Charting Murky Waters

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by Kip Hanson | photos courtesy of NRC

Navigating today’s technology filled manufacturing environment is hard work; fortunately, there’s no need to go it alone 

Every generation thinks technology can’t possibly get any more confusing. When the steam engine came along in the 1700s, those used to horses and other forms of animal power just shook their heads and said giddy up. Electricity and the automobile ushered in longer working days, sprawling communities, and the beginning of modern society as we now know it. Computers took that into overdrive; the Internet made it even faster. 

Through each industrial revolution, there was manufacturing, a key enabler and consumer of technology. From cam-driven screw machines and hydraulic tracer mills to multitasking machine tools and 3D printers, mankind’s manufacturing capabilities have evolved from crude to capable to incredibly complex. 

Today, we stand witness to the birth of yet another major advancement. If you haven’t yet heard about it, it’s called Industry 4.0, and it’s poised to make the previous industrial revolutions seem…well, not so revolutionary. It and its know-it-all cousin, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), promise to change everything about the way we design and make products. 

The question is, how will we as manufacturers keep our collective heads above water in the face of such rapidly changing technology? Fortunately, there’s help available, some of it from a place you might never expect. 

A worker prepares a bending test on a composite workpiece.A helping hand
Say the word “government” to many in the manufacturing industry and the first words you might hear in response are taxes and regulations. Yet the Canadian government is every bit as interested in seeing its job shops, fabricators, and other manufacturing companies succeed as are the owners and managers of those businesses. What’s more, there’s a surprisingly robust network of talented, knowledgeable people available to assist the ones reading this magazine, namely you. 

All it takes is a shout out to Mike Kilfoil, program leader of the Advanced Manufacturing Program for Canada’s National Research Council (NRC). “Our mandate is to deliver value to Canadian industry,” he says. “The scope of this work covers metals manufacturing, composites manufacturing, and digital manufacturing. We engage directly with industrial companies, and team up as needed with university collaborators and others that might bring value to the table, focusing on research and development of various manufacturing technologies, then demonstrating those technologies for the purpose of getting them deployed out into industry.”

He’s not alone. The NRC has more than 3500 employees, all of them like Kilfoil, dedicated to helping Canadian industries, including manufacturers of all sizes—to embrace and succeed with new technologies. These include:

  • Development of innovative machining processes designed to increase metal removal rates, reduce scrap rates, and shorten lead-times. 
  • Joining of complex multi-material assemblies through adhesive bonding and friction stir welding. 
  • Assisting with the designing of flexible manufacturing systems and automation, IIoT based sensor integration, and inline metrology. 
  • Formulation of high performance polymers and composite materials for additive manufacturing, as well as the development of super strong but lightweight metals for use in aircraft and automobiles. 
  • Research into variable wall extrusion methods, superplastic and dieless forming, and similarly novel ways to shape, cast, forge, or form materials. 
  • Process simulation, data analytics, and all manner of software related tools to help designers and engineers improve manufacturing processes. 

That’s just the tip of the advanced manufacturing iceberg. The NRC, which according to Kilfoil is the premier research and technology organization in Canada, boasts 46 programs and dozens of locations across the country, performing advanced research in a wide range of scientific fields. Although diverse, the organization is clearly dedicated to assisting and contributing to Canada’s advanced manufacturing ecosystem. “We have facilities from coast-to-coast, from British Columbia to Newfoundland,” he says. “Our London, Boucherville, Saguenay, Montreal, and Ottawa locations are focused on advanced manufacturing, as well as the two new R&D facilities currently under construction in Mississauga and Winnipeg.” 

A proud history
The technology might be new, but the organization isn’t. Kilfoil says the NRC began as a scientific advisory committee to the federal government during the First World War, a role that continues today. Along the way, there have been numerous spinoffs, including the Canadian Space Agency, the Canadian Nuclear Board, and IRAP, a subset of NRC charged with supporting small to medium sized enterprises with research and development activities. 

IRAP is short for Industrial Research Assistance Program. Like the NRC itself, it has more than its fair share of success stories. For example, the startup firm Protocase turned to IRAP in 2005 for help with automation of its “craft metalworking” processes. Today the company employs more than 140 employees and is one of Nova Scotia’s fastest growing fabricators. 

And IRAP helped Mississauga’s Cyclone Manufacturing Inc., a fifty-year old company known for its capabilities in aluminum aircraft component machining and fabricating, successfully transition into a shop equally skilled with titanium metalworking, in order to meet the needs of its aerospace customers. 

“Suppose your enterprise is struggling to compete on a global basis, wondering how you can reduce production costs or improve part quality,” says Kilfoil. “We would look at the entire lifecycle of your products and suggest areas where we could provide assistance. We might recommend that you introduce automation, or try different raw materials, or incorporate machine vision to reduce errors. Or it could be an entirely new process, one that you’re unfamiliar with. It really depends on the particular manufacturer and the products that they’re putting out the door, but we’ve worked with literally thousands of companies in this or a similar capacity.” 

Getting started
Interested? It’s not free. Yes, much of the organization’s efforts are subsidized by federal tax dollars, but the actual execution of research and development projects as well as the implementation afterwards are made on a cost sharing basis with the companies involved. For cash-strapped shops and startups, Kilfoil says there are government funding mechanisms that companies can tap into, but as custodians of taxpayer tax dollars, the NRC wants to be sure that whatever it works on is relevant, and the best way for a company to prove this is by putting some money on the table.

Still interested? Good, because, Kilfoil says Canadian manufacturers continue to be challenged by offshore suppliers, and focusing on labour costs or using older technology is not how they’re going to win. 

“There are many measures we can take to bring manufacturing back to where it once was, but at the end of the day it’s about being competitive, and this often means significant investment in advanced manufacturing technologies,” he says. “Granted, there are still manufacturers out there that remain successful with 50 year old lathes and milling machines, but they’re increasingly in the minority. Companies need to embrace data and automation and digitalization like they never have before, even if it appears to be quite difficult—if they’re not willing to do that, then they’re eventually going to become obsolete.” SMT

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