A look at eight Saskatchewan innovations and how they’ve changed — or are changing — manufacturing and the Canadian economy.
By Joanne Paulson.
The innovative spirit of Saskatchewan was a natural outcome of its early days, harkening to a time of ploughs and pioneers. While much has changed, that drive to create — to solve problems — has not.
According to the Western Development Museum, Saskatchewan is home to 3,200 patents. Thousands of other unrecorded inventions and process innovations have been successfully commercialized.
Some of these advances have led to the genesis of the province’s thriving manufacturing sector — an industry that, through 2017, employed 28,000 people and generated more than $16 billion in sales.
And while we can’t tell all these stories in one issue, we’ve selected eight of them we think capture the spirit that has earned Saskatchewan an international reputation for manufacturing and economic ingenuity.
Canola & Canola Oil
If there has ever been a crop to revolutionize agriculture on the Prairies, it’s canola.
Farmers here originally planted hardy grains, such as wheat, oats, barley, and rye, which could withstand harsh weather.
One of the earliest oilseeds experimented with was rape — an industrial crop containing erucic acid. Because of high concentrations, however, it was not safe for human consumption. Furthermore, compounds called glucosinolates in the crop also made it unsuitable for animal feed.
If farmers wanted an oilseed option, something had to change. By the 1960s, Keith Downey, a geneticist at the University of Saskatchewan, along with Baldur Stefansson of the University of Manitoba were on it.
The Downey team’s first breakthrough came with help from Bryan Harvey and Burton Craig working at the National Research Council. Harvey evaluated some samples for erucic acid by using a gas-liquid chromatograph created by Craig, and found a seed with a fatty acid type significantly different from the rest.
From there, Harvey and Downey crossed the seed with a leafy Polish variety, using a technique that allowed the oil to be analyzed without destroying it.
In 1974, Stefannson developed the first low-erucic and low-glucosinolate rapeseed, an Argentinian variety. By 1977, Downey had created the canola that would thrive in northern growing areas.
The next step would be to extract the oil from the seed — a process that was initially developed at the government-funded POS Pilot Plant in Saskatoon.
Today, POS is a privately-owned manufacturer, research facility, and ingredient processor, with clients in 50 countries around the globe. Canola, meanwhile, is a major export on the Prairies, spawning $12.2 billion in economic benefit for Saskatchewan each year, and $26.7 billion for Canada, when related jobs and wages are included.
Three years ago, inventor and manufacturing executive Norbert Beaujot was contemplating the problems created for farmers by high machinery costs and a shortage of skilled labour.
His musings led to the creation of DOT — an autonomous, diesel and hydraulically-driven platform that can take the place of conventional tractors to power farm implements, such as seeders, sprayers, and harvest equipment.
The U-shaped DOT uses GPS to travel the route planned by the producer, self-adjusting for optimal traction and precision. Safety is the top priority — if the machine veers off-course for any reason, the engine stops. There is also an emergency shut-down device.
DOT’s frame is lightweight compared to the traditional alternative, and the 163-horsepower engine is capable of pulling 40,000 pounds at up to six miles per hour.
DOT Technology Corp., the maker of the unmanned platform, is a sister company to SeedMaster, which manufactures air seeders near Regina. The genesis is somewhat poetic, given the air seeder’s original roots in Saskatchewan (which itself could be the subject of an entire article).
The new-age implement launched in 2017. Earlier this year, WIRED magazine called DOT the “Transformer of ag-bots” and added that it was “capable of performing 100-plus jobs, from hay baler and seeder to rock picker and manure spreader.”
Twenty years ago, Zenon Dragan demonstrated his first innovations by flying them around his living room. The little radio-controlled blimp and helicopter were fun, but would the technology prove to be the game-changer he and his wife, Christine, hoped for?
Draganfly Innovations is now recognized as a global leader in creating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for commercial purposes. Most people know them better as drones.
