Lean Manufacturing in mobile robots and programmable surfaces

04/06/2015 13:130 commentsViews: 3

When the James Webb Space Telescope is launched in 2018, engineering and advanced manufacturing skill from Waterloo Region will help astronomers peer out to very beginning of the universe.

Com Dev International in Cambridge built the fine guidance sensor and scientific instrument that is the Canadian Space Agency’s contribution to the telescope.

The James Webb telescope is the successor to the Hubble. Whereas the Hubble is in near-earth orbit, the new telescope will be in deep space, about 1.5 million kilometres from Earth.

“It was a real engineering challenge to be part of that,” says Michael Pley, Com Dev’s chief executive officer. “It will be a huge technological achievement.”

The instruments produced at Com Dev will point the telescope and allow it to peer as far back in space and time as a telescope can possibly reach — out to about 13.5 billion years ago, when the “first light” was able to shine through the haze after the Big Bang.

Com Dev is a prime example of the type of advanced technology that Waterloo Region was evolving into, even back in early 1980s when the area’s old rubber and consumer products factories were shutting down.

Val O’Donovan, the late founder of Com Dev, moved the company from Montreal to Cambridge in 1979. “The major reason was the proximity to the universities. From his perspective, it was all about the access to talent,” Pley says.

It was a good move. Com Dev now has 1,100 employees, about 900 of them in Cambridge. The majority have engineering or advanced technical degrees.

Com Dev builds satellite and spacecraft components for government agencies like NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and European Space Agency, and for private sector aerospace companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital Sciences, Airbus, Thales Alenia Space and others.

Its exactEarth Ltd. division uses microsatellites to track ships as they move around the world’s oceans, to better protect coastlines, fisheries, arctic sovereignty and the ocean environment.

Companies are now talking about using microsatellites to provide low-cost Internet service. Com Dev’s expertise matches that goal well. “The move is to do more and more and more on board a satellite payload, and so that means they need all the computing power available today,” Pley says.

“But it is also about the manufacturing techniques and how you make thing,” he says. In launching objects into space, “it is every important to keep the mass down and the size as small as possible. Everything has to be very compact.”

It is advanced manufacturing that is highly customized. Every mission into space is different, depending on how the satellite is being used and where it is going, the temperature range and conditions the components need to operate in.

So while a company like Toyota is the ultimate in terms of lean manufacturing, “we have to be able to adapt every single time to different situations,” Pley says. “We try to standardize as much as we can and keep costs down for our customers, but at the same time we have to be flexible for every single mission.”

Com Dev was an early player in a growing aerospace industry in Waterloo Region.

In February, Quebec-based Héroux-Devtek opened a state-of-the-art landing gear components plant in Cambridge. The official opening was held the very same day that a plant that was one of the anchors of the traditional manufacturing sector — the Schneiders meat processing plant in Kitchener — closed after more than 90 years in operation.

There already was a Héroux-Devtek a plant in Kitchener, producing medium-to-large-size landing gear components. The second plant will allow the company to make complete landing gear systems for Boeing Company’s B-777 and B-777X jet airliners.

The new plant will increase the Héroux-Devtek workforce in Ontario to more than 250 people, most of them in Waterloo Region.

Mobile robots are also transforming the future, both on Earth and on other planets, and companies in Waterloo Region have moved into that area as well.

Ontario Drive & Gear, which started in 1962, has grown to employ nearly 250 people in New Hamburg. It recently announced its expansion into a building once occupied by Magnussen, a furniture manufacturer.

The company needs the extra room because its space robotics division is growing as a result of contracts with the Canadian Space Agency. The company’s terrestrial rovers, based on advanced space technology, also are a growing part of the business.

Mobile robots can be used to transport stretchers or supplies over rough terrain, spray crops without exposing people in dangerous chemicals, do resource exploration and travel into areas that are too dangerous for people.

Another fast-growing company seizing the opportunities in mobile robots is Clearpath Robotics in Kitchener. Launched in 2009 by three University of Waterloo engineering graduates, it already has about 85 employees and is still hiring. After raising $14 million in venture capital, it expects to grow to about 140 employees over the next two years.

While robotic arms in factories can do repeatable tasks under very controlled conditions, mobile robots need to operate in much more chaotic environments, so they are far more complex, says Bryan Webb, one of Clearpath’s founders and the firm’s chief operating officer.

Clearpath is making a big push into the use of mobile robots in warehouses for materials handling, and also in mining and other resource sectors, where they are useful in dangerous jobs, such as remapping a mine after a collapse.

“We are trying to automate the world’s dullest, deadliest and dirtiest jobs,” Webb says.

The robotics industry uses technology such as 3-D sensors, developed for other products and application, such as smartphones and computer gaming. So Waterloo Region, with an abundance of advanced technology companies, including BlackBerry and Teledyne-Dalsa, is a natural place to grow a cluster of robotics companies, Webb says.

Other mobile robotics companies in Waterloo Region include Deep Trekker in Ayr, a startup that makes a low-cost remotely operated, underwater submersible, and Aeryon Labs in Waterloo, which makes airborne drones.

Technology not only is changing the types of manufacturing industries that cluster here, it is also changing the way manufacturing is done.

For example, Waterloo startup Lani Labs is creating an iTunes-type store for printing objects on 3-D printers. It’s like a marketplace where people can get 3-D object designs, and then print the object on their home-based 3-D printer or have it printed at a 3-D print centre and pick it up when it’s done.

Another Waterloo startup, Maieutic Enterprises, aims to use nanotechnology to produce very tiny “pins” that can create a “programmable surface” for moulds and dyes used in manufacturing.

Co-founder Asif Khan says the company is still in the “proof of concept” phase, but it has filed a provisional patent and hopes to have a prototype within about 18 months.

The idea addresses the problem of downtime in manufacturing, Khan says. If a mould becomes warped or has a dent, then the production line has to stop so it can be repaired. With a “programmable surface” made of these tiny pins, it is possible to reform the surface and save on downtime, Khan says.

“Just like a television where you have a whole bunch of pixels to create a picture, we want to use a whole bunch of pins to create a shape,” he says.

If the technology works and is cost-effective for industry, it will be another example of how manufacturing adapts and becomes more competitive here in Canada.

“Manufacturing is the bread and butter of the American economy and the Canadian economy, so it is important for us to compete with countries that have low labour costs,” Khan says. “We have to look at automation and what we are doing is automating the surface of a tool.”

 

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