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December 18, 2019 11:14 AM

Delivering Solutions Through Applied Research

Working in close collaboration with industry and community partners is a hallmark of polytechnic education. These partners play a significant role in the quality of Conestoga’s programming and graduates by contributing their expertise to program development and review processes as well as providing co-op and experiential learning opportunities that prepare students for success in a rapidly evolving workforce. The college’s growing emphasis on applied research adds an extra dimension to this long-established collaboration as well, addressing innovation needs, providing solutions to real-world challenges and serving as an important vehicle for economic development here in our region and across Canada.

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Conestoga’s applied research facility has provided a major boost to the college’s research capacity.

A new Conestoga facility opened in June 2018 has provided a major boost to the college’s research capacity, supporting innovation in Smart Manufacturing and Advanced Recycling Technologies that will improve effectiveness and efficiencies in manufacturing while contributing to increased sustainability through a focus on lifecycle technologies.

Located at 96 Grand Avenue South in Cambridge’s Gaslight District, the facility was developed with support provided by the City of Cambridge as well as HIP Developments. It also hosts Conestoga’s Applied Research and Innovation (CARI) office, the team that provides services, administration and support for applied research activities across the college.

Additional services in the repurposed 19th century industrial building include Grand Innovations, a new business incubator centre, as well as Invest Cambridge, the city’s economic development group, and a number of other partners who will work in collaboration to support business development from startup through growth stages.

Designing for sustainability

Manufacturing continues to be the single largest industry sector in Waterloo Region’s diverse economy, accounting for close to 18 per cent of all local employment. As Dr. Barbara Fennessy, Conestoga’s vice president of Applied Research, points out, new technologies and digital innovation are changing the very nature of the sector, bringing with them not only new opportunities and efficiencies, but also new challenges.

“The world today and in the future is increasingly an electronic one,” Fennessy said. “It’s much more than just computers and cell phones. As we bring in new technologies such as automation and robotics, artificial intelligence, and other digital innovations, there are simply more electronics in the world.”

“As manufacturers and consumers alike enjoy the many advantages that digital innovation brings, we also need to consider how to deal with the unintended consequence, which is electronic waste,” said Fennessy.

According to a 2018 report from the Earth Institute at Columbia University, the world’s population created 49 million tons of electronic waste (discarded computers, cell phones, printers, televisions, microwaves, smoke alarms, and other electronic equipment and parts) in 2016. That total is expected to increase to more than 60 million tons by 2021. Much of it ends up in landfills: estimates indicate that less than 20 per cent is properly recycled.

With support of federal and provincial research grants, Conestoga is combining established applied research strengths in next-generation manufacturing and e-waste recycling for the creation of the SMART (Smart Manufacturing and Advanced Recycling Technologies) Centre to be located at the research hub in Cambridge.

By Fall 2019, the new centre will include a unique, fully functioning Waste Electrical and Electronic Recycling pilot plant that will use advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning to provide new solutions for dismantling electronics, removing plastics, recovering precious or rare earth metals for re-use, and making recycling economically feasible.

The pilot plant is the latest extension of the work by Dr. Hamid Karbasi, Conestoga’s NSERC Industrial Research Chair for Colleges in Advanced Recycling Technologies for Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE).

Bringing advanced manufacturing and e-waste recycling under a single umbrella through the SMART Centre will provide Conestoga with unique capacity to address the growing concerns of industry, governments and communities related to sustainability.

It’s somewhat familiar territory for Dr. Stephen Cross, who assumed his role as director of Applied Research at Conestoga in November 2018. A world-class researcher in his own right, Cross has served as NSERC Industrial Research Chair for Colleges in Sustainable Aquaculture since 2012, developing collaborative projects to support an environmentally and socio-economically sustainable coastal aquaculture sector through his work at North Island College in British Columbia.

“A dedicated facility that houses both the smart manufacturing side and the smart de-manufacturing side provides us with a great opportunity to specialize in full lifecycle technologies,” Cross explained. “By exploring how to build new electronic devices that can easily be demanufactured at the end of their lifecycle, we can support manufacturers in their efforts to be more sustainable.”

Cross points out that industry garners direct benefits from recycling: companies can re-use or sell materials recovered through the recycling process, improving profitability and reducing reliance on external suppliers. The challenge to date has been making recycling economically viable, something that may be addressed in part through sustainable design, working with manufacturers from the beginning of the product lifecycle to integrate considerations for end-of-life de-manufacturing and recycling.

“The WEEE pilot plant will provide us with essential capacity to recover rare earth elements that are vital for building new electronic products and equipment as well as for renewable energy technologies such as solar panels, electric cars and windmills,” said Karbasi.

“Really great innovations often happen at the intersection of disciplines. Here, we’re working at the intersection of environmental management and advanced manufacturing, predominantly engineering and IT technologies, as well as the software development to support an expanded and integrated set of activities,” said Fennessy.

Conestoga and partners at 96 Grand will host an opening celebration in Winter 2020 to showcase the new facility.

Building research capacity

The SMART Centre in Cambridge may be Conestoga’s newest standalone research facility, but applied research across the college has expanded exponentially in recent years, with a strong focus on inter- and transdisciplinary activities.

“We’ve really ramped up,” Fennessy explained. “We’ve expanded our team and created a focus on centres across the college. Research touches every school and academic area, from seniors care in Health & Life Sciences and mental health in Community Services to occupational health and safety and a whole range of engineering activities to support local industry needs.”

“We are tremendously fortunate to have outstanding industry and community partners, who are themselves leaders in the field, to provide support for our applied research activities,” she continued.

In Fennessy’s view, applied research is a core component of Conestoga’s polytechnic mandate.

“Conestoga is one of the region’s most important contributors of innovation as well as talent,” she said. “Through applied research, we contribute very significantly to solving industry challenges, and serve as an important vehicle for economic development across our region and beyond.”

More than 3,600 students and close to 270 faculty members were engaged in applied research activities at Conestoga over the last year. In addition to industry partners, the college also receives funding through agencies such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), and the Ontario Research Fund (ORF). In addition, the college collaborates with the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) and is a member of the Southern Ontario Network for Advanced Manufacturing Innovation (SONAMI) funded by FedDev Ontario.

The college’s extensive applied research activity, which attracts approximately $10 million in funding each year, has earned Conestoga a ranking among Canada’s top 25 research colleges.

There are a myriad of other benefits as well. Industry benefits through the development of new products and processes that help keep them competitive in the global market. Through participation in applied research, faculty members remain engaged in learning about new developments in their fields, which helps keep programs aligned with industry needs now and into the future. Students benefit through real-life learning opportunities and connections with industry that support their future success. The college benefits as well, through the enhanced reputation that results from the quality research undertaken to support industry needs.


This article originally appeared in the fall 2019 edition of Conestoga’s Connections: Building Communities and Careers. The magazine includes profiles of new and expanded campus facilities and initiatives, while highlighting some of the outstanding students, employees and friends who contribute to the success of the college and the broader community.

Connections is available in digital format online; print copies are available through Corporate Communications.

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