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Engineering Co-op Student Learning More Than Books Can Teach Via SR&ED And The FabLab™

Nicole Davis, Engineering student at the University of Manitoba

Does your personal protective equipment (PPE) not protect the top of your head, or fit well because you wear a hijab or turban? Does your facial hair get in the way of a proper mask fit?

Have you ever thought ‘there must be a better solution’?

How it started:
Nicole Davis, a fourth-year University of Manitoba Engineering student, found this problem intriguing when she came across it in a Win-Shield Medical Devices Inc. co-op posting in November 2021. The President, Robert Ranson, was looking for an engineering student to work with him and his team to create innovative PPE devices.

“I sent in my application to the Co-op Education and Industrial Internship Program through the Price Faculty of Engineering at the University of Manitoba, and then the next thing you know, I had an interview with Rob at the North Forge FabLab™! I didn’t realize we had North America’s largest, publicly accessible, non-profit fabrication lab Rob gave me a tour and showed me all of the advanced manufacturing equipment he uses to create his prototypes and talked about the problems he was working on solving. I was very interested in everything he showed me and spoke about,” Nicole remembered. 

Rob explained that “Win-Shield Medical Devices Inc. was initially established to offer a safer, more protective and highly functional face and head shield for those battling COVID-19. After validating our design through objective, third-party testing and approvals within a large hospital ICU unit, we brought our patent-pending shield to the market. Our initial goal was to see our shield being produced in high volumes and put into the hands of frontline workers battling infectious diseases.

Within only nine months, we successfully transitioned from developing a prototype at the Fab Lab in three days to obtaining and fulfilling an initial government order for millions of shields. That was a wild ride. Throughout 2021, we decided to focus on expanding our portfolio of innovative devices, so we set out to build a team of great engineers, production specialists and advisors. This team is now focused on designing and developing a new, innovative, and affordable product line of medical, dental, and industrial devices that will help to meet heightened demand. We are also working on a government contract to develop a “breakthrough” device that we expect will appeal to a global market,” said Rob.

“I could see that this was an innovative and friendly team, and I wanted to be a part of it,” Nicole said. “So I accepted the eight-month co-op contract position and joined the Win-Shield team in January 2022. 

While I’m in this position, the work I do is also considered school for me. I get academic credit while working towards my Professional Engineering License (P.Eng.)

Nicole Davis, Engineering student at the University of Manitoba
Nicole Davis, Engineering student at the University of Manitoba

Learning more than books can teach:
Usually, when an engineer like myself graduates, you need to complete four years of mentorship with a Professional Engineer. But because I’m working with professionals in advanced manufacturing, I’m only going to need three years of post-graduate mentorship instead of four. The university understands that these co-ops are essential to becoming an engineer. It’s a brilliant program because I’m learning so much more than what books can teach – it’s experiential learning,” Nicole explained. 

Rob shared that “Nicole has the advantage of working with, and learning from, some of our senior project managers and team members who are helping her to appreciate the nuances of how to plan, track and document our team’s activities.”

“So my job is to research the innovative devices we want to test, design the prototypes, and then create them in the FabLab. I then use that information to generate a report for the Canadian Scientific Research and Experimental Tax Incentive Program (SR&ED),” said Nicole.

Nicole and Rob Ranson, Founder of Win-Shield Medical Devices Inc.
Nicole and Rob Ranson, Founder of Win-Shield Medical Devices Inc.

“She is fast learning the nuances of the SR&ED program. By fully understanding the why’s and how’s of what needs to be in place to qualify for this financial support program, she is directly contributing to our team’s success – at a high level. The financial recovery that this represents for our company is measurable and will help us continue to grow and innovate. Her new skill and perspective on properly carrying out and documenting research activities will be in high demand throughout her career.

Nicole already has a much deeper sense of what it takes to create a product and nurture it through its life cycle. As the next few months go by, she will be involved with several more projects. She will deep dive into the steps involved in product design, prototyping, refinement, financial tracking, team management, testing and customer validation. I’m convinced that her newly acquired ability to be an active participant in bringing a product to life will help to make the last year of her University studies that much more relevant and meaningful,” shared Rob.

“Researching and creating the reports was easier for me than being in the same space with all of the advanced manufacturing equipment because at first, it was overwhelming,” shared Nicole. “I didn’t know how to use any of the equipment. Rob, however, set my mind at ease because he assured me that he would train me how to use the equipment. He also said many people in the FabLab would mentor me as well.”

