Automation and technological prowess are enabling manufacturers to compete globally once again.
Head of Advanced Manufacturing, Venture Services, MaRS Discovery District
In a low-rise factory in suburban Toronto, rows of automated weaving machines are fashioning the future of Canadian manufacturing. Resembling oversized printers, these robotic seamsters are creating cutting-edge garments for clothing maker Myant. Using patented processes, they deftly embed tiny sensors into fabrics to create textiles that can monitor the wearer’s vital signs.
Making garments that look like regular clothing but have the functionality of a doctor’s office is a complex task. Different worlds must collide, bringing with them skills in fashion design, science, engineering, advanced electronics, and health care. To meet the needs of a rapidly-changing world, developers, designers, and engineers must work together. It’s incredibly difficult. That’s why companies like Myant are Canada’s new sweet spot for manufacturing.
Manufacturing is now about assembling minds as much as assembly lines.
Despite a decade of headlines about the hollowing out of our industrial base, manufacturing is still a crucial part of Canada’s economy. More than one in 10 people in Ontario still make things for a living. In fact, factory output grew 16 percent over the past decade. But we cannot compete against low-wage economies for low-value work. Our strength lies in combining the deep experience of our traditional manufacturing base with our expertise in applied sciences, engineering, artificial intelligence, robotics, and data to create high-value products. Manufacturing is now about assembling minds as much as assembly lines.
Myant is far from alone in opening new markets using advanced new processes. In Nova Scotia, a startup called META uses proprietary nano-printing technology to turn surfaces like plane or car fuselages into solar panels. It’s skilled work that requires specialized equipment for precision engineering at the nanoscopic level — hardly the kind of capabilities that are easy to come by.
It’s not only what we make that’s changing but also how we make it. A new wave of companies is driving efficiencies by embedding intelligence throughout production. Several ventures, such as Canvass in Toronto, now offer systems that wire up factory floors with data-gathering sensors and use algorithms to orchestrate operations with maximum efficiency. Instead of operating machinery, workers are being deployed to the highest-value tasks while allowing autonomous equipment to move products and materials. In some cases, robots are even becoming co-workers. Vancouver-based Novarc Technologies has created the world’s first pipe-welding “cobot,” which works collaboratively with a skilled human welder and performs more routine parts of the job while leaving the complex parts to the pro.
Automation is also bringing new capabilities within reach of smaller manufacturers, helping them become more competitive against global players. A startup called Vention of Montreal has developed an online platform that enables anyone to create an automated assembly line by choosing from libraries of parts like robotic arms and conveyor belts. The equipment is shipped to the purchaser within days. Vention’s client list includes Boeing and SpaceX, but its technology could transform smaller businesses that may not invest in bespoke equipment or have the expertise to design what they need.
These developments aren’t dreams of the future. They’re happening now. More than half of the 45,000 factory jobs created in Ontario in the past decade were in advanced manufacturing roles. That figure will only climb as technology transforms our manufacturing industries, making them more competitive and turning them into global powerhouses.