Tyler Bragnalo loves to take someone’s idea and turn it into reality.
The president of Kam Valley Industries and the Northwestern Ontario Innovation Centre are teaming up to establish an advanced manufacturing lab in Thunder Bay this fall.
“I'm super excited about it,” said Bragnalo, “personally, because I'm going to have really expensive high-tech toys to play with.”
The lab’s centrepiece arrives sometime in May in the form of a high-precision mill-turning centre, more precisely known as a DMG CTX beta 1250.
“This equipment is serious business to install,” said Bragnalo. “It’s a 20,000-pound machine and you have to bring people in from Toronto to commission it.”
Working with startup companies and some of the innovation centre’s clients has been a niche that Kam Valley has neatly carved out itself. But they’ve been hampered in their ability to better serve them by a lack of equipment.
“We're limited by our three-axis capacity,” said Bragnalo. “But we push that capacity beyond what it's generally used for.”
His small three-employee shop, which has temporary digs in a part of a former Thunder Bay high school, provides CNC machining, an anondizing line, laser engraving and 3-D design software.
“I kind of look at ourselves as a solution provider,” said Bragnalo, a Lakehead University mechanical engineering graduate, whose company will run the lab for the Innovation Centre.
Northern Ontario Heritage Fund recently contributed $500,000 toward the equipment and lab setup on the heels of an earlier $390,000 investment from FedNor last February. Other support is coming from the Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Commission, the Innovation Centre and Kam Valley.
The aim of the advanced manufacturing lab is to guarantee timely access to small companies or entrepreneurs who need technical design capabilities, a service that’s been long overdue.
“There are not a lot of players that want to deal with these business startups,” said Bragnalo.
Most large machine shops prefer not to tie up their equipment with prototypes and small production runs. That causes innovators to leave the region to have their design work and manufacturing done, sometimes even overseas to China.
Down the road that means Thunder Bay loses out on fostering future small and medium-sized operations, said Bragnalo. “We lose the jobs, revenue and business forever because often they move to where their network is set up.”
Brainstorming with inventors is something Bragnalo loves to do.
“They'll come to me with a problem, we'll whiteboard a possible solution, I'll 3-D design a couple of options, we'll go back and forth until there’s something that they’re happy with. We'll prototype it, test it out and we'll get into production on it.”
For Cinevate, a Thunder Bay film equipment company, Bragnalo produced a cinematography jib, a long aluminum boom with a movie camera perched at one end and a counterweight on the other.
The device had to allow for the camera to smoothly and effortlessly move up to eight feet in the air and swivel 360 degrees. The complex design and prototype process took up to a year.
“In the end, there was up to 70 machine operations that had to occur to get all the components together,” said Bragnalo.
Bragnalo believes the arrival of the new milling technology is going to open the door to do the types of precision jobs that no one would consider in the region, particularly in the fields aerospace and medical science.
He pays credit to innovation centre manager Judy Sander for spearheading the project.
“Judy's been the bulldog on this,” said Bragnalo, who first approached the innovation centre about three years ago looking for funding to set up this type of facility.
“She realized it would drastically increase the scope to serve her clients. We found a kind of framework which allowed us to collaborate on it, acquired some funding, and now the project's a go.”
Sander said this manufacturing lab definitely scratches an inch for her clients.
“We had been working with Tyler on a number of niche manufacturing projects and new prototypes and we were getting frustrated that the capacity wasn’t there to accommodate people locally. We finally decided from our organization that it’s something we wanted to pursue.
“Tyler has the passion for design and prototype development and working with innovators and it was an excellent fit in the end.”
Sander said a memorandum of understanding has been signed with Confederation College to get their students linked in with this type of equipment. “As they revamp their manufacturing program, they see a real fit to have this additional capacity.
“It’s going to be great because not only do I get to accommodate our innovators, but we get to train and expose some new talent to the new world of manufacturing.”
In the meantime, Kam Valley is scoping out the city for a new location for the advanced manufacturing lab. Their current location at the former Hillcrest High School, which is also the home of the innovation centre, has been put up for sale by the owner.