Nicole brings a fresh set of eyes to our team and the devices we are developing,” Rob said. “When she first started with us, her CAD skills were fairly basic, and to be really innovative and self-reliant, it was important that she enhance her skills so that she wouldn’t have to rely on someone else to prepare CAD drawings for her and then she could transfer her designs and ideas into fully fleshed out drawings.” 

Nicole and Rob with Matt Olsen and Andy Jiang
Nicole and Rob with Matt Olsen and Andy Jiang

Safely training with the FabLab™ community:
“They took the time to show me how to use the equipment safely so that I could work on my own and they answered all my questions:

  • Andy Jiang showed me how to use the 3D printers and 3d scanners, 
  • Rob showed me how to use the vacuum sealer,
  • and Matt Olson, Founder of Prysm Manufacturing and the FabLab’s advanced manufacturing mentor, showed me a bit of everything.

Everyone was so kind and helpful,” beamed Nicole.

“Over the relatively short time she has been with us, Nicole can now update our team on her progress by opening up her CAD files and walking us through how her device looks, moves and functions. She can, and often does, bring in the 3D printed components she has made to our meetings to ask for feedback.

By developing these skills, Nicole is now a much more valuable and self-reliant member of our team. She is now in the final stages of concept prototyping one of the designs she was assigned, where she will be able to 3D print a fully functional prototype that we/she can demonstrate to prospective clients,” Rob explained.  

“Before I started with Win-Shield, I wish I had known that it was OK not to know anything to start,” Nicole remembered. “That it’s OK to be overwhelmed at first. Before I started, there was so much fear because I didn’t know how to turn my ideas into reality. 

What reassured me is that there is an incredible community behind this company who will guide me on how to create prototypes, innovations, and devices. There is a whole team of people that want me to succeed. This is a place where I can be creative,” beamed Nicole. 

Nicole sees endless possibilities at the FabLab
Nicole sees endless possibilities at the FabLab

Unlimited possibilities:
The endless possibilities opened Nicole’s eyes when she joined the Win-Shield team and started working on prototypes at the FabLab. “There are so many different types of machines and cool gadgets supplied here that it’s possible to take an idea and turn it into reality. 

The FabLab is really extraordinary, and I’m recommending it to all my friends, family, and classmates. Having the North Forge founders be intertwined with the university is so helpful. The Founders Program and the FabLab teach you about business and becoming entrepreneurs or even engineers. Also, this is an affordable place to go where you have the opportunity to work with expensive advanced manufacturing machines that you can’t afford to have in your basement or garage.

A program like this allows young people, students, or anyone to create their own company with innovative ideas. There are many reasons why people don’t start, but there’s a program where you have a team to teach you how to use the things and have a there is a facility and equipment to help you build something,” shared Nicole. “It’s a hidden gem that not a lot of people know about.”

Women in tech and advanced manufacturing:
Nicole wants to see more women and students join the North Forge Founders Program and experience the FabLab because of all the benefits she has experienced. “I would say go onto the website, read the blogs and definitely, definitely, definitely do a tour because when Rob gave me the tour, I was sold! 

Seeing is believing:
There were just so many things here that I didn’t know. It is such a fantastic way to learn. You can read all you want, but until you see it for yourself, and experience what this community has to offer, you won’t fully appreciate the innumerable possibilities. Talk to people and make connections because there are so many people with various manufacturing backgrounds working on different things. You might meet someone good at something you didn’t know you were interested in. You can make friends here, create something innovative, and build a company. 

You are surrounded by people just like you who want you to succeed.” Nicole said. “You’ll succeed because everyone wants to help.”

Rob is pleased with the quality of education, level of professionalism, and amount of motivation Nicole has. Rob shared that “Nicole brings a fresh set of eyes to our team and the devices we are developing.”

_____

Next Steps:

Would you like to learn more about Nicole’s co-op experience? She is interested in building her network of like-minded people. You can reach out to Nicole via email with your engineering co-op experience questions.

Are you a university student who wants to learn more about the FabLab?

Are you an inventor looking for economical ways to produce your innovative idea?

To find out how you can turn your ideas into something tangible, sign up for a tour of the FabLab or register to become a member!

Are you a professional who has identified a gap in your industry? Do you have an idea that would solve a problem but need help with starting a business? We would love to hear from you! Tell us about your idea (don’t worry if you don’t have the answers to all the questions yet), and our Programming Team will contact you to set up a meeting to chat about it.

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