Automation, Tech Adoption and Skills Development: Building Ontario’s Advanced Manufacturing Supercluster from Scratch

By Creig Lamb
August 9, 2018

By Creig Lamb
August 9, 2018

A Conversation with Jay Myers

Jay Myers is the Chief Executive Officer of Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (Ngen Canada), the industry-led, not-for-profit organization established to lead Canada’s Advanced Manufacturing Supercluster initiative.

In our recent report, Better, Faster, Stronger, BII+E’s research team took a closer look at the impact of automation on Ontario’s firms and workers. Above all else, our core findings point to the presence of an emerging challenge in Ontario. On the one hand, the province must improve tech adoption, while on the other hand, there’s an equally pressing need to provide training and supports that help workers thrive in a changing labour market.

Our conversation is outlined below:

 

Q: What are Ontario’s strengths when it comes to advanced manufacturing? What is currently holding us back?

Ontario is home to some of the best research, technologies, and manufacturing capabilities in the world. The province boasts two globally ranked start-up ecosystems in the Toronto-Hamilton-Waterloo triangle and in Ottawa, a diverse and concentrated manufacturing base, many leading technology companies, a highly skilled workforce, world-class research and educational facilities, and a remarkable entrepreneurial dynamic. Imagine the economic powerhouse it [Ontario] would be if we could combine these assets more effectively, applying more advanced technologies to improve the competitiveness and growth potential of our manufacturers and scaling up more technologies to apply and manufacture them within Canada.

The main challenge holding us back is that while we do have world-class assets and capabilities, we currently lack a systematic way of connecting them or building the collaboration necessary to leverage them effectively in order to generate the economic value we’re capable of achieving.

 

Q: The Supercluster initiative has some ambitious goals. What, in your view, are the top priorities for Ontario’s Advanced Manufacturing Supercluster in its first year?

In our first year, we want to begin to address four of the major challenges related to industrial growth in Ontario. First, we want to construct a capabilities database that will give much greater visibility with respect to the manufacturers, technology companies, academic and research organizations that we have in Ontario. Second, we will create an online collaboration platform and develop a series of networking activities – educational events and technology demonstration visits, for example – aimed at facilitating greater collaboration and building scale across knowledge, technology, and manufacturing supply chains. Third, we will launch capacity building programs aimed at helping companies, smaller ones in particular, de-risk both technology adoption and technology scale-up for manufacturing in Canada. And, fourth, we will fund a number of our lighthouse collaborative projects that aim to drive technology leadership, provide opportunities for technology supply chain development, and expand technology applications in manufacturing.

 

Q: The Supercluster is projected to create over 13,000 jobs and $13.5 billion in GDP. How did you come up with these numbers and what’s the plan to achieve them?

Our estimates are actually much higher than these, which were calculated by the federal government. We want to leverage as much private sector investment as possible per dollar of federal Supercluster funding. Our collaborative projects aim to achieve significant improvements in manufacturing productivity and accelerate the scale-up of new technologies, and in some cases brand new industries, leading to new growth business and employment across Canada. Our Board has made it clear that the projects selected for funding must be transformative and leave a legacy in terms of the capabilities of Canada’s advanced manufacturing ecosystem – boosting skills development, testing, and innovation management capacity for small companies. We have already attracted more than $800 million in potential co-investment from industry partners. A ten-to-one return on investment over ten years is ambitious, but totally doable, given the opportunities and potential economic impacts of technology deployment in the fields of digital technologies, machine learning, additive manufacturing, and smart materials.

 

Q: What does success look like 10 years from now?

Our aim is to position Canada as a world leader in advanced manufacturing by 2030. That means a much more rapid pace of investment in innovation and advanced technologies in manufacturing and more Canadian companies becoming world leaders in the manufacturing of advanced technologies. We’ll measure success in terms of business and employment growth, international recognition, and the ability of Canadian firms to set global benchmarks in terms of productivity and the commercialization of new technologies in manufacturing.

 

Q: What kinds of jobs do you expect to see emerge over the next 5 to 10 years? Are there jobs that you expect to see disappear or fundamentally change?

First, it’s important to acknowledge that there are significant skills shortages that already exist in Ontario manufacturing and across our high tech sector. There are shortages of trades and technical skills and also business management skills – the skills required to successfully grow new businesses and manage innovation. I expect that those skills shortages will become even more pronounced as technologies transform products, processes, and business opportunities, and as we see more people retiring from the workforce. In fact, skills shortages will be one of the major drivers of automation over the next five to ten years.

