Grad returns to NC for his ‘dream job’

Besides a long-held interest in electronics, Brian Klassen’s career path was decided one cold January day while working for his parents’ company, installing residential windows and doors.

“I had been shovelling through almost four feet of snow to get to the install area,” he recalls. “And there was the moment I knew this job wasn’t for me.”

During his next break, he called Niagara College and made an appointment for a tour the following day, and ultimately enrolled.

Klassen went on to graduate in 2018 from the Electronics Engineering Technology (Co-op) program with an impressive 97 percent grade point average.

Today, he has landed his “dream job” as the newest member of the Research & Innovation team; his role: research laboratory technician with the Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre (WAMIC) at the Welland campus. He supports all research and technical service activities related to producing and testing prototypes, evaluating new technologies, and developing new or improved products or processes for small- and medium-sized businesses.

As it happens, Klassen is well acquainted with the research labs at WAMIC – and those in R&I’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC) – after being hired by both for co-op and post-graduate contracts.

In the final term of his studies, Klassen spent his co-op as a research assistant with AETIC, where he gained experience designing electronics and programming microcontrollers for precision agriculture technologies.

Brian Klassen working on a custom circuit at the Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre.
Brian working on a custom circuit board for the Ferrero Canada project to engineer a time-lapse camera to take photos of a hazelnut tree to track its growth.

Among the varied research in which he was involved, for Klassen, his stand-out project was the engineering lab and fieldwork on hazelnut tree growth for international confectioners Ferrero Canada.

The makers of the popular Ferrero Rocher chocolates and Nutella spread were looking to grow their company and hazelnut production in Ontario. They required assistance in collecting growth tracking data of hazelnut orchards to help decision-making processes.

On his first day at AETIC, Klassen developed a proof-of-concept prototype that could sit out in a field to measure environmental conditions above and below the soil surface. On his second day, he wrote the program to activate the device’s measurement capabilities. He and his team put the prototype out in the field on the third day, and it worked. (He later developed an actual circuit board and replaced the prototype in the field.)

“It was out there for a few months gathering data and wirelessly sending it back to our servers,” he explains. “The prototyping process usually isn’t that fast, but everything seemed to just work first try.”

“For me, the main draw to STEM is that things either work, or they don’t. And if they don’t work, I really enjoy trying to fix them or design a new solution.”

Two time-lapse cameras were then installed to monitor the growth of a single hazelnut tree, with Klassen engineering the devices to take a photograph at noon each day. Along with data gathered by the initial surrounding ground sensors, researchers were able to analyze how weather affects the growth of the trees and crop yield.

“This was a very interesting project because it was months of hard work, and when it was done, it was very satisfying to see images popping up on the server that were taken by a little device sitting out in a field.”

So impressive was his work on the project that Klassen was invited to Ottawa in February 2020 to meet with key government officials and research stakeholders at the annual Colleges & Institutes Canada (CICan) “On the Hill + Student Showcase” event.

During his post-graduate contract with AETIC, Klassen was offered the opportunity to teach a class at the College – a rare privilege for a research associate. The subject matter was programmable logic controllers (PLCs), electronics designed to control motors and robots. He later taught a class in electronic fabrication skills and will return as a partial-load professor this coming January to teach this class again.

“I really did enjoy teaching, and I’m very excited to start again this winter.”

Klassen also spent a good part of 2020 as a research associate with WAMIC, where he was called upon for his expertise in the Centre’s IoT (Internet of Things) and Industry 4.0 projects.

During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, he was key in helping with WAMIC’s rapid response for personal protective equipment (PPE) when Niagara Health System faced a critical shortage. Researchers at WAMIC engineered a face shield prototype and worked long hours assembling hundreds of shields each day. In all, the team produced 37,300 face shields for essential health-care staff locally and for other community organizations throughout the province.

Brian was part of the research team that produced thousands of face shields for essential health-care staff in Niagara and other community members throughout Ontario.
Brian was part of the research team that produced thousands of face shields for essential health-care staff in Niagara and other community members throughout Ontario.

Since moving into his new role at WAMIC in September, Klassen is becoming proficient in the myriad state-of-the-art metrology and additive manufacturing equipment at the research labs. Given that he has been a 3D-print hobbyist for many years, the lab’s commercial-size professional 3D printers are especially close to his heart.

“I had purchased an Ender 3, a very entry-level 3D printer made by a company called Creality, and I’ve modified it very heavily,” he says. “I think the only original parts are the frame, a few of the motors and a of couple wires. I have plans to turn it into a Voron Switchwire (an open-source 3D printer design).”

While customizing his printer, he also taught himself the mechanics of computer-aided design (CAD) and 3D modelling software. And as a personal project, he started designing a robot that can balance on two wheels and navigate through a building without user input.

Klassen says even before his college days, he was fascinated by topics within the science, technology, engineering and math fields.

“I wasn’t very artistic, and I didn’t enjoy literature or history. I’ve grown more appreciative to the latter fields, but my passion is still STEM,” he adds. “For me, the main draw to STEM is that things either work, or they don’t. And if they don’t work, I really enjoy trying to fix them or design a new solution.”

A life-long Niagara resident, Klassen is still not keen on the winter or snow, but during the warmer months, he can be found on the golf course with his father.