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A partnership between Handling Specialty and Niagara College’s Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre produced 3D- printed replicas of large assembly equipment pieces to be used to showcase the company’s capabilities at tradeshows; for example, an aero engine work station, which is a custom lifting system used by aero engine manufacturers to safely position engines for final assembly or testing, and a manually guided vehicle (MGV), a self-contained, DC-powered transporter used by aircraft manufacturers to transfer engines from various assembly stations to engine test cells.Supplied

Handling Specialty Inc., a company that manufactures custom-engineered material handling products for customers worldwide, has a solid reputation for successfully tackling complex problems. But the company, with facilities in Grimsby and Hamilton, faced a challenge they couldn’t solve alone.

The firm attends national and international tradeshows and was headed to a major aerospace conference in Texas in 2020. But photos and videos of the massive equipment Handling Specialty designs and manufactures only go so far in showcasing their products. And the costs of crating and shipping structures weighing thousands of pounds, not to mention the resulting carbon footprint, are prohibitive.

“These are huge structures, huge assemblies,” says Michael Roper, sales manager for the firm, which works with diverse sectors from aerospace and defence, automotive, rail/transportation and energy, to entertainment. One example is an aircraft engine lifting system that “might hang 50 feet in the air, measure 40 feet wide by 50 feet long, with a 40,000-pound lifting capacity.” Another is an aqua-theatre stage system for cruise ships, featuring three underwater lifts, diving board tilters and a trampoline rotator.

Handling Specialty sought a creative tool to help market the company’s capabilities, compact and portable, yet illustrative of the equipment the company designs, builds and installs. “We came up with the idea to create 3D models of the equipment and have them scaled according to their dimensions,” explains Mr. Roper.

That’s when Handling Specialty teamed up with the Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre (WAMIC). A component of Niagara College’s Research and Innovation division, WAMIC specializes in engineering design, 3D technologies and additive manufacturing.

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The organizations worked together to produce two partially functioning replicas of two large assembly pieces – an aero engine work station and a manually guided vehicle.

Collaboration was key to the process of designing and manufacturing, says Mr. Roper.

That’s typical, says Gordon Maretzki, centre manager of WAMIC, whose mandate is to help small and medium-sized enterprises in the Niagara region succeed with their product development and commercialization efforts.

“An industry partner comes to us, and we establish objectives and deliverables,” says Mr. Maretzki, who formerly worked as a research lead at Niagara College. “We have our research leads or our in-house faculty contributing to the project combined with the industry partners, who bring their expertise and resources. The third aspect is that every project includes students from our mechanical, electrical, electronic, engineering and even our computer technology programs.”

This formula has certainly worked in the past for companies such as Handling Specialty. Mr. Roper says that not only was the company pleased with outcomes of working with WAMIC, but “without a doubt, I’m planning on reaching out to them again on future projects.”

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But with the world coping with the global pandemic, it’s no longer business as usual. “COVID-19 has certainly thrown a curveball into everything,” says Mr. Maretzki.

As R&D is an essential service, staff, faculty and students at WAMIC still have access to the computer labs and facilities. That led them to partner with Niagara Health and other community members throughout the province and tool up to produce almost 40,000 face shields for frontline workers. “Short term, we pivoted to address the immediate need.”

Mr. Maretzki expects that as industry adapts to the “new normal,” new challenges and new possibilities will arise. “We look at those curveballs and we think, ‘Wow, here’s a new problem for us to solve. How are we going to leverage our resources and mine our network to solve this problem?’”

For example, he says, industry may need to refocus resources to meet immediate pressures and demands, postponing R&D efforts.

“This is where we can help. R&D doesn’t have to sit on the backburner. Innovating can continue so that when we come out of this situation, we’re still developing new products; we are remaining competitive in the world economy. We won’t lose our edge,” says Mr. Maretzki. “The need to develop products for industry, that’s not going to change. Innovation is not going to change. That will continue.”

Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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