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North Forge North fabrication lab a technology playground in Thompson for hopeful entrepreneurs

The new facility, which launched June 29, offers members access to high-tech equipment like 3D printers, welders, plasma cutters and more.

Thompson celebrated the opening of the North Forge North fabrication lab on June 29, a new facility designed to help spur entrepreneurship and economic development through access to advanced technology and equipment.

Similar to a larger facility at North Forge in Winnipeg, the fabrication lab works on a membership system, with those who pay the dues entitled to use the equipment it contains, which includes four 3D printers, a CNC machine, a laser cutter, a plasma cutter, woodworking equipment, a lathe, a milling machine and a multifunction welder, among others.

“We want this to be a place for the youth, for entrepreneurs, for innovators to play, to create, to learn, to mentor, to invest,” said North Forge CEO Joelle Foster, who was in Thompson for the announcement.

North Forge North is located in a warehouse space on Hayes Road and there is room for expansion, should the need arise.

North Forge North regional director Rick Martin says the idea isn’t to get people through the last mile on their way to establishing a business, but to kickstart the first mile of the journey, from concept to prototype.

“This is a race to the starting line, not a race to the finish line,” he said.

The fabrication lab is being overseen by Don “Shorty” Glenn, who has experience starting a business of his own, having launched Shorty’s Upcycling, which makes custom furniture and decor out of what most people consider scrap, when health problems made it impossible for him to work full-time as a mechanic any more.

To Glenn, the fact that Northern Manitoba doesn’t the same resources as Winnipeg is not a hindrance but a challenge and an opportunity.

“We look at our problems and our shortcomings and the challenges we face and find innovative and creative solutions,” he said of northerners.

Although it’s still in the process of launching, Glenn already has ideas about what kind of other equipment he would like to see in the fabrication lab.

“We’re talking about, maybe down the road, industrial sewing machines for leather and fur. I think it’d be a good fit.”

Glenn has also purchased a school bus in hopes that one day some of the equipment could be loaded onto it and, with the help of a satellite internet link, taken to outlying communities to demonstrate its capabilities.

The only downside to North Forge North opening now, said Mayor Colleen Smook, is that it didn’t happen long ago. Smook said when she was first on council in 2014 she went to a provincial budget presentation in Winnipeg and met someone involved with North Forge, who took her on a tour of the facility and armed her with information to bring back to the other members of council and the city administration, though the idea of starting something like that up here got pooh-poohed.

“For me, this day is just something that I’ve waited for,” she said.

Anything that helps spur economic activity is good, not only for the community where it’s located, but for the province as a whole, said Manitoba’s Economic Development Minister Cliff Cullen, who was also in Thompson for the launch

“That’s how we pay the bills,” he said. “That’s how we support the health care, education and the social services that Manitobans need.”

Doug Lauvstad, president of University College of the North, one of the regional partners involved with North Forge North, said the area has always been one with an entrepreneurial spirit, having been home to trappers and fishers long before it had any kind of large-scale industry to provide regular employment.