Composites Innovation Centre is developing products to drive western Canadian businesses to the next level.
By Jenny Ford
In the foyer of Composites Innovation Centre (CIC) are a motorbike and an electric car. Not too far off sit a snowboard and, at the back of the building, an eco-friendly gazebo. They’re the tip of the iceberg of the innovative projects CIC has worked on over the last decade, projects that have helped propel western Canadian businesses forward.
“People work here because it’s diverse work, it’s interesting work, it’s exciting work. You’re developing new products, but you also want to make a difference in the community. Working here it may be more obvious how you can do that,” says Mike Hudek, manager of business development and operations at the Winnipeg centre.
CIC, which celebrated its 10th anniversary on Oct. 23, is a not-for-profit organization funded by both industry and government. It works with companies and government in all aspects of developing composite products, which in turn helps businesses grow, develop and create more jobs.
CIC’s employees are inventors of sorts, designing, testing and working with businesses to develop and prototype new composite products.
Composites, you say?
Composite materials are strong, lightweight materials developed in a lab that use different kinds of fibres bonded together chemically. The material is an increasingly important technology in manufacturing, says Hudek.
The goal of these products is to be more cost effective, environmentally friendly and also offer enhanced performance. Better-designed, lightweight bus doors will save fuel costs, for instance.
“It’s a type of material and it’s a type of product where there really is increasing demand because of the pressures of fuel prices and because people want better looking products,” he says.
Composite technologies can be anything from designing a bus panel to creating prototypes for a new curling broom. CIC helps companies develop, test and commercialize composite technologies for aerospace, ground transportation, biomaterials, civil infrastructure and other industries.
The use of composites is growing and CIC looks to support companies to take advantage of this growth, says Hudek, which will eventually create more jobs in these industries. The green revolution has also sparked an interest in bio composite materials, made from natural fibres.
“Our companies are trying to become more competitive with their products and part of that is the look of the product and composites do facilitate that quite a bit,” he says.
However, Hudek notes CIC isn’t there to compete with existing companies, but to help with the development process.
“We provide development around the technology to see if that technology makes sense,” he says. “We’re supporting at the tactical level, company by company, but we’re also involved in larger collaborative projects to support the industry at a strategic planning level as a province.”
The centre is equipped with classrooms, a prototype facility, as well as a lab to test materials. Although not accredited, the lab still prepares specimens of composite materials for testing and it evaluates reports from accredited labs.
CIC also examines composites in order to test and adjust how much of each material should be used.
Over the years, the centre has been involved in a multitude of projects. Recently, they helped design a prototype for a new curling broom for a Winnipeg company. The broom has a bent handle, making it easier to hold and maneuver, Hudek describes.
Another project is the green gazebo made with a hemp composite roof and a wooden frame. A local manufacturer is currently selling the gazebo under the name “the ultimate gazebo”. The motorbike and electric car are other examples of products developed by the centre using green bio composite materials.
CIC is also heavily involved in the transportation sector, helping Winnipeg companies, such as Motor Coach Industries, make parts for their buses from composites.
Careers and composites
On top of this, CIC also helps with training. The centre works with students from the University of Manitoba and Red River College, as well as people in the industry to better educate them about the use of composites.
“We orient companies with what are the benefits, what are the challenges. We help them if they are interested in exploring using composites in their products, what makes sense and what doesn’t and really trying to create connections between them and the existing fabricators in the region,” Hudek says.
There are currently 27 employees at CIC with two to four summer students and usually a few co-op students each year. Many employees, especially for aerospace projects, work offsite directly with businesses to help develop their products and composite capabilities. By helping others, employees are also creating future jobs at these companies.
“Where else can you work towards making your future job? You’re growing the industry you’re working in. You’re just making more opportunity for yourself and others,” Hudek says.
The core employees at CIC are engineers, mainly mechanical engineers, says Maureen Williamson, manager of finance and administration at CIC. There are also a lot of employees in the design field.
“Typically, they’re people that have had exposure to composites that are familiar and that have had some training or some experience with composites,” she says.
Employees’ education backgrounds are generally University of Manitoba for engineering or Red River College on the design side, she notes. The company grows a few people each year.
“We’re extremely fortunate here because we get innovative and creative talented minds,” she says, “that’s one of the things our employees really like. Every day is different and every day brings a new project.”