Microfactory at the Ottawa Innovation Centre

Accelerating innovation and entrepreneurship with access to 21st century rapid prototyping tools

Lasercutting at Artengine makerspace (Ottawa, ON)

Digital fabrication (which includes processes termed “additive manufacturing” such as 3D printing and “subtractive” tools like CNC routers) is considered by an increasing number of nations and commentators to be underpinning a future revolution in manufacturing.

The Chinese government has recently announced an ambitious plan to place 3D printers in 400,000 primary schools by 2016. Shanghai’s municipal government has backed plans to build 100+ makerspaces or “innovation houses” throughout the city. In a March 2015 government report, Premier Li Kequiang referred to the rise of “” (maker) as a key driver in the revitalization of the Chinese economy as a nation of innovators. The growth of the maker movement in China is also seen as having a critical education role as the country sets out to achieve ambitious goals laid out in the “Made in China 2025” 10-year plan.

A solder workshop at the Chaihuo hackerspace in Shenzhen, China — Photo by Mitch Altman/Flickr

China joins other nations, including the United States, in embracing the Maker Movement and its tremendous potential to mobilize millions of creative innovators and entrepreneurs. In the US, makerspaces are growing across the nation with many co-located with libraries, schools and other community-based organizations whether for-profit or not-for-profit. The Obama Administration, which proclaimed a national day of making in 2014, has aggressively pursued a strategy to modernize manufacturing by introducing a network of linked Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation with common goals, but unique concentrations such as additive manufacturing (America Makes).

Why Not … Ottawa!

It may not be well-known that Ottawa’s technological innovation roots pre-date those of Silicon Valley. The presence of the National Research Council of Canada played an important role in stimulating commercial development of government research projects such as the Position and Homing Indicator device manufactured by Computing Devices Canada in 1948.

Ottawa’s rise as a technology powerhouse over the decades peaked as it became globally recognized for its prowess in the design and manufacture of products for telecommunications. Companies such as Nortel, Mitel, Newbridge Networks and JDS Fitel became leading employers in the region and, by some estimates, jobs in the Ottawa tech sector rose to over 70,000. As global markets for Ottawa-based telecomm products diminished so did those of local flagship tech companies with some estimates of tech employment hovering as low as 44,000.

Ottawa rode the telecomm wave for close to a generation producing world-class talent in both hardware and software innovation. We believe that this deep pool of talent has developed “usable” knowledge, know-how and specialized technical skills that can be re-activated and re-engaged to compete in a new era of rapid prototyping, product development and advanced manufacturing, for example, in markets such as IoT, wearables, robotics and intelligent systems. A new microfactory at the Ottawa Innovation Centre could emerge as the centerpiece of a strategy to leverage our region’s deep and diverse talent pool and ignite an innovation renaissance.

Ottawa Innovation Centre at Bayview Yards

Microfactory at the Ottawa Innovation Centre

The proposed microfactory at the Ottawa Innovation Centre could serve as a centerpiece of an integrated technology-based economic development strategy linking academia, industry, community and government.

Ottawa is home to the National Research Council of Canada’s Printable Electronics (PE) Flagship program. NRC is seeking to establish a product development and demonstration capability that will give Canadian designers and manufacturers a crucial competitive edge in fabricating PE items for global markets. Exciting new areas of collaboration that are worthy of exploration include the development of commercially viable low-cost 3D printing of electronics.

The excellence in photonics research at the University of Ottawa represents another important dimension of our vision. uOttawa has recently submitted a proposal to the Canada First Research Excellence Fund for the creation of the Canadian Institute for the Science and Application of Light (CISAL). CISAL’s primary objective is to develop light-matter technologies for the benefit and development of the Canadian advanced manufacturing sector.

The microfactory could be instrumental, for instance, in supporting the mission of the new the Medical Devices Commercialization Centre (MDCC). This new Centre which stems from the University of Ottawa’s Medical Devices Innovation Institute, received $15M in the latest Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research (CECR) Program competition. MDCC is a national collaborative network of medical device stakeholders (innovators, experts and users) established to enhance, encourage, facilitate and advance needed, safe, reliable and economically viable medical devices for successful clinical use in the global market.

Combined with Ottawa’s deep pool of talented hardware and software innovators, the proposed Ottawa Innovation Centre microfactory has the potential to accelerate hardware innovation from design to manufacture in large part due to the accessibility of modern tools of digital fabrication and rapid prototyping. This facility is ideal not only for entrepreneurial startups but will be equally relevant to existing SMEs and multinationals looking to tap local/global markets, form partnerships and/or introduce technical staff to state-of-the-art tools. To some degree, we are interested in emulating the experience of the FirstBuild microfactory concept pioneered by GE and Local Motors in the US.

