Volume 3, Issue 1 - Summer 2018

Can’t we all just get along?

By Derek Lothian, Editor, Prairie Manufacturer Magazine​

The title of Scott Gilmore’s April 19 Maclean’s op-ed is equal parts incendiary clickbait and honest critique of the state of our federation: Canada is not a country.

Talk about a headline.

“If we can’t build pipelines, move beer, or find some common ground,” he argues, “we may have a fatal problem.”

Perhaps more important than a commentary on pan-provincial trade woes, Gilmore dissects the growing list of divisions between Canadian people — in terms of identity, geography, prosperity, understanding, and, heck, even our willingness to understand.

It had me thinking about what that means for the future of Canadian manufacturing — not entirely how we make things or how they get to market, but who makes them and whether we will be able to collectively reimagine a supply chain that is more person than product.

We write a lot in Prairie Manufacturer Magazine about the emergence of Industry 4.0. This summer issue is no different. And don’t kid yourself: The ability to understand and deploy advanced technologies may very well save your current production system from extinction. Production, however, is only one element of a successful manufacturing enterprise.

I recall — from my days at Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME) many moons ago — a prominent CME board member once proclaiming that “modern manufacturing is not about where goods get made; it is about to where the value comes home.” In the moment, I must admit those words caught me off-guard. “How,” I asked myself, “could someone who had such a fiduciary and moral responsibility to represent the interests of Canadian manufacturers be so agnostic about their futures?” Turns out his comments were simply ahead of his time.

You will read later in this edition renowned lean icon Dave Hogg muse about the degradation of Canadian competitiveness and the shifting focus toward disruptive innovation. Those of you who know me also know that I have been singing this song for years. It’s a business imperative.

While technology may help some manufacturers gain the efficiencies required to sustain fragile margins in the short term, the real opportunity it presents is in revolutionizing the industrial business model.

Take 3D printing. Although the early prophetic warnings that additive manufacturing would immediately overthrow conventional processing have not come to pass, there is no arguing that what it has done is change where the value lies in the concept-to-customer experience. Technology, in this case, may actually be the anchor. Thirty years ago, the making of any physical item required a complex pyramid of specialized skills, expertise, and equipment. As an average Joe, you relied upon the engineering team to design the product, the suppliers to source out the materials, the manufacturer to fabricate it, the logistics company to transport it, and the retailer down the street to get it into your hands. Today, those steps can be all but erased, going straight from the designer, through a software intermediary, right to the 3D printer in your living room, in a fraction of the time.

The opportunity that big data presents is no different. Not only do we have more of it from more places, our capability to collate and analyze it has completely changed how we can anticipate customer needs and customize a highly tailored solution with rapid responsiveness anywhere on the globe.

My point is that a large chunk of the types of jobs we have traditionally valued in manufacturing are quickly becoming redundant due to globalization. Canada is, by all accounts, a high-cost jurisdiction in which to do business, with a steep regulatory burden compared to, well, almost all our neighbours. The jobs of tomorrow are those that recognize the true value is in the knowledge required to create the customer solution, and in the management of the technology required to deliver that solution.

Which takes us back to the dilemma of present-day Canadiana. The high-value manufacturing jobs of today — forget 10, 20 years from now — are more collaborative, dispersed, intricate, and people-centric than at any other time in history. Relationships will become a professional and economic currency. We need to understand each other — and, for Pete’s sake, we need to get along.

Beyond decorum, though, I worry that we still do not have some of the basics in place, either. Our single largest public investment in research and development — our post-secondary education system — continues to yield dismal commercialization outcomes. We have a patchwork of certifications and licensing regimes across the provinces that are not harmonized or recognized. And, we have yet to truly embrace managerial, cultural, technological, and financial literacy as mandatory underpinnings of our early-years skills development framework.

In last quarter’s View from the C-Suite column, NFI Group President & CEO Paul Soubry reminded us that manufacturing is “all about the people.” I challenge you, as you flip through the proceeding pages, to reflect on how you are preparing your people for the obstacles and opportunities of the new economy. I’m talking to you, manufacturers. You, too, politicians. Now is not the time for nostalgia.

Only with the right game plan and the best talent will Canada thrive in the competitive arena of next-generation manufacturing.