Wide open spaces

Limits are for cities, not for manufacturing

By David Quinn

Beyond the bright lights and boulevards of the Prairies’ largest cities, lay thriving communities of all sorts and sizes, filled with people who are working to innovate and create products and services that will end up travelling a heck of a lot farther than a country mile.

It’s the smaller towns and rural communities across the Prairies that are home to manufacturers and makers who are showing that you don’t have to be in the big city in order to successfully build your business or reach all corners of the globe.

Meet two Saskatchewan-based businesses who are showing that making it big doesn’t depend on being in the middle of the city.

The side hustle takes over

For Watrous’s Geoff Bedard, the COVID-19 pandemic meant his usual travel-heavy work as Senior Vice-President of Supply Chain Management for a Georgia, USA-based renewable energy company took a turn and kept him much closer to home.

“We’re building the company to export to Japan and the EU, plus domestic markets in North America, so I would normally be travelling quite frequently between Canada and the United States,” says Bedard.

An avid woodworker and creator, Bedard and his wife were also running 306Woodcraft, a small business of refurbishing barn wood and building furniture and home accessories, including game boards and custom signs.

“We’ve had 306WoodCraft for quite a while,” says Bedard, “but the pandemic forced me to stay close to home, which gave me much more time to work on what normally would be my side hustle.”

Coming from a family where woodworking was a hobby for his grandfather and father, Bedard didn’t really get into the craft seriously until his late-20s.

“My dad’s family has a history of woodworking, for sure,” Bedard says. “My grandpa wasn’t a woodworker by trade – neither was my dad – but he was very handy and just loved doing it. I learned by watching them when I was little, and I eventually just started monkeying around, building some basic stuff.”

Building on the success his wife had with her initial foray into signs and accessories, Bedard was accumulating an array of woodworking tools that would allow the creativity to be unleashed.

“I always wanted to get into the CNC (computer numerical control) side of things,” says Bedard. “With the automated tools and machines, it’s really only your imagination that is the limit to what you can do.”

Being at home over the last year has given Bedard the time to flex his woodworking skills and tackle some interesting projects that normally would have taken a backseat to the work-related travel.

“There’s only so much research and reading you can do from home,” Bedard says, “and these Zoom meetings still keep you pretty cooped up. Between that and working out and maybe checking the mail, the days can be frustrating, so it’s nice to have a bit of an outlet. My outlet is woodworking.”

Keeping it close

Asked about the challenges and opportunities he sees as a rural-based manufacturer, Bedard says it’s generally positive for him. 

“There’s real sense of community when you’re away from the city. You really know the people you’re doing business with, and there’s a strong connection that binds the people together out here.”

“You walk into the local farm supply store, and can say ‘Hey, I know you guys, and I know you get asked for donations for a bunch of causes every year… How about I make you some cribbage boards, or Oilers signs, and stuff like that you can donate?” Bedard says.

“It’s that connection and wanting to support the local folks because they support you. And this pandemic seems to have strengthened that connection.”

But Bedard also admits there are some challenges to being outside the larger centres; some of which us city dwellers might not even think about.

“Take gas stations, for example,” says Bedard. “In the city, they’ll tend to be open early and late into the night – if not 24 hours a day – but out here, they’ll be closed earlier.”

“Even getting supplies can still be a challenge, although it’s a bit easier now with delivery companies servicing more rural communities,” Bedard says. “But even with on-line ordering and express delivery, it just takes more time to get things delivered and shipped, so you do have to keep that in mind.

The great enabler… but with a catch

Over the last few years, telecom and connectivity companies across the Prairies have invested in expanding access to their broadband internet networks, and high-speed internet connections are finding their way deeper into the small towns and rural areas.

“Facebook, Instagram, and other social media networks are a great thing for rural businesses,” says Bedard. “You can have a virtual storefront that is open all hours and available to the world, so the exposure is a great help.”

“The lady who cuts my hair, she’s also got an online clothing store. She does live videos on Instagram where she’s unboxing the stock she’s received, and she’s getting lots of exposure and attention from her online audience.”

