Building the advanced manufacturing ecosystem

By Dayna Spiring. 

primary function of economic development agencies is to develop market intelligence around key economic drivers. This data represents a combination of raw statistics and qualitative information gathered by tracking global trends and engaging with leading companies in targeted industries.

In Winnipeg and Manitoba, advanced manufacturing is one of the sectors proven to power economic growth, supplying high-value products to major players in packaging, ground transportation, farm machinery, and aerospace.

The past decade has given rise to dramatic shifts within the advanced manufacturing ecosystem, and Economic Development Winnipeg (EDW) has been challenged to better understand the technologies and catalysts moving the sector forward.

The mobilization of an advanced manufacturing alliance, designed to connect EDW to stakeholders who can supplement and corroborate market intelligence, has been a vital first step to validate manufacturing’s role in the economy, and understand the profound and pervasive changes stemming from both radical and incremental innovation. New products using next-generation materials are being designed and produced more efficiently than ever before, while advancements in quality are often complemented by reduced environmental impacts.

Manufacturing juggernauts around the world are feeling the pinch. The United States, for instance — the manufacturing superpower for the past 40 years — is losing ground to China, India, and other emerging markets. To curtail this trend, the U.S. has injected mass amounts of cash into collaborative efforts between industry, post-secondary institutions, and government bodies to step up its innovation game. Other nations, including Canada, are following suit to varying degrees.

A recent PwC survey reveals more industrial companies around the world are making Industry 4.0 digital transformation the focus of their business strategies. Globally, these companies plan to double their level of digitization within five years, from 33 per cent to 72 per cent — and they are investing more than $900 billion USD per year to do it.

No single factor drives Industry 4.0, but the inexorable push for profitable growth is a compelling force. Customers are demanding more for less, and digital technologies offer a way to meet this demand, creating new opportunities for value-added products and services in the process. Canadian firms recognize they cannot compete on cost alone.

It goes without saying that innovation is a critical factor in assuring advanced manufacturing companies on the Prairies can compete in the Industry 4.0 ecosystem. Canada, however, continues to lag behind other nations.

In 2014, the Conference Board of Canada compared innovation performance, on a relative basis, between Canada, the provinces, and 16 peer nations. Its report, entitled How Canada Performs: Innovation, concluded that, “With few exceptions, Canadian companies are rarely at the leading edge of new technology and too often find themselves trailing global leaders. Also, with signs of emerging weakness in public R&D and persistent weaknesses in business R&D, patents, ICT investment, and productivity, Canada’s innovation performance —although improving overall — rests on a precarious foundation.”

The Conference Board proposed several straightforward countermeasures to mitigate this unremarkable ranking: Increase innovation-related spending, implement and effectively use technology, create a healthy business climate, and enhance management skills and expertise.

Obvious? Maybe. But definitely easier said than done.

To understand where we need to go from here, we first need to understand what an advanced manufacturing organization looks like. Typically, there are three hallmarks: Progressive products incorporating next-generation technologies, advanced processes and technologies, and the deployment of ‘smart’ manufacturing and enterprise systems.

Next, we need to identify how the ecosystem can encourage manufacturers to embrace these cornerstones.

In Winnipeg, that balanced ecosystem has already been around for the better part of the past decade. Supports like the Composites Innovation Centre, which has promoted the use of advanced materials, and Precision ADM, shorthand for an advanced digital manufacturing hub, are not only relied upon by Manitoba manufacturers, but also companies coast-to-coast and internationally.

The ecosystem continues to strengthen as well. The federal government, through the National Research Council’s advanced manufacturing program, has slated for construction a $60 million, 80,000-square-foot advanced manufacturing research and applied technology centre.

Underpinned by new skills programs and post-secondary institutions, leading-edge machine learning and artificial intelligence companies like Sightline Innovation further validate the need to build the Industry 4.0 ecosystem as just that — an interconnected system. If actuated, a proposed public-private machine learning cluster, called the Enterprise Machine Intelligence and Learning Initiative, or EMILI, would solidify Winnipeg’s standing across Canada.

EDW’s advanced manufacturing stakeholder alliance has identified eight action items structured to address competitive threats and grow the industry:

1. Create an industry-wide development strategy for advanced manufacturing;

2. Focus on the application of innovative manufacturing materials and technologies;

3. Support SME implementation and the effective use of advanced manufacturing technologies;

4. Optimize access to federal funding programs;

5. Optimize benefits pertaining to the National Research Council’s advanced manufacturing program;

6. Make better use of existing resources;

7. Focus support on sectors and organizations with proven economic development success; and

8. Work to position ourselves as a globally recognized region for advanced manufacturing.

Manufacturing is a major contributor to Manitoba’s — and Canada’s — economy. We cannot afford to take our eye off the ball. If we play our cards right, and forge proactive partnerships between government, industry, and education, advanced manufacturing excellence — and the global investment that comes with it — can define our industrial future.

Dayna Spiring is the president and CEO of Economic Development Winnipeg. Spiring also serves as a director with Winpak and Manitoba Hydro, and as vice chair of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers football club.