Advancing manufacturing: highlights from PLANT in the 1980s

By Joe Terrett, Editor   

Business Operations Economy Industry Innovation & Technology Operations Production Aerospace Automotive Energy Food & Beverage Forestry Government Manufacturing Resource Sector Transportation automation computers Donald Trump free trade FTA manufacturing NAFTA protectionism

Technology offers the potential for great leaps in productivity improvement as Canada and the US shake hands on free trade.

The “disruptions” of the 1970s continued into 1980 when Canada faced the prospect of a separate Quebec. René Levesque, premier and leader of the separatist Parti Québécois, tried to sell the province on “sovereignty association.” The result – with an 86% turnout – was 40% in favour and 60% against.

Aside from potentially rupturing the country and a recession in 1982 (described as the worst since the Great Depression), the rest of the decade was relatively calm, with some big moments that included Terry Fox’s ill-fated cross-country run in 1980; Marc Garneau’s 1984 voyage in the Challenger shuttle, making him the first Canadian in space; Ben Johnson’s gold medal performance in the 100-yard dash at the 1988 Olympics, later revoked because he was a drug cheater; and the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement passed the same year for implementation in 1989.

Canada’s leading industrial magazine, called PLANT Management & Engineering for most of the decade, described how manufacturing continued to evolve. It was driven by computers, automation and revolutionary developments in efficiency, such as just-in-time (JIT) as globalization was creating a highly competitive environment for manufacturers.

Energy efficiency was also a concern, but more as a way of saving money than reducing industry’s carbon footprint. In the February 1980 issue of PLANT, editor Bill Roebuck described how Bata Ltd. slashed its energy needs by 70% at its Picton, Ont. running shoe factory.


An “ambitious environmental experiment” using exhaust heat from an air compressor covered a significant portion of the plant’s space heating requirements. The company’s efforts included a plant expansion that also incorporated solar heating, heat storage and reclamation. Payback for the investment was a long 10 to 15 years, but Bata engineer Wyeth Tracy described the factory as “the prototype of the coming thing in industry.”

Bata was certainly ahead of its time, but sadly, by 2000 it had closed down its Canadian manufacturing operations and had sold off the last of its retail shoe stores by 2007.

PC efficiency

In the November issue, a story featuring Canadian Gypsum describes how new desktop computers from IBM with their tiny, inches by inches screens, were reducing errors and speeding communications. The machines saved $30,000 a year by reducing manual operations and the cost of data processing.

Under the old system, data packets from smaller locations across Canada were transmitted weekly to a computer in Toronto by TWX lines, where the data was punched onto a paper tape, transferred to cards and fed into another computer. Canadian Gypsum settled on the desktops because they provided greater power for less money. Five were installed in four locations and the Toronto head office, which received data whenever it was needed. Buying the desktops rather than leasing terminals resulted in a two-year payback.

PLANT’s January 1984 issue described how auto parts manufacturers improved productivity by adopting just-in-time inventory control. The technique was described as converting raw materials into finished products in the time it takes to do the processing. Making the production lines more efficient and productive was key. TRW installed robots to reduce production costs. Hayes Dana, making rear axles, drive shafts and torque rods for a truck manufacturer down the road in St. Catharines, Ont., organized its plant like a fast food operation. Raw materials were kept close to operators and machinery set-ups were minimized, allowing 13 operators to turn out high-quality parts quickly.

The May issue featured a “Computers in Industry” supplement that foretold the inevitability of automation. In the “Automated Factory,” a CAD/CAM expert noted: “In the factory of the future, every manufacturing activity will be computer integrated. These factories will boost increased productivity and decrease product development cycles through the total automation of product design, development and manufacturing.”

If the writer could look farther ahead, he would be dazzled by the potential of Industry 4.0, the possibilities of IIoT and puzzled by the cautious response of Canadian manufacturers to these developments.

By October 1989, the magazine was embarking on a new journey as a tabloid with more of a news focus, and a new name: PLANT, Canada’s Industrial Newspaper.

The January 25 issue checked the pros and cons of the FTA, which was a response to growing US protectionism.

When Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney and US president Ronald Reagan got together at the Shamrock Summit in Washington in 1985 to sing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” they also shook hands on the historic agreement that was intended to drop all tariffs and duties.

It sparked vocal opposition among labour groups, nationalists and the Liberals under John Turner, who feared massive job losses, a gutting of manufacturing as branch plants ran back to the US, and other tariff-protected plants. Yet the agreement passed and was followed by NAFTA with the inclusion of Mexico in 1993.

FTA a winner?

PLANT noted it was still early but at the time of writing, the agreement had produced more winners than losers. “There have been a number of major and minor shakeups in Canadian industry, some tied directly to the new deal, and other simply as “streamlining of production operations. And there is usually emphatic denial by company spokespersons that impending layoffs or closings have anything to do with the massive north-south commercial partnership.”

It notes several defections and closings, including Gillette Canada phasing out its Toronto and Montreal operations; PPG ceasing operations in Toronto with paint operations moving to two US locations; and Canada’s own Northern Telecom closing two Caandian plants and a US factory.

On the upside, DuPont Canada was increasing its capital spending to $156 million; and Campbell Soup Co. denied it was moving south, noting $15 million spent the previous year on acquisitions and joint ventures. Thermos products was another winner. Doug Blair, president of the Canadian operations, declared free trade was the impetus to become more competitive and analyze markets outside Canada. For R&M Metal, it was a sign to build three new plants.

Today, the US Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican contender Donald Trump each question the value of free trade agreements. Canadian manufacturers have benefited from the FTA and NAFTA. To what degree those benefits continue will depend on which way the trade winds blow when America chooses its next president.

This article appears in the September 2016 issue of PLANT.


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