Thalmic Labs Opening Waterloo Factory to Make Wearable Tech

Thalmic Labs, maker of the Myo armband that is used to control computers, is opening a 50,000-square-foot factory in Waterloo to make the company's new wearable technology for consumers.

Stephen Lake, Thalmic's chief executive officer, said the factory at 173 Roger St. should be ready in early January. The factory, which is expected to employ 100 people, will make new wearable technology products the company has been developing, he said.

Lake's comments are the first public confirmation that Thalmic is developing technology other than the Myo armband. The fast-growing startup has shipped more than 50,000 Myos since the product was released in 2014. Most of them were built in the company's offices on Charles Street in downtown Kitchener.

The Kitchener offices will remain the company's headquarters, the centre of research and development and the place where the Myo is made. The Waterloo factory will make other products — wearable technology for the consumer market that Lake says he can't talk about yet.

"We are going to be making those future products right here in Waterloo," Lake said. "We haven't talked specifics about the products in development. I would love to, and when we can, we will definitely share it."

The new products, like the Myo, will push the boundaries of how people and computers interact, Lake said. There is "lots more coming in that area," he said.

Initially, the Myo was produced by a third party in Canada. But that arrangement did not last long. The company found that it could cut costs and improve quality by building the armbands at its headquarters.

So as it quietly developed new consumer products it also started looking for a place in this region to make the new wearable technology.

"There are a lot of advantages to maintaining that control and proximity to your manufacturing," Lake said.

The new factory will be only a five-minute drive from the offices on Charles Street.

"It lets us innovate on the actual processes to make these things," Lake said. "We can actually develop new ways to make the products and technologies."

Thalmic already has a test line set up in the building that keeps a couple of workers busy. The automated line assembles computer chips on circuit boards.

"The chips get placed on here by this line," Lake said as he held a small, raw circuit board in one hand.

The raw circuit boards go in at one end, a soldering paste is applied to the tiny gold circuits on the board, and then a tiny robot places the chips, resisters and capacitors on the board. The boards are heated up in stages, starting at 90 C and going to 240 C, and then cooled.

"You can do thousands and thousands of those boards a day in here, easily," Lake said.

There will be larger lines like this one when the factory opens.

"This facility is purpose built for new products in development," Lake said. "We are developing a lot of new, specialized processes in here that we will use."

The building is owned by the JG Group of Companies, which had a large cabinet making shop in the space. JG is currently finishing its last contract for cabinets destined for the business school at Wilfrid Laurier University.

To go from cabinet making to electronic manufacturing required meticulous cleaning. The cement floors were polished, everything was washed and painted white, and new ventilation, lighting, humidity controls and wiring for the automated lines were installed.

"It's been overhauled, floor to ceiling," Lake said.

A cafeteria is being built where employees can have catered meals. A glass wall allows the engineers and supply-chain managers to see the production floor.

"Being close to our main engineering team means we are not wasting time flying over to China or elsewhere to set up processes like this," Lake said.

A lot of the work will be automated, so the company needs to hire technicians who will program and maintain the robots.

"We think there is a huge amount of skilled labour here because BlackBerry did the bulk of its manufacturing in town here until 2009," Lake said.

Thalmic was founded in 2012 by three graduates of the mechatronics engineering program at the University of Waterloo — Lake, Matthew Bailey and Aaron Grant.

The company employs about 100 people but expects that number to double over the next year.