The company’s inaugural model, the X6, took home the nod for Popular Science’s ‘Best of What’s New’ award in the ‘Aviation and Space’ category in 2008. It would become the first first-federally approved, commercially-produced UAV in North America available to the civilian market.
From there, Draganfly has kept pushing the envelope.
For example, the company’s Draganflyer Commander product, a multi-rotor mini-helicopter, offers 45 minutes of flight time for use in law enforcement, search and rescue, mapping, agriculture, and aerial imaging.
Another product, the dual-rotor Draganfly X4-ES (since upgraded to a newer model), even helped save a life. The Saskatchewan RCMP used the system to find an injured driver who wandered away from a single-vehicle accident. The driver was eventually found, and the device made history as the first civilian-developed, small UAV used in a life-saving operation.
Draganfly offers other solutions, too, including an airplane-style drone (the Tango2), which supports several kinds of payloads, such as equipment for high-resolution colour video, high-tech imaging, and data collection.
“In the beginning, people were fascinated to fly a multi-rotor helicopter, and we sold thousands of them,” Zenon Dragan has said. “Soon, people realized they’re amazing tools and that’s when everything started to change.”
The Blairmore Ring
The commodity known as ‘pink gold’ was discovered in southeast Saskatchewan while drilling for oil in 1942. Much of it may still be in the ground, however, had it not been for the invention of the Blairmore Ring.
More than 1,000 metres under the surface lies a vast layer of potash that extends south into North Dakota. This stretch is known as the Blairmore Formation — an up-to-400-foot-thick layer of sand, shale, and water, mixed together at roughly 700 psi.
International Minerals and Chemical Corp. (better known locally as IMC) began to sink a shaft for its K1 mine at Esterhazy in the late 1950s. Early attempts, though, were stymied by the combination of high pressure and water, which would result in almost-instantaneous flooding. The miners tried sealing the shaft using concrete, to no avail.
But two years later, a solution was discovered: First, freeze the ground with pipes — up to 58 of them measuring 250 feet long — and a refrigeration unit; then, install massive cast iron rings to hold back the water and earth.
This 28-tonne device earned the name the Blairmore Ring. By 1962, 17,000 bolts secured 100 rings, creating a watertight shaft that rescued the mining venture that had already cost more than $20 million. Even today, a modified version of the ring is used to cut through the Blairmore Foundation.
It was an engineering feat of spectacular proportions.
“Without the Blairmore Ring, the mine would flood and the shaft could potentially collapse in on itself. So, without it, we’d have no underground mining of potash,” says Eric Anderson,
executive director of the Saskatchewan Industrial and Mining Suppliers Association. “We’d have been decades behind on what is now one of our biggest and most important industries.”
Schulte Rock Picker
If Saskatchewan manufacturing is known for anything, it would be for its dominance in the agricultural implement sphere.
One of the earliest companies engaged in the sector was run by the Schulte family. In 1912, Caspar Schulte acquired the blacksmith’s shop in the town of Englefeld, 145 kilometres east of Saskatoon, and was joined in business by his son, John, 20 years later.
John first built brush-cutting and cleaning equipment, followed by a front-mount snow plow in the 1940s. But the first breakthrough for farmers was the Schulte rock picker, patented in 1963. The device scoops up rocks and sends them through wide grates and into huge buckets, which can then be dumped into piles.
One year later, under the name Schulte Welding and Machine Ltd., the company began full-scale production of the snow blowers, earth scrapers, and rock pickers. By 1967, through Rockelator Sales Ltd., the rock pickers rapidly found export markets in the United States and around the world.
Fast forward 50 years. With monikers like Titan, Giant, and Jumbo, rock pickers are now commonplace. Schulte’s newest Titan 500 model was just introduced in July, branded the largest-capacity picker in the industry.
That sure beats the more manual methods of the past — picking them by hand, or using chains and tractors for each individual rock.
In fact, it would be fair to say the Schulte rock picker is the emblematic Saskatchewan innovation: Ingrained in an everyday problem, with a common-sense solution and global demand.
