Where the rubber hits the road

 Published in the Dal News Nov 20, 2013

The Innovation and Design iDLab in the NSPDDC on Sexton Campus visibly teems with inspiration.

Lobster traps equipped with bait-saving technology sit by desks displaying Lego models with pneumatic mechanisms, as a spaceship-like metal orb with mobile arms dangles from above. TIPpy, The Instrumented Person (read: crash-test dummy) observes it all calmly from her perch in the corner. Just another day at the iDLab.

The iDLab is an extension of the Faculty of Engineering, with collaboration from other faculties and colleges. Director Matt d’Entremont works to find and take on projects that help businesses in the Maritimes increase efficiency to become more profitable. The projects run anywhere from two weeks to two years, helping mainly small companies — but also some larger ones — fix their problems.  

The key, according to d’Entremont, is what he calls “pull technology.”

“What we do isn’t about pushing; it’s not about people buying a technology that the iDLab produces,” he says. “It’s about finding out what keeps people up at night, and figuring out how to fix those problems.”

Best fit for the client

Working with a range of businesses means the iDLab’s role changes project to project.

“With larger companies, what we do will often be very specialized,” says d’Entremont. “With a smaller company, the iDLab effectively becomes their R&D department.”

The iDLab recently completed a project with RTS Technologies in Upper Musquodoboit. RTS is a small company that produces a range of products from recycled rubber. The playing surface on Wickwire Field, for example? That’s RTS’s handiwork.

Owner Steve Benison got in contact with the iDLab after receiving a Productivity and Innovation Voucher from the Government of Nova Scotia. The focus of the voucher program is to allow small and medium-sized businesses to get support from Nova Scotia’s post-secondary institutions to increase their efficiency. Dalhousie’s ILI office coordinates the program, and helps companies and organizations find suitable Dalhousie expertise to assist them.

After an initial meeting with d’Entremont to discuss the business, Benison and his team welcomed d’Entremont for a site visit, identifying issues and starting to think about solutions. D’Entremont consulted with iDLab member and Dal prof Ken Wilkie about potential solutions.    

The first innovation d’Entremont, Wilkie and the iDLab team produced for RTS was a series of self-lubricating custom inserts that create holes for bolts to secure finished rubber products. Previously, this was done by hand-drilling the holes after the rubber had set in its finished shape.

For Benison and RTS, this small change represents a huge improvement.

“The inserts give a more professional looking finished product, with more accurate hole placement and, above all, reduce the time to do this task by 95 per cent,” says Benison.

The iDLab team then moved on to what both d’Entremont and Benison viewed as RTS’s biggest production problem: how to stop rubber and adhesives from sticking to the company’s mixing machine.

The iDLab took the time to experiment with different coatings for the machine’s auger that would stop the product from sticking without affecting the process. At the end of the day, says Benison, the improvements “saved RTS an incredible 14 man hours per week of time spent cleaning and reduced our defective products by 98 per cent”.

These innovations have a common theme: they saved RTS time.

“Time is money, and in this economy money is sometimes hard to get,” says Benison. “So any time you can save in production is like money in the bank.”

Making a difference

Benison urges other businesses collaborate with the iDLab to solve their headaches.

“The only way manufacturing businesses have any chance to survive here in the Maritimes is to be far more efficient through innovation than our competitors who are closer to the larger, more affluent, markets.”

The iDLab in the NSPDDC is always looking for new projects, and invites businesses to contact Matt d’Entremont at dentremi@dal.ca.  

 — Sher Scott – November 20, 2013

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