PLANT

Bridge the technology divide

Advanced Manufacturing Supercluster aims to accelerate adoption and scale-up.


Smart technology.
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Rob Wildeboer will tell you there’s no shortage of companies with great technologies looking to partner with manufacturers. The executive chairman of Martinrea, one of Canada’s leading auto parts companies, often meets entrepreneurs with a prototype or working model who tell him they’ve done 95% of the work in developing a technology and are wondering whether it might be of interest to his company. His response? He now has at least 95% of the work yet to do to ensure it can be used in manufacturing.

Clearly technological capabilities are changing rapidly. Digital and other advanced technologies are revolutionizing manufacturing, whether it’s products, production processes, operating systems, customer and supplier interactions or business models. Canada has leading research capabilities and a wealth of start-ups developing new technology applications. We also have strong manufacturing capabilities and companies that will need to adopt new technologies to remain competitive and grow. So, what’s the issue?

New technologies are capable of doing some amazing things, but manufacturers need solutions for their customers and their own operations that are effective from a technical point of view. They must also be cost competitive, manageable and improve quality and performance. It’s difficult to develop a technology to a stage where it can be produced or applied in full-scale production.

Because production problems are complex, it’s not good enough to plug in a new device or piece of software and expect it to do the trick without thinking about a whole range of requirements necessary for the effective deployment of that technology. Digital technologies are disrupting production, materials handling, supply chains and business processes because they need a systems-based approach to be managed effectively.

In any case, manufacturers are looking for integrated solutions, not one-offs. When it comes to advanced manufacturing, technology companies rarely have all the pieces of the puzzle.

There’s another side to the problem. Manufacturers often find it difficult to identify the opportunities for improvement that advanced technologies offer, and what the optimal solution might be. It’s even more difficult to work out what the business requirements are for successful technology deployment. The capabilities of Canada’s research, technology and skills training community are not widely known. Integrating solutions is a big job, especially for smaller companies that make up more than 90% of the manufacturing sector. And there’s the money. Any return on investment calculation assumes that companies have sufficient working capital to make the investment in the first place. That’s no small hill to climb.

Statistics Canada reports close to 40% of manufacturers who invested in advanced technologies over the past three years failed to achieve their business objectives. We’ve all seen robots sitting idle at the end of an assembly line, 3D printers that aren’t being used much, or other pieces of equipment that aren’t running at full capacity. It’s seldom a problem with the technology, but more likely not fully understanding what processes need to be improved, not implementing the right technologies for the desired business objectives, not having the right skill sets to run the technology effectively, or simply the belief that throwing money at a problem is going to fix it. It’s not. In any case, this is a management issue.

Canada’s Advanced Manufacturing Supercluster aims to accelerate the adoption and scale-up of new technologies in manufacturing. So bridging the divide between technology and manufacturing is a burning issue for the team at NGen Canada, and we’ve learned a few things.

First, the challenges manufacturers face when successfully managing digital technologies are to a large extent the same, regardless of sector, size or location. Second, it’s about business strategy, management capabilities and skills, which is really about people.

A third thing is the amount of translation needed to communicate customer requirements to tech providers and technology capabilities to manufacturers. De-mystifying technology and starting from best practices in manufacturing management go a long way.

We’ve also learned how important it is to build connections and collaboration, and how difficult that is to achieve. Partnerships are important, but they demand a level of openness and trust many Canadian companies are not used to.

Collaboration makes a huge difference for business success in advanced manufacturing. NGen is funding collaborative projects with real potential to transform manufacturing capabilities across Canada. We’re looking for technology and manufacturing companies that want to partner. Membership is free – just tell us how you can make a difference for manufacturing in Canada at www.ngen.ca.

Jayson Myers, the CEO of Next Generation Manufacturing Canada, is an award-winning business economist and advisor to private and public sector leaders. E-mail jayson.myers@ngmcanada.com. Visit www.ngmcanada.com.

This article appeared in the April 2019 print edition of PLANT.



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