every time we had a meeting, it was such a welcoming and exciting atmosphere," he recalls. "The team helped me with analyses and idea exchanges, and came up with a game plan that included the cost of each phase."

If I had contacted them [RDC] from the beginning, I would have saved myself at least a year. — Neil Embleton, veterinarian and inventor, Embark Enterprises

RDC's rapid prototyping capability was key to the game plan, speeding up the research and development process immensely in an economical way. Prototypes in regular-grade stainless steel were fine for testing, but for potential implanting into live dogs, RDC helped identify that human surgical grade stainless and an ultra-lightweight polyethylene (used in human hip and knee replacements) were the right combination.

Thanks to RDC's help, Embleton has been able to sell the invention to an international distributor to build and market the device.

MPowRx Health and Wellness Products 2012 Inc., Calgary, Alberta (

Helping the world sleep soundly is the effect of an economical, easy-to-wear appliance that addresses sleep disorders such as snoring and sleep apnea. Much less expensive and with a higher success rate than other products on the market, this small, simple solution is being snapped up by customers around the world.

Rapid prototyping helped MPowRx test various modifications to their product.

Rapid prototyping allowed MPowRx to test product packaging for global shipping.

Manufactured and marketed by the five-person MPowRx Health and Wellness Products, the snoring solution fits on the end of the tongue, pulling it forward to keep the throat airway clear. According to president and CEO Nancy Markley, the company's six years of North American success have identified ways to modify the one-size-fits-all device to penetrate even more markets. "Customer feedback indicated a need for adjustments in comfort, fit, performance and packaging," she says. "In addition, while many like to buy the product online, others prefer to get it from a professional healthcare provider, so we have two versions."

The ability to work quickly with rapid prototyping saved us months of work, and up to $30,000 per prototype. — Nancy Markley, president and CEO, MPowRx Health and Wellness Products

Designing and testing modifications on the device were done by RDC's rapid prototyping (3D printing) facility. "We were able to prototype a number of design and packaging iterations and test them on different patients." Markley points out that RDC assembled a multidisciplinary team to help them with plastics design, vacuum moulding and product packaging. The packaging is important, since the product needs to be delivered by postal services around the world in the most efficient and cost-effective ways.

"The ability to work quickly with rapid prototyping saved us months of work, and up to $30,000 per prototype," she says. "At RDC, we were able to go from design to product in three days, at a cost of about $200 each." MPowRx looked at some five different design iterations that played with a number of parameters such as plastics, temperatures and vacuum times.

"The ability to make all these changes within a year has allowed us to expand from being a local medical device manufacturer to an international one, selling our products across five continents."

Power to the future

The NRC-IRAP ITA network is also a powerful tool for the industry. — Eric Kokko, director of Applied Research and Innovation, Red Deer College

Kokko reports that during the months in which RDC and DTAPP worked on the digital technology initiatives, the college completed twice as many projects as anticipated. During that time, new opportunities with the RDC School of Business were also explored and some projects initiated.

Following up on the DTAPP projects, RDC is developing a methodology for engaging firms and successfully implementing change that results in increased productivity that can be used throughout Alberta and Canada. Rolling this methodology out across regions will improve the rate of digital technology adoption by SMEs. RDC will continue to use a fee-based cost-recovery system to break even, since it works on a not-for-profit basis.

Like other colleges, RDC continues to leverage its "power network" across the community and country. "We are highly engaged in the community across all business sectors through trade associations and chambers of commerce, government, agencies, funders and other educational institutions across the country," adds Kokko. "This allows us to provide quick consultations and referrals to meet SMEs' pressing business needs as they arise."

About the Digital Technology Adoption Pilot Program (DTAPP)

As part of the Government of Canada's Digital Economy Strategy, NRC-IRAP is delivering the Digital Technology Adoption Pilot Program (DTAPP). DTAPP was created as a pilot program to deliver support from November 2011 to March 31, 2014.

DTAPP represents a significant investment in the Canadian economy to increase the productivity growth of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Canada across all sectors through the adoption of digital technologies.

An important component of DTAPP is to assess and measure the outcomes of digital technology adoption on the productivity of SMEs. DTAPP will utilize this aggregate knowledge and transfer successful practices and lessons learned to the broader SME community in order to:

  • improve the rate of digital technology adoption by SMEs
  • improve understanding of the link between digital technologies and productivity
  • raise awareness of the benefits and importance of adopting these technologies

This information will be a critical tool to encourage prospective adopters of digital technologies and will continue to impact the potential productivity growth of the Canadian economy well into the future.

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