Vertical-Axis Wind Turbine
Picture a conventional wind turbine: A tall, steel pole adorned with three hulking blades.
Now, picture a large egg beater — positioned closer to the ground with cables supporting each of six blades. It performs the same function, but the Lux vertical-axis wind turbine, or VAWT, may offer several distinct advantages.
According to Lux Wind Power, headquartered in Saskatoon, the design uses recyclable materials should it require removal, takes up less space due to a narrower operating span, is safer for wildlife, is much quieter than conventional models, and could prove to be less expensive to manufacture.
The company’s founder is Glen Lux. In 2013, his design for the VAWT won top prize in the ‘Sustainable Technologies’ category at the Create the Future Design Contest, held by NASA Tech Briefs. More than 8,000 product designs are entered into the massive contest annually.
He had been working on the project since 2004, and has since fine-tuned the VAWT through more than 30 iterations — the newest of which emerged just a few weeks ago, when Lux installed a 100-kilowatt turbine west of the city. He is currently commissioning the prototype.
“It’s bigger than any of the others I’ve built; and it’s connected to the grid, so that’s a whole new experience for us,” he says. “When it’s commissioned, we have a 20-year contract to sell electricity to SaskPower.”
Part of the project involves assessing the potential of the design, and deciding if Lux will produce this size of turbine in the future.
“We seem to have a lot of interest,” says Lux. “We’ve had numerous cars driving by and asking, What is it? And we’re getting support from the industry in general. People want to see this happen.
“I think it’s going to work. I think we’re going to end up manufacturing this right here in Saskatchewan.”
A Financial Revolution
While this one isn’t necessarily a manufacturing innovation, its impacts on consumerism and the economy at-large have been wide-reaching, so we’ve included it. Plus, we think it’s downright cool.
If you’ve tried telling people the now-ubiquitous automated teller machine (ATM) had its start in a Saskatchewan credit union, you’ll know that look of disbelief on their faces.
But it’s true. The first full-service ATMs went into use at Regina’s Sherwood Credit Union (now Conexus Credit Union) in March 1977. They were developed by the information technology staff at Co-operative Insurance Services, in conjunction with IBM Canada.
The credit union ATM system spread quickly throughout the province, as members enjoyed the convenience of access to their money, 18 hours a day, seven days a week, in amounts up to $200.
These were not, however, simple cash dispensers. In late 1977, Sherwood members could also make deposits as well as loan and credit card payments, plus transfer funds among accounts and determine balances.
This wouldn’t be the last time Saskatchewan’s credit unions would pioneer a revolutionary idea, either.
In 1985, the credit union partnered with Pioneer Co-op in Swift Current on a two-year project to pilot the use of the debit card. By the early 1990s, thanks — in part — to the widespread acceptance of ATMs, debit cards were available nationwide.
Businesses and individuals could hardly then imagine the revolutionary nature of the digitization of financial transactions. Today, we could hardly imagine life without it.
Easy-Off Oven Cleaner
Oven cleaner may not be the sexiest product invented in Saskatchewan, but it may be one of the most commercially far-reaching.
Easy-Off was invented by Herbert McCool in either 1932 or 1933, depending on who you ask. No one is even quite sure if McCool made much money off it.
Lore has it the electrician made the caustic product in his basement and sold it door-to-door until his death in the mid-40s. His widow then sold the rights to American Home Products and Boyle Midway Canada.
Canadian actor and comic Steve Smith — better known as Red Green — put it this way in his book, The Woulda Coulda Shoulda Guide to Canadian Inventions:
“For me, the beauty of this product is that ole Herb came up with a formula that was strong enough to clean an oven, but safe enough to have in your kitchen,” he wrote. “If I had invented it, it would be made out of sulfuric acid and come in a huge can so they had room to print all the warnings.”
Jokes aside, such was the beauty of Easy-Off. As Smith rightly noted, “He knew things and he did tests until he came up with the perfect balance between safety and getting the job done.”