Linking with Community Makerspaces and Local Maker Networks

Ottawa Mini Maker Faire 2012 at Shopify

Ottawa boasts a robust and rapidly growing community of makers such as Maker Nexus/Ottawa and active grassroots groups like Ottawa Internet of Things Meetup, ProductHunt Community of Ottawa and more recently, Wearables Ottawa. Ottawa was also the first city in Canada to be awarded a license to host the popular Mini Maker Faire in 2010. In 2015, Ottawa is also the first in the country to be elevated as a “Featured Faire”, one of a handful of cities around the world conferred this designation. Some 10,000 visitors are expected to attend the 2015 Ottawa Maker Faire. Ottawa is also benefiting from the expansion of community-based makerspaces including the original Ottawa hackerspace at Artengine, the Imagine Space at the Ottawa Public Library, the University of Ottawa Makerspace (and Maker Mobiles) and, more recently, Makerspace North.

The University of Ottawa has made significant investments in infrastructure, courses, events, competitions, student associations and programs to encourage students in acquiring a “maker mindset” and transform innovative ideas into physical prototypes. Earlier this year, NSERC awarded uOttawa faculty Dr. Hanan Anis, the Chair in Entrepreneurial Engineering Design (CEED) to promote the integration of design, engineering and entrepreneurship. This award represents just over $3M in cash from the university, industry partners and NSERC’s contribution. In addition to the new campus makerspace, uOttawa is also expanding its Brunsfield Engineering Student Projects and Entrepreneurship Centre. The Brunsfield Centre is a dedicated facility that provides engineering students involved in pre-professional competitions with the space, tools and equipment to design, fabricate, and test complex prototypes. The new Entrepreneurship Hub at uOttawa is working closely with Dr. Anis in engaging students and faculty to use the campus makerspace to explore and accelerate the development of innovative ideas.

Dr. Hanan Anis, NSERC Chair in Entrepreneurial Engineering Design

Strategic Value of a Microfactory at OIC

The proposed microfactory at the Ottawa Innovation Centre (OIC) will serve as a bridge between the community of individual “makers” and companies (including startups, manufacturing SMEs, etc) seeking to rapidly translate innovative concepts into commercial production. Digital fabrication tools found in community-based makerspaces typically lack the sophistication to transform concepts into high-fidelity prototypes suitable for volume manufacturing. At the other end of the spectrum, large-scale production equipment lacks the flexibility for custom-manufacturing and small batch-runs. With access to the reconfigurable tool set that will be available at the OIC microfactory, makers can tap into a flexible and nimble manufacturing infrastructure to prototype, iterate and scale their inventions. The OIC microfactory will thus provide integrated design, rapid prototyping and small-batch manufacturing within one location.

From an ecosystem perspective, the proposed OIC microfactory will fill an important gap identified as the stage as shown in the image below. Our approach to the proposed makerspace draws from best practices of leading hardware accelerators such as Bolt.io, Hax.co, and Highway1.

From “A Movement in the Making”, Deloitte University Press

Link to Global Manufacturing Supply Chains

The vast majority of community-based makerspaces tend to focus on local makers with little or no connection to global supply chains. As shown in the image above (Figure 2), these makerspaces principally cater to the “Zero to Maker” and the “Maker to Maker” segment of the maker ecosystem. While makers in these segments value collaboration with their peers, there is little need to plug into manufacturing supply chains.

In contrast, as the proposed microfactory at the OIC addresses the “Maker to Market” segment, it is imperative that it links to global supply chains, particular those urban centers that have recently emerged as manufacturing innovators and leaders such as Shenzhen. Shenzhen is now acknowledged as the global magnet for hardware companies and innovators.

Huaqiangbei electronic markets in Shenzhen, China, is the biggest of its type in Asia. Photograph: China Photos/Getty Images

Shenzhen was China’s first Special Economic Zone, and has become the world’s most well-known center of hardware and consumer electronics production. Shenzhen became a global epicentre of hi-tech design and production by combining all aspects of the supply chain, design, and manufacturing processes in one place. We envision the microfactory at the OIC to work with key ecosystem players such as Shenzhen-based Seeed Studios to facilitate introductions to the maker ecosystem in China.

Supporting Rural Economic Development

Small towns and rural regions across the country have been particularly hard-hit by the closing of manufacturing plants resulting in the loss of thousands of jobs. The microfactory at the OIC will evaluate the potential benefits of delivering a technical extension program to assist rural regions in revitalizing local manufacturing by raising awareness of the capabilities of modern digital fabrication and rapid prototyping tools.

Providing access to such tools in tandem with developing new digital fabrication skills for workers and entrepreneurs will serve to strengthen a rural region’s overall capacity to innovate. There is potential for the growth of micro-enterprises designing and producing niche products that can be prototyped quickly, custom manufactured and sold both locally and globally.

Aletheia Guild