Breakthrough in custom metal fabrication supports advanced research

January 16, 2018— Sydney, Nova Scotia

Protocase named a Top 10 Finalist at the 2017 Private Business Growth Awards, sponsored by The Canadian Chamber of Commerce and Grant Thornton LLP. From left to right, The Honourable Perrin Beatty, President and CEO of The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Steve Lilley, President of Protocase Inc., Doug Milburn, Vice-President of Protocase Inc., and Kevin Ladner, Executive Partner and CEO of Grant Thornton LLP.

Speed matters! Especially for engineers working at the cutting edge of science, technology and innovation. Whether it's rocket science, particle physics, or driverless cars, the pressure to get an idea from concept to result is intense.

Enter Protocase — the Sydney, Nova Scotia firm that helps researchers avoid bottlenecks when creating custom enclosures and sheet metal parts for electronic devices at some of the world's top corporations, research agencies and universities.

With the help of the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP), Protocase is revolutionizing the steel fabrication and machining business. Using ultra-lean manufacturing techniques, Protocase can take a product from design to completion in two to three days — an unparallelled speed for specialized one-off work. Unafraid of niche markets, the company serves more than 12,000 engineers, scientists, and design professionals working at the outer limits of technology in industries as diverse as aerospace, information technology, driverless transportation, renewable energy and defence.

In 2001, Steve Lilley and Doug Milburn, both engineers with experience in the university and corporate research world, established Protocase to swiftly deliver customized metal enclosures at consistently high levels of quality and with competitive pricing. They knew the frustration of having to bend and punch holes in prefab metal boxes to create the enclosures they needed for experiments and prototypes. University fabrication shops are often backed up with orders for weeks, and local commercial machine shops rarely do custom work, preferring the economics of larger runs and mass production.

"We don't expect our clients to be designers," explained Milburn, Co-founder and Director of Sales and Marketing. "We understand that their time is valuable, and we've made it easy for them to describe and order the enclosures they need."

"The R&D we need to grow and succeed is risky and unusual," said Milburn. "NRC IRAP has really helped us leap into the future of advanced manufacturing."

Doug Milburn, Co-founder and Director of Sales and Marketing, Protocase Inc.

NRC IRAP de-risks complex R&D venture

Protocase 5-axis CNC machine milling an aluminium plate for a custom PC enclosure.

The firm grew quickly. But to scale up, in 2005 the entrepreneurs turned to NRC IRAP for advice and support on how to find a way to merge the world of craft metal fabrication with that of advanced manufacturing and digital automation.

For Milburn, working with NRC IRAP was a natural choice. He had been a youth-hire on an NRC IRAP project with a tech company in Waterloo in the 1990s. He had also found NRC IRAP helpful in solving technical challenges for his other entrepreneurial ventures, Advanced Glazings, a maker of sustainable windows and daylighting solutions, and 45 Drives, a division of Protocase that is opening up ultra-fast, massive, open-platform data storage at low cost for data-intensive research, video streaming services and other uses.

The first challenge was to automate the many steps involved in designing and pricing clients' prototypes — highly specialized and labour-intensive tasks in a custom environment. Stephen Manley, the NRC IRAP Industrial Technology Advisor (ITA) working with the company, provided the firm with strategic advice on its research plan and linked the company to researchers at Cape Breton University and Dalhousie University to explore their ideas.

"We wondered, can we even automate this?" recalled Milburn. "There were a lot of twists and turns, but NRC IRAP was there for us at every step with advice and support. The project was much bigger than we could have tackled on our own as a small company."

Protocase uses ultra-lean manufacturing techniques to produce customized electronic enclosures for prototypes at unparalleled speed for leading-edge research in the aerospace, information technology and defence industries.

"It took a serious software development effort," said Manley, "But the end result was Protocase Designer, a CAD software program that funnels the client's design choices into selections that the company has the capacity to build quickly and cost effectively."

The second challenge was to understand and automate the cognitive steps required to translate 3D models into detailed digitized blueprints and step-by-step work instructions for use on the shop floor. Again, it was an ambitious research project. NRC IRAP helped Protocase to hire recent graduates with skills in software development, engineering and organizational processes. Many of these young employees have stayed with the company and have risen to senior positions.

"The ability to hire young people with an appetite for innovation has been a huge advantage for us," explained Milburn. "It was important to find staff with an interest in doing something unique. NRC IRAP has given us the flexibility to do this, and to take the time to train them on the job."

Customizing the future

Protocase has grown steadily since selling its first product in 2003. The company now processes 300 to 400 custom orders per week and boasts 140 employees. The Nova Scotia firm is considered one of the top metal fabrication companies in Canada in terms of growth.

Protocase continues to innovate, and, with NRC IRAP, is exploring how to apply the lessons of mass custom fabrication to its new machining lineup. Its 45 Drives division is working with NRC IRAP on developmental work to integrate solid-state drives (SSDs) into their large storage offerings. Building on these advances, ITA Stephen Manley is helping the division work through strategies to combine large storage with CPU computing that will meet the increasing needs of clients that are harnessing advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning to revolutionize ambient computing, driverless vehicles, and more.

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