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Sharing Knowledge

A new value-added manufacturing centre has opened to provide small producers with access to sophisticated machinery and training techniques.

By Jim Stirling

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Chris Hartridge, coordinator of the Wood Enterprise Centre in Quesnel, BC, which recently added a shared-use manufacturing centre. Hartridge believes there are tremendous opportunities for value-added product in small niche markets. "Within two years, I fully expect a steady export of a diverse range of products from the facility."

New products and new markets are anticipated with the creation of a shared-use manufacturing centre in British Columbia. Designed to expand business horizons and stimulate growth for small, value-added wood product manufacturers, it is intended to provide them with access to sophisticated wood manufacturing machinery, training techniques and marketing expertise.

Located in Quesnel, BC, and in operation since the spring, the centre helps reduce the business risk for small- and medium-size entrepreneurs who can’t afford to invest in these areas on their own. It should enable the value-added woodworker or shop to reach the next stage of development where markets demand a consistent, on-time delivery of a range of quality products.

Developed through a partnership between the Wood Enterprise Centre for the Cariboo-Chilcotin and the Community Futures Development Corporation of the North Cariboo, it is the first fully-fledged, shared-use manufacturing centre in Canada. Chris Hartridge, coordinator for the Wood Enterprise Centre, says the new centre will offer more flexibility than existing co-operatives and business incubators.

The Wood Enterprise Centre opened in 1997 with Forest Renewal BC support and has evolved as a coordinating and informational headquarters for the regional value-added industry. The partners have secured additional funding for the shared-use manufacturing centre from the federal government. Their research included visiting such centres in American forestry-dependent communities from Oregon to West Virginia. They saw how these centres worked and the pitfalls involved, recalls Hartridge.

One insight they gleaned from these visits was the important role the centre can play in reducing the risks in opening new markets. "We learned the markets are there, there’s no doubt about that, but local small industry can’t risk getting into these markets, and that initial access will help business grow."

Hartridge says the Quesnel shared-use manufacturing facility will be "tailored" as it develops. For example, they know access to a moulder will create opportunities for local small operations to make production-type products. He adds that it is important to choose machines relevant to local materials, such as rip and cut off saws and small scale milling set-ups. "CNC — computer numeric control—machines can further enhance an existing product, helping with consistency or embellishment and/or with a drilling capability."

Hartridge wants the shared-use manufacturing facility to mirror the pro-active, business ethic philosophy of the Wood Enterprise Centre itself. "We have to get the rubber to hit the road." And when it does, he’s convinced the manufacturing centre can get businesses started along the road to competitiveness.

The new centre’s operating plan will ensure it combines safe work practices and fair access. "Community Futures Development and the Wood Enterprise Centre are responsible for the health and safety of people on the site. If value added is to expand there, everyone has to learn the proper care, use and maintenance of the machines. The shop must be run that way," says Hartridge.

The partners have been approached by universities, colleges and agencies like BC Wood to make the shared-use manufacturing facility a regional training site. Blocks of machine time will be available for moulder training, for example, and value-added companies wanting to use the machinery will have to qualify and pay a fee.

A 6,000-square-foot manufacturing space houses the shared use facility on Quesnel’s south side and has ample room for expansion. Packaging and bar coding equipment and a small retail section are also included, as the craft, gift-ware and artisan wood sector is a potentially huge industry, notes Hartridge.

The Wood Enterprise Centre shares the premises and continues as a fibre facilitator for the regional value-added industry. There is not a lack of wood per se, says Hartridge, but it’s not necessarily in the specific sizes and moisture contents required by value-added producers. He says regional sawmills are very supportive of working with value-added producers on fibre requirements.

The Wood Enterprise Centre and the new shared-use facility reflect the "hotbed" of value-added interest, activity and initiative in the Cariboo-Chilcotin region. Often it’s the simple, straightforward wood products that take off, however. Hartridge cites the example of a vegetable producer who sought off-grade lumber from local sawmills for recyclable boxes. They have become more popular than the produce and a designer box manufacturing opportunity has now been created. The shared-use facility will provide components for the boxes.

Students at Quesnel Senior Secondary School, encouraged to be aware of wood product potential, have produced bike racks, domino sets and bunk beds in the school’s shop, which also has a dry kiln, installed with the help of a group of partners including Coe Manufacturing. With the help of local cabinet makers and with access to production machinery, some enterprising QSSS students enjoyed a lucrative summer job manufacturing 150 desks, selling them to the local school district and creating a new business.

Hartridge believes the sky’s the limit for opportunities in value-added, small niche markets. "The big flywheel is turning right now. Within two years I fully expect a steady export of a diverse range of products from the shared-use manufacturing facility," he predicts.

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