The photograph of an unmoored ship drifting in a stormy Welland Canal hangs in the front lobby of the St. Catharines-based Offsite Industries Ltd.
The detail of renowned Welland photographer Thies Bogner’s work is exquisite. The waves crashing against the canal’s walls, and the uprooted mooring evoke a range of primordial emotions and longings.
But this is no ordinary photograph. It’s Bogner’s work baked onto a sheet of aluminum, meant to last for at least 15-20 years in snow, sleet and sunshine.
“If you can imagine it, we can print it onto a sheet,” says Ed Baldassi, Offsite Industries president.
“Where builders were putting marble fascias on buildings, we can now put a marble design onto an aluminum sheet, where it’s half the price, half the weight, and it will last just as long as the marble will.”
Offsite Industries specializes in producing polyurethane, or “powder” coatings on aluminum surfaces for decorative purposes. The company used to paint auto parts, but switched to decorative surfaces seven years ago following the decline of the auto industry in Niagara.
But Baldassi and his Offsite team have been facing increasing worldwide competition to take the powder coating process to the “next level” – the development of an enhanced system that would enable the company’s aluminum, steel, ferrous, and non-ferrous metals to withstand the elements for a long periods time.
Enter Brock University physicist Fereidoon Razavi.
“We [Brock researchers] are examining Offsite Industries’ processing conditions and are searching for the best cleaning method for substrates prior to fabrication of powder coatings, developing tools to quantify the coating’s adhesion and studying microstructure,” he explains.
Razavi and his team at Brock have partnered with Offsite Industries under an Applied Research and Commercialization Initiative grant administered by FedDev Ontario.
The program allows Brock researchers to conduct research that companies can use to develop new products and processes or improve on existing ones.
Offsite’s Baldassi says he has seen major improvements with the nine-month research partnership and the purchase of new equipment from Italy last year.
As a result of the research, he explains, the company is learning how to clean and prepare the various metals they receive from around the world, stripping them of certain elements so that the powder can be absorbed properly into the metals when they’re being baked in the oven.
They have also refined the process of imprinting a photograph onto a metal sheet.
“I find it very important and very helpful that I know I have a partner that I can rely on,” Baldassi says of Offsite’s work with Brock. “The co-operation, and what they give us is something that only multi-million dollar companies can afford to have.”
Brock University’s Razavi says he thinks the partnership is a win-win situation.
“As a researcher, I see that we can help our local industries to improve their product, hence this adds to higher productivity and consequently improves higher employment in Niagara region,” says Razavi.
“I also see an important hands-on experience with industry for my post-doctoral fellow as well as graduate and undergraduate students,” he says.
Offsite Industries is one of 13 partnerships that Brock University has currently under the program.