Part 1 in a 4-part series focused on NRC Technology and Innovation

Innovating in the Heartland

The National Research Council of Canada is increasing opportunities for collaboration to build on Manitoba’s reputation for innovation

By Vance Chow

In recent years we’ve begun hearing more about the concept of Industry 4.0 – a broad term referring to the growing industrial trend of adopting automation and digital technologies. It includes concepts such as the Internet of Things, machine-learning, cyber-physical systems, and advanced manufacturing, often supported via artificial intelligence. But if you’re a manufacturer, how do these concepts apply to you and your business? If you’re confused, don’t worry – you’re not alone.

“In fact, a lot of Canadian companies are struggling with this digital transformation,” says Mike Kilfoil, Program Director for the National Research Council of Canada’s (NRC) Advanced Manufacturing Program. “They hear a lot about it. But how will these new technologies provide value to their production systems? The NRC plays a key role in helping companies to integrate leading-edge technologies into existing manufacturing processes so that they can be adapted to the new realities facing industry today.”

The NRC is building a new facility in Winnipeg, scheduled to open in early 2021, to focus on collaboration – one of the organization’s key priorities. More specifically, the aim is to build industry-driven collaborative projects that will lead to transformative outcomes for everyone involved.

Industrial renewal

Stéphan Simard is the R&D Director for the NRC’s Aluminium Technology Centre in Saguenay, Quebec. He’s been tasked with initiating a stronger NRC presence in Manitoba. As Simard points out, there are a lot of similarities between Quebec and Manitoba’s ecosystems, at least from an industry standpoint. 

“Manitoba has a very strong base in terms of industrial innovation,” says Simard. “Historically, the big aerospace companies were able to significantly contribute to the local economy. But the region is now facing challenges and opportunities for growth in the field of advanced manufacturing.”

This is similar, Simard notes, to the situation that he originally encountered in Saguenay. Throughout the eighties and nineties, aluminium producers increased their smelting capacity in the region, building facilities that leveraged improved production technologies. But as technological and manufacturing processes evolved, the possibility of a decrease in local employment became a challenge.

“The idea was to diversify industry in the region,” Simard says. “Quebec’s easy access to hydroelectricity made it a magnet for aluminium producers, who needed a lot of electricity to power their smelting facilities.”

As the industry continued to evolve, the NRC played a key role as companies in the region looked to find new ways to innovate. For example, for several years NRC researchers in the region collaborated with Rio Tinto and their partners at STAS Incorporated to develop a manufacturing process to produce aluminium parts via semi-solid casting.

“In conventional casting,” explains Simard, “liquid aluminium is injected into a die cast press. The semi-solid process that we developed, on the other hand, allows a semi-solid slurry to be used.”

Semi-solid casting allows manufacturers to produce aluminium parts at a high rate, with less shrinkage during solidification. This leads to the production of high-integrity parts with improved mechanical properties.

“Working with the NRC has allowed us to develop this unique manufacturing process for aluminium products,” says Pascal Côté, Director of Development and Innovation at STAS. “Since the mid-2000’s, this new technology has allowed us to access new markets and grow our exports mainly in Asia and Europe. Our ongoing collaboration with the NRC has been a significant driver of this success.”

 Circular approaches to research and industry 

In Saguenay, the presence of the NRC’s research facility has become a draw for new enterprises looking to settle in the region. Working with a variety of local industry organizations, such as the Société de la Vallée de l’Aluminium, they’ve been able to help attract new businesses and foster industrial engagement. 

In other words, it’s a classic example of research supporting industry, which in turn supports new research, and so on. A similar approach is being taken to foster engagement with industry organizations and stakeholders across the Prairies.

“We’ve begun to engage with our counterparts, and we’ll continue to do so,” says Éric Baril, Director General of the NRC’s Automotive and Surface Transportation Research Centre. “For example, we’ve already met with representatives from CME Manitoba, Food & Beverage Manitoba, local colleges and universities, among others. Our purpose has been to try and better understand where gaps may exist. We want to have a good grasp of what the future needs of stakeholders in the region will be, and how we’ll be able to add value and create new capacity, without duplicating existing activities.”

“A good research facility can have significant impacts on a community—I know because I’ve lived it,” underscores Simard. “We’ve been able to help companies like STAS and Rio Tinto to develop and validate new technologies, which are then applied in practical manufacturing processes. And when they want to attract new clients, they often invite people to our research facility for technology demonstrations.”

Building for the future

“We want to bring companies and stakeholders together from the Prairies to collaborate, optimize processes, and improve impacts for everyone involved,” says Simard. “This is similar to the approach we’ve taken with our existing industrial R&D groups. Through our Aluminum Technology group for example, we’ve been able to convene companies from across the value chain for aluminium products, and provide expertise as well as opportunities for collaboration.”

As a starting point, the NRC facility in Winnipeg will focus on two primary thrusts: producing metallic and composite parts via additive manufacturing; and transforming by-products of the local agricultural industry to develop new applications and technologies for sustainable packaging. Other possible thrusts and areas of focus will follow as collaborations evolve.

“We already have the technology to integrate residuals from the agricultural sector in Manitoba into a value chain,” says Baril. “Through this facility, we’ll further demonstrate the effectiveness of these processes for commercial purposes.”

In the end, it’s all about helping people understand how they can work together to achieve better outcomes— and optimized processes— for everyone involved.

“As we evolve and adapt our processes to this digital era,” says Mike Kilfoil, “we want to help players in the innovation ecosystem better understand the science behind the transformations we’re all facing. Together we can be more effective than the sum of our individual parts.” 

Vance Chow is a Senior Communications Advisor with the National Research Council of Canada.