Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Farm-grown tractors

Local firms work on plant-based vehicle parts

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Manitoba farmers may soon be able to grow their own tractors.

That's because Winnipeg tractor company Buhler Versatile is now working with the Composites Innovation Centre to develop exterior parts made from composite materials made with locally grown hemp and flax mixed with agave fibre.

Paul Manaigre, director of engineering at Buhler Versatile, said the hope is the prototypes for four exterior parts -- the hood, fan shroud, crossover panels and fenders -- will be completed by spring so they can be fitted on engineering models and tested in locales around the world for the following year.

"The proof will be in the field testing," Manaigre said.

Buhler is in the process of rolling out a new tractor model and eventually a full line of farm equipment. Manaigre said being able to include something as innovative as parts made from agricultural fibre would be a winning feature.

"The key take-away from Buhler Versatile is that we have invested millions in developing a new tractor," he said. "Next year will be our biggest year for capital R&D spending."

Funding for the Buhler project and another one that will develop the use of flax fibre as a lightweight reinforcement in injection-moulded plastic for use in car interiors will be aided by an additional $210,000 funding from the federal government, which was announced Friday. The new money comes from the Canadian Agricultural Adaptation Program, which is delivered provincially by the Manitoba Rural Adaptation Council (MRAC).

Sean McKay, the CEO of the Composites Innovation Centre, said these projects are additional pieces of the puzzle that the CIC has been working on for many years.

"One engages a major manufacturer and the second project gets us looking at alternative utilization of the biomass," McKay said.

The CIC has been developing bio-fibre products and technologies with several different industry partners for many years. For instance, parts made from hemp-based fibre designed for Motor Coach Industries coaches are in various stages of development.

"We have 20 projects running at the moment in different stages," McKay said. "We are developing the supply chain, doing product demonstrations, filling in the technology gaps and commercialization of the material. It is a whole-ecosystem development."

Manaigre said from Buhler's perspective, there are many attractive elements to the project.

"This could potentially give Versatile an edge over the competition," he said. "It's exciting to think we might be able to produce a tractor that the farmers supply the raw material for. From a marketing perspective, it is a tremendous win."

One of the key elements to the whole bio-fibre supply chain that still needs to materialize is a local shop that can produce the bio-fibre matting that would then be mixed with resins and baked into the parts that are being designed.

McKay said headway is being made in that area but as its stands now, the work is being done in plants in Edmonton and Pennsylvania.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 1, 2012 B4

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