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This article was published 11/4/2012 (3094 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Bio-materials made with locally grown hemp fibre combined with resins and pressure-baked into a hard, lightweight material are being fashioned into parts that might someday be part of the tractors those farmers use to work their fields.
That's one of 70 different projects currently going on at the Composites Innovation Centre (CIC) in southwest Winnipeg.
They include bio-fibre composites used for floor panels on buses and the front ends of electric cars.
It's not hard to imagine that kind of technological development replacing current production materials in the 21st century.
The idea of using locally grown bio-fibre -- agricultural products, in other words -- to create harder, lighter and less expensive materials must be the very definition of innovation.
That's exactly the kind of work done at the Composites Innovation Centre.
Peter Bjornson, Manitoba's minister of entrepreneurship, training and trade, said it's one of those untold Manitoba stories.
On Wednesday, the CIC showed off its new 21,000-square-foot facility at the Tuxedo Business Park -- that's four times the size of the site it's been in for the past nine years -- and outlined its impossibly busy agenda.
In addition to hands-on research and development, the CIC is involved in project management and co-ordinating a number of private-sector research groups, with plans in place to form and manage several other similar groups.
A Winnipeg management executive who was part of a recent trade mission to Israel said Sean McKay, the CIC's executive director, is world-renowned in the composites field.
"From rather humble beginnings in 2003 it really has taken hold," Bjornson said.
Since it was launched, the CIC has benefited from about $20 million in government funding -- split equally between the federal and provincial governments -- and has earned another $12 million in private-sector fees.
McKay said the goal is to reach a 50-50 balance between public and private-sector revenues this year.
"I think we will be able to do it."
It certainly seems as if the CIC has the expertise and industry contacts to pull it off. And there is no denying the demand and scope of interest keeps growing, broadening and deepening.
The impetus for the centre came at least partially because the largest composites manufacturing plant in the country -- Boeing Technologies Canada -- is in Winnipeg. Bristol Aerospace is another of the country's largest composites companies.
Both those local operations are crucial and active partners of the CIC and valuable champions for the facility as well. But the goal of the CIC was not only to partner with large, established companies but to stimulate new economic development as well.
The CIC has all sorts of sexy examples of composites specially made for various applications, but its biggest breakthrough may come sometime this year as it helps to establish a supply chain and production for hemp-fibre composite matting that can be used in parts for commercial bus manufacturers.
It's one thing to get the technology together to produce a completely new material and have a company interested in deploying it. It's another thing to actually produce it.
The CIC has been working with Motor Coach Industries and New Flyer Industries for several years, developing composite parts made from locally grown flax and hemp fibres to build all sorts of different bus parts.
McKay said there are now a number of door component and floor panels local bus makers could use.
"The problem is, we are still in the process of developing a manufacturer in the province," McKay said. "We believe there are some interested parties that will have capabilities toward the end of the year."
Commercialization of new technologies is one of the key goals for the CIC, as challenging as that can be. Developing supply chains is also part of the CIC's portfolio of offerings.
McKay said he hopes by the end of the year there will be a local company that can produce the bio-fibre -- essentially an alternative to fibre-glass -- into composite bus parts.
It's not hard to imagine the demand for a product like that would go far beyond bus manufacturers.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.
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