Niagara College won’t go breaking any ‘hearts’ this Valentine’s Day

Niagara College photo – Niagara College (NC) engineering student Jacob Morris, left, with mechanical engineer and research lead, Gord Maretzki, at NC’s Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre, on Thursday demonstrated the art of shelling heartnuts on this prototype, designed in cooperation with Niagara region nut grower Linda Grimo. Research for the prototype was funded by the federal government.

That’s because its Research & Innovation team has discovered a way to automate the process of cracking delicious heartnuts without breaking their heart-shaped shells or kernels!

After a 20-year search for a mechanized ‘heartnut sheller,’ local industry partner Grimo Nut Nursery has found new hope with the team of students, faculty and research experts with the Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre at Niagara College (NC).

Heartnuts are in high demand due to their attractive shape, mild subtle flavour and heart-healthy properties; however, without automation, commercialization of the heartnut-growing industry in Ontario has stalled. Until now, this specialty nut has had to be cracked manually due to the complexities of precisely breaking each nut, so the heart-shaped shell opens like a locket and inside remains an intact, heart-shaped kernel.

Grimo Nursery has partnered with the NC Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre for its research team to design, develop and fabricate a working prototype that automatically cracks heartnuts without breaking the aesthetic heart-shaped shell or inside flesh. There have been four other previous attempts, (by other businesses, individuals and another academic institution) at producing such a device.

“Niagara College was our last hope,” said Linda Grimo owner, along with her father Ernie, of the nut nursery. “Everyone struggled with the main complexity of aligning the nut to be oriented to crack on its seam, as it required innovative thought and an understanding of computer and electronic knowledge.”

The project was certainly a challenge, agrees Gord Maretzki a mechanical engineer and research lead with the Research & Innovation (R&I) division at NC.

“We had to design a machine that was able to crack the variations in organic structure because each nut is asymmetrical and takes a different amount of cracking force,” Maretzki said.

During the project Maretzki mentored two engineering students to have a crack at the complex mechanism. They incorporated the array of technology at their disposal within the Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre, such as a state-of-the art 3D printer and a lab to devise a programmable logic controller and electrical pneumatic circuit schematics.

Like many, Brian Cunningham, an electrical engineering technology student and part of the research team at NC, had never heard of the heartnut before starting his research co-op in October, along with fellow mechanical engineering student Jacob Morris.

“This challenge was very intriguing, but the most exciting part for me was the prospect of helping to expand a relatively niche industry right here in the Niagara Region. I’ve lived here my whole life, and seeing local businesses grow gives me a lot of pride,” Cunningham said.

“This experience has been nothing short of fantastic! Gord Maretzki has been an amazing mentor – he’s overflowing with knowledge and experience so I’ve tried to absorb as much information as I can,” he said.

Combined with his class studies at the College, Cunningham says he’s been able to gain a greater balance of technical skills, theoretical knowledge, and a better understanding of how a research and development project comes together as a whole. “I’ve also been able to improve my interpersonal skills by working directly with actual clients and collaborating with my research team,” he said.

As for Grimo, she is quick to praise the research team at NC.

“The Niagara College team was enthusiastic right from the start. They saw the value in our idea. They developed a work plan and have kept us engaged in the process,” Grimo said.

“We are so impressed with the students’ professionalism and their keen interest,” she said “It’s almost hard to believe that ‘we’ are contributing to their real-world experience when they have made this possible for us.”

Source – Niagara College press release

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