The music has changed, but Alberta manufacturers are already grooving to a new rhythm
By Jeff Baker
Since Alberta’s establishment in 1905, its economy has always been export-oriented and export-dependent. With a small internal market located in an economically isolated region, industries of all sorts have relied on transport connections: rivers, rails, roads, air, and now the internet.
From day one, Alberta’s economy has been one of volatility – booms and busts – with certain economic sectors taking the lead in development, production, exports, income, and then the inevitable downsides.
From furs to grains to beef
In the early days, when the Hudson Bay Company and the Northwest Company ruled the roost, fur was king, and commodities travelled by birch-bark canoes, York boats, and Red River carts on buffalo trails to the ports of the east and west.
With the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 19th century, in-migration became tremendously easier, and this led to one of the first dramatic shifts in Alberta’s economy: from fur to grains and animal products. With the people came new populations to settle new regions, new technologies to tackle the land and environment, and even new and strengthened connections to places well beyond Alberta’s borders.
From the arrival of the railway and new settlers until the 1950s, it was agriculture that commanded the economic lead in Alberta. The export of wheat, beef, and a handful of other commodities was the core of the province’s economy, and the health of the entire province was closely tied to the price of wheat.
Striking it rich
In 1947, the newest and, what some people might say, biggest transformational point arrived in Alberta. That was the year when a significant oil field was found near the towns of Devon and Leduc, close to Edmonton. Though it wasn’t the first time that oil had been discovered in the province, this find was orders of magnitude larger and more productive than anything found before. The future of Alberta changed in a heartbeat, and the economy took off like a rocket.
The spin-offs from the petroleum discovery and ensuing development of the local energy industry allowed many other industries to develop alongside in Alberta. Energy-related manufacturing is an obvious example, but other sectors such as financial services, agri-food processing, professional & scientific services, information services, and micro- and nanotechnology, and construction have grown up and benefitted from energy-related money, too.
What goes up must come down
In the last few decades, the energy industry has seen a number of ups and downs and associated and supporting industries have seen the same swings. Research by Dahlby and Khanal at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, shows sectors outside energy that have been promoted as means to diversify the economy are following the same boom-bust cycles, and they may even exacerbate the economic cycles.
The energy sector today is different than that of the early years in Alberta, and there has been some reduction in the volatility of aggregated output across industry due to a more diversified economy overall. However, with the growth of the oil sands and shale gas operations, the manufacturing sector that was seen as a way to diversify and mitigate the boom-bust effects, is more closely tied to the energy sector than ever before, and the two sectors are so closely tied that there is a magnification of the up- and down-swings.
But we’ve diversified… right?
The research from Dahlby and Khanal also found that work undertaken by governments in recent years to mitigate the shocks of energy commodity price changes, by promoting investment in petrochemical and hydrocarbon processing industries, has done little if anything to reduce economic output volatility in Alberta.
So, if the manufacturing industry itself is affected so greatly by the energy sector, and the industry’s outputs are more closely tied to energy commodity prices than ever before, is there any hope for the province and its community of manufacturers – both current and future?
The answer is a resounding yes!
Don’t wait for success, make it happen
Manufacturers are the makers, the creators, the innovators, the ground breakers of our world, and the manufacturing community in Alberta is no different. The people in this industry have never been afraid to tackle a problem head on or take hold of an opportunity that presents itself. Nor have they been afraid to put in the hard work and efforts needed to transform an idea or a doodle into something real.
The (new) band plays on
The music Alberta was moving to over the past decades has changed a number of times, and the beat has never returned in the same way. This current wave of change, though it might be faster, more dynamic, and taking a much curvier path forward, is no different. The music has definitely changed, but Alberta is finding – and always will find – a new beat to groove to and a new way of thriving in the years to come.
With a new beat and new music, the way the dancers move is going to change. Those that don’t change their moves will definitely stand out, but not in a good way.
Doing things differently, looking at manufacturing in a new way, and looking outward into new markets – both domestic and international – is going to be key to surviving and thriving in the new reality.
Manufacturers making a go
The Prairie Manufacturer team has looked across Alberta to find some of these innovative makers, creators, and manufacturers and share with our readers some of the cool things coming out of Alberta-born companies.
These companies and their leaders are taking risks, challenging the status quo, and branching out into the wider world to share their talents, knowledge, and products. They are making their futures from within Alberta but are not being tied solely to the local market.
Here’s just a sample of what we found currently being manufactured across Alberta for the world to experience.
Black Sheep Mattress Company
A better way to make and sell mattresses. That’s what drove Christian Schmidt to establish Black Sheep Mattress in 2011, bringing the traditional art of mattress making to Calgary.
Focusing on quality, sustainability, and local impact, Black Sheep Mattress addresses consumers’ concerns with the impacts on health and the environment that conventional industrial mattress manufacturing can have.
Using high-quality materials including untreated wool, organic cotton, natural latex, hydrocarbon-free, food-grade jute, and wood local to the region, Black Sheep mattresses are handmade in the company’s workshop in southeast Calgary.
Customers who purchase a mattress from Black Sheep get not just a handmade mattress, but one that is customized to their specific needs, backed by customer service from real people in their own community.
