Not your run-of-the-mill makerspace

High-tech 3D printers, the latest VR equipment – even a water jet that cuts through steel. It’s all part of what makes the new $5M MadeMill facility at Bayview Yards unlike anything else in Ottawa
MadeMill
Carleton University industrial design student Will Fletcher, an employee at MadeMill, shows off one of the facility's new 3D printers. (Photo by Mark Holleron).

The latest addition to Ottawa’s innovation ecosystem is giving a whole new meaning to the term “cutting-edge technology.”

Officially launched in late June, MadeMill is a makerspace and digital media lab catering to businesses and social enterprises that use equipment such as 3D printers to design prototypes of their products. But the $5-million facility’s crown jewel looks more like something out of a James Bond movie: a machine that shoots a thin jet of water with such intense pressure it can slice through seven inches of steel like a Ginsu knife through a tomato.

According to the man in charge of the new makerspace, the $400,000 “water-jet cutter” was far and away the No. 1 item on potential clients’ wish lists when asked what equipment they most wanted to see at MadeMill.

“The water jet came up time and time again because it’s the perfect intersection of high capability and high speed,” says Janak Alford, CEO of prototypeD, the organization that runs the new facility in the Innovation Centre at Bayview Yards. 

“It can cut with a level of quality that you just can’t match with other things. It’s not as accurate as maybe a laser cutter, for example, but you can also cut through six inches of solid steel, which you’re not going to do with a laser cutter. We use it for everything. It’s an amazing piece of technology.”

That last phrase sums up almost everything about MadeMill, which is funded by FedDev Ontario, the provincial government and the City of Ottawa. 

MadeMill

The 5,500-square-foot space includes the latest in 3D printing technology, with nine devices that print in 16 types of material ranging from biodegradable corn-based plastic to carbon-fibre and high-strength Kevlar. In addition, its advanced digital media lab allows users to “design” products using virtual reality tools and film promotional material on the latest videography equipment, while the industrial makerspace includes computer-controlled milling technology, traditional mills and lathes, along with welding, carpentry and mould-making tools – and, of course, the aforementioned water-jet cutting machine.

Mr. Alford says MadeMill provides a venue for enterprises large and small, both for-profit and non-profit, to get their products right before taking them to market. 

He explains that a drone manufacturer, for example, could produce a lightweight carbon-fibre prototype of a new design on the facility’s industrial-grade printers – at a much lower cost than building it in a traditional factory.

“It makes it easy for a small company to bring their ideas to life.”

“It makes it easy for a small company to bring their ideas to life,” says Invest Ottawa CEO Michael Tremblay, whose economic development agency houses dozens of startups at the innovation centre, many of which are expected to become prime customers for the new makerspace.

Users pay an hourly rate to rent equipment, ranging from $2 for a basic 3D printer to $70 for the water-jet cutter, or an all-inclusive price of $95. Staff train clients how to properly use equipment, offer guidance with projects and host workshops and seminars for the public on topics such as 3D printing, virtual reality game creation and 4K video production.

As part of its funding from FedDev Ontario, MadeMill also provides credits to institutions such as non-profit accelerators and Ottawa’s four main post-secondary schools to help cover labour and equipment costs for lower-income clients.

Mr. Janak says prototypeD and its partners constitute “a dream team of capability” for companies looking to turn ideas into reality. Among the prospective clients he’s already heard from is a Kingston-area company that is looking at using MadeMill’s equipment to build a GPS collar that tracks the movements of cattle. 

“We are already getting demand from not just Ottawa but across Ontario as well,” he says.

Local entrepreneur Amir Ghods, who toured the new facility the day it opened, says it’s yet another element that helps make the innovation centre a “one-stop shop” for startups aiming to successfully grow their business.

Mr. Ghods, the founder of Invest Ottawa portfolio company Smats Traffic Solutions, says he hopes to use MadeMill’s 3D printers to help him design his next-generation technology. 

Smats makes sensors that track vehicles or people using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi signals emitted from wireless devices such as smartphones. Among its clients is the Canada Border Services Agency, which is testing the sensors as a way of more effectively managing traffic flow at border crossings.

“As a startup, the resources are limited for you,” says Mr. Ghods, whose two-year-old firm employs a staff of six at an office just down the hall from MadeMill. “When it comes to design and manufacturing, for sure we need help from somebody. When it comes to industrial design, (MadeMill) can actually (guide us) through from the very beginning to the end of the product development.”