Al Spence: Taking on the applied research rodeo

Dr. Allan Spence, PhD

Seek first to understand and then to be understood is a truism popularized by the late leadership guru Stephen R. Covey.

Ask Allan Spence, PhD, however, and he’ll tell you this mantra was published even earlier in the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi.

Knowing that makes Spence, a research scientist at Niagara College’s Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre (WAMIC), a candidate for ringer on any trivia team.

But trying to live and work by those words makes Spence well-suited for the job of helping industry partners bring ideas to life.

“Many industry partners come to the College with novel ideas. A typical first step is to understand the idea and what the partner would like to achieve,” Spence said.

“You get ingrained in a usual way of solving something, but then [the students] suggest something different, and you think ‘That might actually work.’”

He came to Niagara College after 23 years at McMaster University where he taught engineering, collaborated with industry, and supervised student researchers. Spence still does the latter at Niagara, too, applying that same open-minded way of being to his protégés as he does with industry partners.

“(Students) have an inventive point of view,” Spence said. “You get ingrained in a usual way of solving something, but then they suggest something different, and you think ‘That might actually work.’”

That makes working with students — and WAMIC staff — one of his favourite parts of the job because with them, Spence explained, he’s always learning.

“Every project within the college applied research environment is a new rodeo,” he said. “Together we work through the technical aspects and how to best present alternatives to the industry collaborator.”

Spence’s technical background is in computer-aided design, product design and development, and dimensional metrology. That lends well to the purview of WAMIC, which specializes in engineering design, 3D technologies, lean manufacturing processes and additive manufacturing.



His is a lengthy resume of experience that stretches back to growing up on a farm in south-western Ontario, where Spence’s curiosity was piqued about the way the world works and later satisfied while studying applied mathematics and mechanical engineering at the University of Waterloo and the University of British Columbia.

“You’d see this is how it is (on the farm) and then go to school and get the theory of why it’s that way,” he said.

Later, he would apply that theory during a co-op placement with a spacecraft company working on communications satellites. Spence would do simulations before launches and found that his calculations were in near exact agreement with the real thing.

“Scientific laws work and that is why our physical world is predictable,” he said. “If none of this worked, where would we be? There would be no order.”

“Every project within the college applied research environment is a new rodeo.”

Spence has helped keep things working — and growing — at WAMIC as a research scientist. He has contributed to successful grant applications for critical tools, including a co-ordinate measuring machine and a 3D printer. He has also participated on Canada Foundation for Innovation and Ontario Research Fund expert review committees.

His favourite projects have been developing 3D-printed vacuum fixtures to allow for efficient robotic trimming for Airbus Helicopters Canada, and creating an industrial fixture/jig for a robotic welding cell, used by Hamill Machine Company, to keep up with demand for its lightweight aluminum racks that can be stacked to hold wine barrels.

Still, for all the pragmatism honed over his career, there is another tenet Spence applies to his work that further contributes to WAMIC’s success helping industry partners find solutions to their challenges.

“If you don’t believe,” he said, “it’ll never get done.”