What does manufacturing mean to Christian Schmidt, founder of Black Sheep Mattress Company?
Manufacturing at Black Sheep is about trying to prove the model of a green company. For us, we strive to find the answer to ‘how might we build natural products, 10-times better than the rest, while being a company that treats their employees well and offers exceptional service to our customers?’
With the growing awareness of adverse health and environmental impacts from materials and chemicals in today’s society, we aim to see how our company can fit into and shape the world 10 and 20 years from now.
Lab coats by day, classic guitar tones by night, Rick McCreery and Adam Bergren made the jump from studying molecules and nanotech to making beautiful music, and helping others do the same.
Nanotechnology is tiny – 20,000 times thinner than a human hair – but the impact it can have in industry is enormous.
Taking the discoveries from the laboratory to the stage is what Nanolog Audio is all about. It’s the application of a process called quantum tunnelling that makes the company’s technology different from the traditional components in the market. In their words, quantum tunnelling is about ‘going through stuff instead of around it. In the case of this technology, it’s keeping the signal from the guitar or other instrument as pure and ‘complete’ as possible, so there’s less loss during its journey from string to speaker.
Nanolog Audio’s devices, which are designed and manufactured in Edmonton, are the first commercial applications of this particular technology and science. The company sells their nanotechnology devices to pedal builders around the world, and they also develop and build their own products, too.
What does manufacturing mean to Adam Bergren, CEO of Nanolog Audio?
Manufacturing is the foundation to our business. It’s what separates us from science lab to budding start-up. Our ability to manufacture our patented Nanolog Devices right here in Edmonton gives us a huge advantage in terms of flexibility, control, intellectual property, and cost which is a testament to the strength of our nanotech sector.
By now, we’ve all heard about carbon capture technology and how it can help reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere. However, the technology is usually talked about on a massive industrial scale, and it usually happens in settings like oil sands facilities or coal-fired powerplants.
Jaeson Cardiff, inventor and founder of Calgary-based CleanO2, nearly blew up his house while developing the technology that is today capturing carbon dioxide from furnaces and boilers around Calgary, across Canada and the U.S., with efforts to expand throughout the Americas, Europe, and Asia.
The surprising thing? CleanO2 didn’t actually set out to be a manufacturer, let alone a manufacturer of cleaning products. Luckily, Cardiff and CleanO2 are fortunate to work with the folks at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) around the development of the company’s manufacturing process and the refinement of the design.
CleanO2 is breaking down the stereotypes with their micro-scale carbon capture for heating systems. In development for nearly 15 years, CleanO2’s CARBiNX units take a waste product produced by almost every heating system – carbon dioxide – and turning it into an ingredient of soap and detergent products for household and commercial use. Despite what many people believe, the carbon that is captured and processed is not released when the soap is used; it remains bound in a carbonate molecule. This takes ‘cleaning’ to a whole new level!
What does manufacturing mean to Jaeson Cardiff, CEO and Cofounder of CleanO2?
Manufacturing represents an opportunity for us to showcase Canadian innovation and our “can do” attitude. We need to encourage people to ‘make’ rather than ‘buy’ where possible as it helps to educate us and promote self-sufficiency.
In the midst of a recession, with limited funds at hand, the only store gutted by fire and an impending lease renewal, it was the perfect time for James Boettcher to transform Fiasco Gelato from scoop shop to a small-batch, craft gelato manufacturer!
Over the last 10 years, with Boettcher at the helm, Fiasco Gelato has become a powerhouse in the food scene of Calgary, Alberta, and Canada. Embracing the theme of disruption, Fiasco is showing the world that ice cream can be innovative, true-to-craft, high-quality, and socially and environmentally responsible.
The company has a mission and vision to have a measurable impact on how the world looks at employment, business, and what people deserve as consumers. They just happen to do it by making gelato. And they do that by being a Certified B Corporation, powered by green energy, certified as a Leader in Environmentally Accountable Foodservice, and are a certified Great Place to Work.
In 2018, the Fiasco took nearly 400,000 litres of milk, more than seven tonnes of caramel, and 722,724 strawberries (plus other natural and responsibly sourced ingredients) and manufactured more than 1.4 million pints of gelato for sale across Canada. They did this while diverting 95 per cent of their waste from landfill, and being zero-waste since 2016 through composting.
What does manufacturing mean to Fiasco Gelato?
Manufacturing our own product gives the team a great sense of pride. As a team we like to say what we mean and mean what we say; manufacturing our own product allows us to have extreme ownership to ensure that happens every day. Knowing that every pint leaving our warehouse goes through our rigorous quality program is something we are excited to share with the world.
Making our own operation schedule allows us to be more adaptable to demand, as well as the opportunity to be innovative and creative throughout the year, working on new product and recipe improvements. The growth we’ve seen in the past five years has been incredible – a constant reminder of where we came from. In the past, every pint was filled by hand, now we are moving to a more automated system, which is like living in an episode of ‘How It’s Made.’ The constant improvement on how we do things keeps the team highly engaged and encouraged to bring forth new ideas that are shaping who we are today.