The tasks that people carry out in industry will undoubtedly change as a result of automation, but that does not necessarily put jobs at risk. People will be expected to do different things. We’ll see less repetitive manual work. Workplaces will become healthier, safer, and more environmentally-friendly as a result of automation. And jobs will involve more systems thinking, more practical problem solving – creativity – as well as a greater ability to work with and manage the technologies that companies will deploy. We are already seeing a transition within manufacturing, and this is apparent in both Canada and the United States. Many of the technical, engineering, software, and other support roles are no longer being done directly in manufacturing, but instead within companies offering their services to manufacturing. At the same time, more jobs within manufacturing are taking on a higher services component – involved less in production and more in quality control, logistics, maintenance, materials and process management, and planning.

Over the next five to ten years, we’ll certainly see more people involved in the implementation of information and communications technologies in production processes, more virtual design, engineering, and testing jobs, more jobs in collecting, analyzing, and creating new services out of data. Digital technologies will affect how every job is carried out. But jobs of the future will not only be about the collection and manipulation of data. They will increasingly involve the interaction of people and smart technologies. Technologies are tools. Jobs will depend on how we use them.

“…we suffer from an amazing lack of awareness about how technologies could help improve growth opportunities….”

 

Q: In our recent report examining the impact of automation in Ontario, we found that Ontario firms lag peer jurisdictions when it comes to tech adoption, including automation, yet tech adoption is essential to maintain productivity and competitiveness.

What are the barriers that advanced manufacturers in Ontario face when it comes to tech adoption?

The biggest barrier is scale. Our companies are relatively small. They lack the resources that larger companies dominating industry in many of our competing jurisdictions have to manage the adoption or scale-up of technologies. Our domestic markets are relatively small. We don’t have the concentration of talent, capital, and customers that many other markets enjoy. And, we suffer from an amazing lack of awareness about how technologies could help improve growth opportunities, what the competition is doing, what potential resources or partners are available that might help de-risk technology deployment or scale-up, and the best management practices required to deploy or scale up technologies successfully.

 

Q: What role do you see the Supercluster having in promoting and helping firms navigate tech adoption?

Our programs will aim to help manufacturers de-risk technology adoption by raising awareness about what technologies are optimal for improving their processes, the business requirements for successful deployment, how to source integrated technology solutions, and where to find other sources of business support and funding to help them adopt technologies. We want to focus our programs and activities on strategic issues that companies face in adopting technology – issues like process design, strategies for automation, data management, and cybersecurity – to address some of the risks they face in deploying new technologies. We will be organizing a series of workshops and company visits to showcase how other companies implement and manage technologies. We will connect companies to technology pilot centres that will allow them to test and identify technologies that are appropriate for them. We will also be working to facilitate partnerships between Ontario based technology companies and manufacturers – providing firms with an assessment of the technology and business capabilities of local technology providers.

 

“One of our benchmarks of success will be the degree to which we can encourage Canadian companies to abandon the expectation that talent can be easily found….”

 

Q: We also heard that skilled talent is required to effectively adopt and roll out new technologies, yet many of the manufacturers we spoke to reported challenges finding this kind of talent. What role do you see the Supercluster playing in skills training and talent matching?

Training is an essential part of all of the Supercluster’s collaborative projects. We will also be supporting industry-led training consortia. The hundreds of millions of dollars in commitments that companies are willing to make should provide a very good indication of their skills development needs and the priorities for industry-integrated learning going forward, including priorities for the way that training is delivered. One of our benchmarks of success will be the degree to which we can encourage Canadian companies to abandon the expectation that talent can be easily found, in favour of a more active role in developing and investing in talent.

 

Q: Ontario is struggling to catch up with global tech adoption trends, while also contending with the challenge of helping workers adjust to a shifting economy. Do you think the Supercluster initiative could be a game changer for the province, in helping to address this dual challenge?

Absolutely. Our projects need to be collaborative, transformative, and make a significant contribution to Ontario’s advanced manufacturing infrastructure, leaving a legacy in terms of skills development, technology testing facilities, and innovation management capacity. Our programs will also address what we believe are some of the most significant reasons why Ontario companies are lagging behind – a lack of awareness about how best to manage technology adoption, access to the resources that are available to help de-risk technology deployment, and support for companies that are looking for customers, talent, and capital to scale up their technologies, not just for commercialization, but for manufacturing in Canada.

BII+E is grateful to Jay Myers for sharing his insights. Ontario’s Advanced Manufacturing Supercluster, while in the early stages of its development, promises to help Ontario’s manufacturing and tech companies and workers alike build the connections and capabilities needed to thrive and compete globally. BII+E will continue to explore promising initiatives for helping Ontario – and Canada – navigate the opportunities and challenges that changing technologies present for firms and workers.

For media enquiries, please contact Coralie D’Souza, Director of Communications, Events + Community Relations at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship.

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