Nfld. & Labrador

Corner Brook workshop giving a tech boost to local business

Meet the Makerspace, a room at MUN's Grenfell Campus where entrepreneurs can access cutting-edge technology.

Makerspace is marking its one-year anniversary in Corner Brook

Maria Kilfoil manages the Makerspace. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

A neon-pink sign bearing the word "Makerspace" is the first hint that something unexpected lies tucked away in a corner of Grenfell Campus, in a small room that, in a former life, hosted kids' birthday parties.

Open the door, and the interior literally hums with innovation. There's the subtle tremors and buzzes from its  pieces technology like a 3D printer, working away building part of a miniature printing press.

And then there's the energy that exudes from the woman in charge of the place.

It's an enthusiasm that could almost power the LED lightband she's holding. The band is a leftover from a late night last night, hosting a workshop to create theatre props for a local production of Twelfth Night.

"This is a platform for technology. For us to get technology into the hands of people, and see that they can make it themselves. And it's a cool thing," Maria Kilfoil, manager of the Makerspace, told CBC.

A laser cutter creates a portable weaving loom for fine arts students to use in the field. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Kilfoil talks with her hands, sweeping them over the room that began with a lofty goal of increasing innovation and entrepreneurship on the west coast of Newfoundland and is now celebrating its first anniversary.

Makerspace makeover

Kilfoil moved to Corner Brook last spring to kickstart the Makerspace, a project that began with $1.4 million of federal and provincial funding.

That cash was given to a partnership between Grenfell Campus and the city's College of the North Atlantic campus to build both the Makerspace and a business incubator and encourage more small business in the area. It funded the Makerspace machinery like its 3D printer, a laser cutter, and a CNC machine — the last piece of equipment still in pieces awaiting assembly, but which promises to sculpt projects like the world's fastest whittler.

Local companies like Crooked Feeder Brewing and Juniper BBQ Scrapers have started using the Makerspace to create promotional products. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

When asked what's the most exciting part, Kilfoil can't pick. "All of it," she laughed.

For anyone perhaps more used to old-school manufacturing methods, it can be hard to wrap your head around the seemingly endless array of things the machinery can do, how to program them in the first place, or even just how to turn them on.

That's part of why Kilfoil has been leading community workshops like the one to create LED headbands, or gone into Grenfell Campus business and fine arts classrooms to introduce students to how it all works.

The 3D printer working on a piece for a portable printing press. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

"We serve as kind of an educational role," she said, adding she was particularly happy with a fine arts partnership that 3D printed portable looms and printing presses for students to take on an overseas exchange.

 "What's really beautiful about it is they take some of these equipment that lives in elite institutions, for example a loom or an etching press, and make smaller versions of it, more portable versions of it, and then you can get it into the hands of more people."

Boost to burgeoning entrepreneurs

Education is the first step, but boosting small business is the end goal for the Makerspace, and in its early days Kilfoil noticed a problem for local entrepreneurs.

"There's a gap there, that's kind of a surprising gap, with early-stage entrepreneurs to help them get products to promote their businesses," she said.

Kilfoil models a headband created at a recent community workshop, where people made theatre props by wiring, coding, gluing and sewing. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

With few local resources, most businesses have had to order items like custom signs, coasters or patches from the mainland, she said, things that can be made by her 3D printer or laser cutter.

"That's a gap that the Makerspace has been able to fill," she said, "things they have to date needed to buy off the island, [and] perhaps the quality isn't as high as you can get here, and they didn't have input in the design process."

A wooden barbecue scrapers company agreed, having partnered with Kilfoil in the last year to create custom engraved orders together in one room, instead of looking at prototypes and proofs through emails sent from afar.

"[Together] we can do something really really quick, we can model something, try it, and if that doesn't work, try something else. And I'm right there, able to respond," said Jason Janes, the owner of Juniper Scraper.

(Lindsay Bird/CBC)

"For me, and many others, having that ability to rapid prototype things here allows us to unleash creativity, which would otherwise be bottled up."

While no Luddite, Janes admitted operating the Makerspace machinery is beyond his skill set. However, having been exposed to its advantages, he'll be using it again.

"The possibilities are endless," he said.

Community expansion

The possibilities are endless, as is the to-do list.

The Makerspace resides in the maze that is Grenfell Campus, and is hard for anyone not in the know to find it. The workshop has been deliberately low-key during its first year, as Kilfoil and her partners have tried to work out bugs in the equipment and work on smaller projects.

But the plan is to branch out in a big way in the community, said Kilfoil, who has hired a summer student to lend a hand as she looks toward the next phase of the Makerspace.

"Every time I have a workshop, I've got people kind of banging on the door. So I'm gonna start to expand, not just having workshops here but having them in larger spaces," she said.

The possibilities are endless.- Jason Janes

Following the model of similar workshops elsewhere, she is also looking to establish either a membership system or offer open hours for people to come in and prototype whatever they want.

"Maybe they use it just as a place to network and learn about the equipment, find out what ideas, what projects other people are working on. and that's certainly going to grow into those same people then becoming trained on equipment, having novel ideas of their own," she said.

"That's what it's all about."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Lindsay Bird

CBC News

Lindsay Bird is a journalist with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, based in Corner Brook.

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