The further rise of hardware–Catalyst in Kitchener

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It was a frosty day in January, earlier this year, that I got to take a tour of the proposed Catalyst 137 “smart manufacturing” space on Glasgow. I’d call it a hardware incubator, but the size (465k sqft) and ambitious plans make that moniker seem slightly inadequate.

Last summer, in covering a hardware hackathon at the Hub, I talked about the opportunity in WR for infrastructure to support hardware prototypers, makers and manufacturers. Innovation in the Region over the past couple of decades often occurred in the context of software. That innovation has been slowly shifting to the hardware domain. And with that shift comes the realization that those of us in the make-o-sphere hit long ago: there are gaps here.

If you hang around kwartzlab enough, you’ll see a regular stream of for-profit makers looking for access to fabrication tools of all kinds (which isn’t exactly the core mandate of kwartzlab). Graduating students of our universities and college must say good-bye to well-equipped machine shops and laser cutters as they depart school. They quickly learn to miss the McMaster-Carr orders that only land at companies and institutions. Startups catching the wave of internet-of-things enthusiasm hit some challenges as they look for production-quality injection molded cases in town. The engineer finishing assembly of circuit boards for a big investor demo the next day gets jammed by the lack of a couple more 0402 1K resistors and no place to buy them in town.

Terry Pender wrote about Catalyst in The Record Wednesday so you should go look at that, along with photos by Peter Lee. Tony Reinhart and Phil Froklage of Communitech put out a great write-up and video respectively the very same day, so check that out, too. That will fill you in on the business side.

The perspective I’ll offer, along with a few photos, is that of a selfish maker. What do I want? Well, I used to answer that question simply: TechShop here in Waterloo Region. Like a YMCA membership for making, TechShop offers training, materials and access to tools that you can’t afford or house as an individual. After a lot of observation (and making) over the past seven years, the answer has become more nuanced: take the tools of TechShop, mash it up with the community within kwartzlab, add in the Shenzhen connections and cost-optimized manufacturing know-how of HAX and that’s what I want. With absolutely zero knowledge of what facilities will actually appear at Catalyst, I’ll break down my list and expand on:

* tools/service
* parts/materials
* help
* space
* partnerships

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In all my travels thus far, this is the first loading dock for rail…

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Tools/Service – my non-exhaustive wish list includes access to:
* laser cutter
* CNC mill
* metal lathe
* welding gear
* electronics workbench
* fume hood
* paint booth
* horizontal bandsaw
* tube bender
* metal shear
* drill press

It would also be great to easily connect with service providers who can:
* laser-cut steel
* powder coat metal
* injection mold plastics

We could come up with a much longer list to cover the needs of more makers, but the point is that these tools are not things I could house in my 3-bedroom suburban home even if I could afford to buy them.

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Matt Bolen talking to the crowd.

Parts/Materials – once your makerly endeavours take you beyond deck building, the local sourcing of parts and materials becomes challenging. I’m interested in:
* electronic components – not everything, but common passives, solder, flux, etc
* plastics – I can’t be the only one who has wished for some readily available Delrin
* fasteners – you won’t find M4 cap screws at the local home improvement store
* metal – in sheet, bar and tube. Metal Supermarket is actually pretty good in this domain
* bearings, bushings, springs, linkages – all the not-fastener stuff at McMaster-Carr

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Ian Pilon, founder of IoT Waterloo.

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Help – sometimes you just need help from a mechanical engineer or industrial designer or software developer. Or a photographer. It can be non-obvious that you should be using a thrust bearing instead of a radial bearing in your design, depending on your background. That’s where a little expert help can get you on the right track, course correcting early on.

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Frank Voisin.

Space – it’s one thing to light up a space for laptops and wifi. It’s a whole different ballgame when you wonder if the concrete floor can support your 45-ton punch press. Dust and fume extraction and ventilation matters for manufacturing. Noise is a consideration. Adequate power is something to think about as the tools scale up. And building physical things requires space for materials, for building, for warehousing and shipping.

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Partnerships – the question of whether to manufacture locally or to off-shore manufacturing provides endless fodder for discussion over beers. I think the answer is: both. Prototyping and small runs make sense to do here. The ability to make quick-turn changes and save the shipping and time zone latency of offshoring makes sense in that context. Manufacturing at scale sometimes means you’re better to do the manufacturing where all the components are coming from. Often that means Shenzhen. The point is that having options and pre-existing partnerships and pipelines is the best of both worlds. I think we’ll do better to think of our community as a player in a global constellation of manufacturing capability rather than as a standalone producer.

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Here ends my wish list. Just photos from here on. In a cavernous warehouse that reminds me of that last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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Doug and Alex.

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Cam + camera.

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One of the six remaining payphones in the Region. [cite]

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Then over to the Hub for a presentation after the tour.

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Doesn’t this photo make you glad for summer?

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Meta Cam.

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This becomes more common with each passing month.

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Mayor Berry.

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Got some Mike there from the Velocity days.

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The promise of this space in the heart of our cities is very exciting for makers of all stripes. As we say on the Maker Expo team, “We are all makers. This is Waterloo Region.” I suspect Catalyst 137 will be what we as a community make it.

On Glasgow between Park and Belmont, this is how we meta-make.


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