History has shown us that a company’s success depends on how well it innovates. Niagara’s Hamill Machine Co. knows this well, having relied on its ingenuity to successfully reinvent itself in the face of an ever-changing landscape.
When owner Bob Benner took over Hamill two decades ago, he knew the heavy manufacturing industry would lose its place as a cornerstone of Niagara’s economy. Ever the innovator, Benner embraced this change and remodelled his business from a general machine shop to a custom operation, diversifying into the wine and beverage industries and, more recently, into the agri-food sector.
While he had the foresight to adapt, Benner credits much of his company’s successful shift to his partnership with Niagara College’s Research & Innovation division, and, support received through Southern Ontario Network for Advanced Manufacturing Innovation (SONAMI), a Niagara College-led consortium funded by the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario).
Niagara College last year received a $7.3 million FedDev grant to create the SONAMI alliance, a single-window approach to supporting manufacturers’ research and development needs, encouraging them to adopt and integrate disruptive technologies into their operations.
“As a smaller company, we wouldn’t have had the capabilities or resources to diversify and grow were it not for the SONAMI grant from FedDev Ontario,” says Benner. “This funding has allowed for creative research and for the acceleration of new ideas into new markets.”
These new markets involve designing and building equipment for the greenhouse produce and aquaponics industry. The applied research expertise at the College’s Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre helped Hamill develop a new product line of agri-food equipment that automates the harvesting (cutting, washing and drying) of microgreens, sprouts and wheatgrass. The three “Harvester” machines, which can be used separately or conjointly, are now sold under a new business moniker: Hamill Agricultural Processing Solutions (APS).
As for the College’s expertise for the Hamill project, the Innovation Centre is uniquely equipped with leading metrology equipment, engineering software and specialized staff able to guide student researchers through the innovative process, says project manager Gordon Koslowski.
“These resources allowed the research team to conduct advanced measurements, dimensional verifications, and designs when manufacturing and assembling the parts for these machines,” says Koslowski.
“Niagara College’s research team figured out exactly what was needed for our Harvester dryer and they gave us a working product,” says Benner. “And this ingenious technology is saving specialty crop farmers thousands of dollars daily on just a single machine.”
What’s more, with this new product line, the company is projecting $1 million in sales in the coming year. To accommodate the new business, Hamill is doubling both his 6,000 sq. ft.-facility and his current 16-employee workforce.
“It’s exciting for us to help an industry partner like Hamill to develop an entirely new revenue stream,” says Koslowski, adding Hamill is an example of an ideal partner: a smaller-size business wanting to commercialize a new product, but one that lacks dedicated time and expertise to conduct research and development.
Hamill has utilized the College’s applied research expertise in all areas of its business, from a marketing plan for the business, to having the advanced manufacturing research team develop a unique modular beer keg racking system, an innovative and secure design to help organize, stack and move heavy kegs. The custom machine shop then modified this concept for wine barrels, skyrocketing from supplying barrel racking for four wineries to 130 today.
The experience gleaned from these successes offered Benner the confidence to expand into the agri-food sector with the Harvester multi-machine system, a project that continues to add to its inventions. In fact, the College team is currently working on designing replaceable cutting heads that can be sold as separate attachments.
“We are presently reviewing reciprocating and rotary technologies to cut various microgreens, and because we’ve worked on previous Harvester products for Hamill, our research team is highly experienced in providing the ideal innovative solution,” explains Koslowski.
This innovative spirit has also led to Benner recently entering the $5 billion Canadian cannabis market after inventing a way to productively automate the process of harvesting the cannabis buds, in a major project that will likely include help from Niagara College, he says.
“If we didn’t first start with young minds thinking of ideas of how to do things, we wouldn’t have any of this,” says Benner, adding that he has always believed in the value of making good use of the talented students at the College.
True to his word, Benner is widely known for his commitment to helping youth receive real-world experience. Since opening shop Hamill has taken on some 70 apprentices from Niagara College, many being hired along the way. Remarkably, one former apprentice is now a part owner of Hamill.
“Thanks to the SONAMI partnership, our students have the unique opportunity to provide significant help to real businesses—in many cases resulting in that business hiring more people and increasing their revenue,” adds Koslowski.
Lucas Howe, a mechanical engineering student with the Research & Innovation division, helped with the design process on this Harvester dryer project—a chance for knowledge he values deeply.
“Being able to integrate advancing technologies such as 3D printing into the prototyping of the dryer was a unique and enjoyable experience,” he says.
Even further, working directly on a “real” revenue-driven project for an industry partner provided much more than just hard, technical skills and experience. Howe says that during the development of the prototype, weekly reports and updates of accomplishments to Hamill, offered a chance to build solid communication and organization skills.
Niagara College’s Research & Innovation division provides real-world solutions for business, key industry sectors and the community through applied research and knowledge transfer activities. The division conducts projects that provide innovative solutions, such as producing and testing prototypes, evaluating new technologies and developing new or improved products or processes for small-and medium-sized businesses. Students and graduates are hired to work alongside faculty researchers to assist industry partners leap forward in the marketplace.