ARCHIVED - Fine tuning production optimizes growth chambers
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Bio Chambers Incorporated (a subsidiary of ENCONAIR Technologies Inc.)
October 29, 2007— Winnipeg, Manitoba
Ironically, growing plants for research purposes is much more complicated than that required for most animals and only a half dozen companies produce the sophisticated plant growth chambers used by researchers around the world. "The environmental needs of plants are much more extensive than those of animals," says Robert Pauls, President of Bio Chambers Incorporated, based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. "Growth chambers are more challenging engineering applications because there are four parameters that need to be controlled."
Tight controls of: light; temperature; humidity; and CO2 are the essential factors that enable researchers to grow plants on year-round basis. The benefits are substantial, he explains, because researchers can grow three or four 'crops' per year. "It helps accelerate the research process and bring products to market more quickly."
The growth chambers Bio Chambers Incorporated produces are primarily used by university and government researchers to study plants including food crops such as: wheat; oats; corn; canola; or rice. Developing a new variety of wheat under normal conditions can take from 15 to 20 years, but with growth chambers, the time is shortened to five to 10 years.
In addition, the chambers are not only useful as teaching tools, but another important role is as a quarantine chamber. "Sometimes, researchers will test the effect of pathogens or diseases on a plant and you want to be able to do that without releasing anything into the environment," Pauls explains.
Bio Chambers Incorporated produces plant growth chambers in three general sizes. The smallest is about the size of a refrigerator, while the medium-sized model is about two metres by one metre by 2 metres tall, and the largest is an actual room-size.
The bulk of the chambers are the medium-sized variety and while ENCONAIR ships mostly to Canada and the U.S., they also send a few overseas. Of the six main companies producing growth chambers, two are in the U.S., two in Europe and two in Canada. "The Canadian companies lead the market in quality and innovation," Pauls says.
Bio Chambers Incorporated success has been determined partly by their ability to develop improvements to their products, but also in the way they manufacture them.
Pauls began with the company in 1992 and recognized the need for an improved control mechanism for their growth chamber – one that incorporated a computerized interface to coordinate all the control elements. Initial attempts using an electronic design specialist met with frustration after some two years of development.
Bio Chambers Incorporated turned to the National Research Council - Industrial Research Assistance Programs (NRC-IRAP) and obtained product development assistance as well as contact with another designer. They hired the designer and within several months had the interface. "It worked well and within five years, all the other North American companies were using similar systems," says Pauls.
However, Bio Chambers Incorporated faced another challenge – they were known mostly in Western Canada, and in order to grow, they had to not only continue with their engineering improvements, but also streamline their production processes.
The results have been dramatic.
Today, the company is five times the size it was when Pauls joined. Given his early success on control interface project, he has continued working with NRC-IRAP and gives part of the credit for Bio Chambers Incorporated growth to their assistance.
Tim Mitchell is an Industrial Technology Advisor with NRC-IRAP and he's pleased that BioChambers Incorporated has been able to identify and implement a number of improvements with such beneficial results. The two most recent areas he's been involved with have enabled the company to streamline manufacturing, as well as standardize their engineering and design process.
The areas are interrelated and required the infusion of additional expertise. Mitchell helped them as part of NRC-IRAP's assistance to the biotechnology and the advanced manufacturing and process technologies sectors. "They worked with us to develop production processes that made us more efficient," explains Pauls. "That included putting together a job description for someone with the proper engineering and business experience and they also assisted in putting a strategy together."
"We helped them to hire a manufacturing engineering technologist and gave them some financial support for the position, as well," says Mitchell. "They've been able to more than double plant capacity while reducing inventory. The shop floor is cleaner, brighter and safer and the staff has remained the same."
In addition, production improvements have also been part of a process to develop four standardized design "modules": casing; lighting; refrigeration; and controls. A software program was adapted that incorporates modifications in one module into the other three, which not only improves efficiency, but also the end product.
"With set models that are easily customized, we don't have to re-engineer or re-design each unit, which also means changing our manufacturing process," says Pauls. "The customer feels they have control, while that part of the design process also enables the company to be more efficient."
As such, continuous improvement is needed and he adds that Bio Chambers Incorporated is now embarking on another project – a marketing-related program – and, again, he's taking advantages of the resources offered by NRC-IRAP.
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