However, even though expanded networks might be available, the service levels and quality in these rural areas can vary drastically from the urban and suburban locales. 

“When you’re really out of the towns, the quality of the internet connections is less than ideal, and the speed you can get can be really limited,” says Bedard. “If you don’t have high-quality and truly high-speed internet, you’re limited in what you can actually do. Zoom calls or live videos can be out of the question.”

However, Bedard sees a potential shining light – make that hundreds of shining lights – on the horizon.

“I think the Starlink satellite internet project could be a game-changer,” Bedard says. “There’s now real potential for true high-speed internet to be accessible from literally anywhere, so manufacturing and other industry won’t face the connectivity hurdle.”

Like a duck to water

For Saskatchewan-based Duck Foot Parts, it’s a bit of a different story when it comes to manufacturing beyond the city limits.

The Duck Foot is the invention of Steve Kastning, a grain farmer in central Saskatchewan, and his wife Chrisa, both of whom have always had a passion for innovation and finding the sometimes elusive ‘better way’ to improve productivity and efficiency in the field. 

The Duck Foot is a slip-over paddle tine that attaches to the reel pipe and is designed to clear a combine’s cutter bar and decrease header loss. Combine operators can slow their reel speed further preventing shelling and stripping of the harvested grain. Compatible with a growing number of harvester brands, the Duck Foot series of paddle tines is a cost-effective and time-efficient way to minimize header loss.

The Duck Foot started as an idea in 2015, and the first prototype was made in early 2016. In 2018, Steve and Chrisa launched the Duck Foot at Canada’s Farm Progress Show, winning a Sterling Innovation Award.

Since the initial launch of the Duck Foot, Duck Foot Parts Inc. has continued to work on advancing their product line. In 2020, new models of Duck Foot compatible with additional harvester brands were released, as was a newly designed clip system.

Making a go of it

While Duck Foot Parts isn’t directly manufacturing their product in-house, Steve explains that outsourcing was a business decision that wasn’t taken lightly or quickly.

“The Duck Foot is an injection moulded product, so producing it entirely in-house would be a very expensive and capital-intensive investment,” says Kastning. “It’s a good number of moulds involved to produce the various Duck Foot models, plus manufacturing them requires an injection machine with 200 tonnes of hydraulic pressure to hold everything together; not to mention those moulds weigh about 900 pounds apiece.”

In the past, Duck Foot Parts contracted with an American injection-moulding company, but Kastning made the decision to bring the moulds home and relocate production to local Canadian firms experienced in the field.

“When I was starting out, I just Googled ‘injection moulding companies,’ but only a couple in Ontario showed up; only one in Saskatchewan, but they didn’t take on any outside work,” says Kastning. “The company I found in the US was actually already manufacturing agricultural products, so they knew exactly what I needed.”

In 2019, Kastning brought the Duck Foot moulds back to Canada after finding suppliers who could provide the services he needed much closer to home.

“We use one company in Edmonton, Alberta, and one in Englefeld, Saskatchewan,” Kastning explains. “They both do very good work on our parts, so it’s more a case of working with the companies who have the time and capacity to tackle our orders when we need them.”

Kastning says, “Working with a couple of moulding companies also gives us the flexibility and capacity that we need, and it ensures we have the coverage if, for whatever reason, something happens to one manufacturer or the other.”

Differences aren’t that big

With one supplier based in a large metropolitan market – Edmonton – and the other in a rural-oriented, small-town community – Englefeld – Kastning finds the differences between the two companies not as big as one might expect.

“Our guy in Edmonton is extremely busy,” says Kastning, “so it’s a bit more challenging to have our orders scheduled. When he gets into our production, though, he just goes. He’ll run 24/7, non-stop ‘til everything is done.”

“Our other supplier is very busy as well but is a bit more laid back,” explains Kastning. “It might take a little longer to get an order finished, but the quality is still top notch. The fact they’re local is really nice.”

“In the end,” Kastning says, “it almost doesn’t matter if a manufacturer is big city or small town. It’s just a matter of working with good people and finding the balance.”