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Bridging the gap between researchers, industry (2/02)

By Ian Ross For a small player in the crowded Sudbury mining supply field, any opportunity to provide a value-added service is a definite selling point.

By Ian Ross

For a small player in the crowded Sudbury mining supply field, any opportunity to provide a value-added service is a definite selling point.

That is why Cast Resource Equipment, a re-manufacturer of mining equipment in the Walden Industrial Park, is working collaboratively with university researchers to cut maintenance costs for their clients.

The company is working with Laurentian University, through the provincial Materials and Manufacturing Ontario (MMO) initiative, conducting an oil analysis study on mobile mining equipment as part of a preventative maintenance project.

Mining vehicle manufacturers recommend changing fluids at regular scheduled intervals, every 250 hours or so, "but it's varied what the intervals are with various machines by individual manufacturers," says Len Kitchener, a company consultant working at examining metal wear on various vehicle components. "However, oil manufacturers like Esso say there's potential to double these intervals for servicing."

Through their efforts so far, Cast's major client, Inco Ltd., with whom they have a contract to maintain a fleet of vehicles, has reduced preventative maintenance costs by 14 per cent, Kitchener says.

It is one of Cast's two MMO-related projects worth $13,000 each. The company is contributing $1,200 in cash, plus about $5,000 in labour for both. Their other project, still in development stages with Carleton University, involves investigating causes of slippage and tire wear on remote-operated scoops.

Mike Castron, Cast's technical sales representative, says the research effort adds some credibility in backing up their work.

"This kind of research program definitely speeds up the process (or research and development)," Castron says. "There are plenty of good minds out there that businesses should take advantage of."

MMO is a living network initiative designed to bring together research and industry to support economic development.

Through the MMO, different programs make grants available for research and development, provided there is a private-sector partner willing to contribute dollars or in-kind services toward a given project.

Producing a market-ready product at the end of a six-month or two-year project would be ideal, says Mike Grace, the network liaison officer in Sudbury, but that is not the aim of the provincially funded initiative.

The basic idea is to open up better lines of communication between university academics and industry to bridge the knowledge gap between the idea that a scientist cultivates in the lab and the practical necessity needed in the business world.

Hopefully in the process it produces a "comfort level" between the two parties and leads to further research down the road, or creates job opportunities for graduate students to work in a particular field.

"It's industry exposure (for researchers), if nothing else," says Grace, also a retired Inco mine superintendent.

For Louis Mercier, an associate professor in Laurentian's chemistry department, it created opportunities for him to demonstrate his work through business applications.

Over the past five years he has been developing a 'super-sponge' technology, an absorbent white powder material that separates selective materials out of water.

But with no business connections to speak of, "it was hard to knock on industry's door if you didn't speak the same language," Mercier says.

Mercier knew his idea might have potential uses for the mining industry. The technology aids in the removal of precious metals from other materials and has some environmental applications such as separating mercury out of a city's water supply.

When pitching the idea to the private sector "I came off sounding like an academic who doesn't understand the practical application," Mercier says.

Through the matchmaking process, industry partners Inco and Placer Dome contributed to the research, which may eventually produce a filter-like product for the market.

"Universities are moving more and more into applied research and there's big potential here for small business to tap into our intellectual property to get projects off the ground," says researcher Paul Dunn, director of mining technology at Laurentian's MIRARCO mining innovation centre.

Dunn is working on three MMO-backed industry collaborations potentially worth up to $415,000. One involves the development of a survey tool with some undisclosed private partners and two projects centre around MIRARCO's new virtual reality lab and involve partnering with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board to address line-of-sight issues in underground mining vehicles.

Ron Purcell, executive director of Laurentian Enterprises, who oversees the MMO liaison office, is excited about the possibilities to recruit top-caliber researchers like Dunn (from Australia), and graduate students to Laurentian to create some break-through technologies for businesses in northeastern Ontario.

"What we're saying to business is tell us what you need," Purcell says. "We'll find you someone who can do the research.

"These researchers are doing work in an area that might fill a need out there and I hope the business world can be aware of that."

Private partners that do sign on have access to about 22 universities and more than 500 researchers.

In the five months since Laurentian joined MMO as a research institute in September, up to nine projects totalling $215,000 have been approved with a slate of others at the discussion and application stage.

However, Grace emphasizes that MMO is not designed to subsidize business, but to support academic research that will ultimately benefit business.

"As a result, the economy of Ontario is the big winner," Grace says.

Purcell is so enthusiastic about the program's design, he fully expects a number of local success stories within the next few years.

"There's often talk we need a venture capital fund here," Purcell says. "But if we have the product, don't worry the money will find us."