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November 27, 2019

I’m very privileged.  As leader of Canada’s Advanced Manufacturing Supercluster, I get a bird’s eye view of some of the remarkable research, technology, and manufacturing capabilities that exist across our country. 

Many Canadians – and frankly many industry leaders as well – are not aware of the strengths in advanced manufacturing that Canada actually has to offer.  It’s funny sometimes, the assumptions people make.  I remember, for instance, being lectured about how Canada really doesn’t have very much to contribute to Industry 4.0 during a plant tour in Germany while standing on a shop floor surrounded by automation systems manufactured in Cambridge, Ontario. 

But, Canadians should know better.  It’s disappointing when Canadian start-ups think they need to go half way around the world for manufacturing capabilities that exist only a few kilometres away, or when manufacturers are unaware that Canadian technology capabilities could help solve some of their pressing production problems.  That’s when lack of awareness becomes a critical issue affecting competitiveness and growth.

The Advanced Manufacturing Supercluster is dedicated to raising awareness about what is happening in Canada, connecting and building greater collaboration among manufacturers, technology providers, researchers, educators, and supporting services, to speed up the adoption and scale-up of technologies in Canadian manufacturing.  Instead of saying “Who knew?”, we want Canadians to ask “What’s next?”. 

We should be proud of Canada’s global leadership position in the field of advanced manufacturing.  We have cutting edge capabilities in artificial intelligence, computing and data science, robotics, lasers, materials, software, machining, and much more.  It’s not just about public relations though.  It’s about making a compelling argument as to why businesses would want to invest and grow in Canada.  And, it’s about our ability to attract the skilled employees that manufacturers and technology companies need now and in the future.  It starts with recognizing some of the world-leading companies that call Canada home.

Dextre-MDAOne of those companies is MDA, the developer and manufacturer of the next generation Canadarm used on the Space Shuttle and Dextre, the two armed tele-manipulator that forms part of the International Space Station.  These are two technologies that have given global, even extraterrestrial, prominence to MDA and to Canada.  I visited MDA and I was interested in discovering what the company is up to now.

What I found out is that MDA continues to develop and manufacture a range of robotics, vision systems, guidance, and communications technologies for applications in outer space – ranging from autonomous robots and AGVs on Mars, to support for experiments on the Space Station and other spacecraft, to the latest in satellite guidance, cameras, and communications.  I also found out that MDA’s manufacturing systems are a model for Industry 4.0 – smart, automated, connected, data-driven, and focused on enhancing productivity and customer value.  Their engineering, technology, and manufacturing capabilities are impressive to say the least.

But, MDA is much more than a leading manufacturer of space systems.  The company develops, manufactures, and supports applications for its technologies in a variety of other industry sectors ranging from defence and the nuclear industry, to mining, medicine and medical devices, to manufacturing.  It’s hard to pin the company down.  MDA is not just a manufacturer, a technology provider, or an engineering, systems support, data, or software services company.  It’s all of these put together – and today that’s what advanced manufacturing is all about.

The company doesn’t operate on its own either.  MDA is affiliated with other businesses working in the fields of satellite and spacecraft systems, high resolution imagery, geospatial mapping, and data analytics that complement its own strengths in robotics, communications, and geospatial intelligence.  And, it is at the centre of a network of researchers, technology providers, manufacturers, and service suppliers that extends across Canada and around the world.

What really impressed me though was how the MDA team spoke about what they do. With all of the great technology the company has to offer, they didn’t describe their business in terms of the products or the services they provide.  They simply spoke of their ability to provide their customers new capabilities that their customers could manage and afford.  In my mind, that’s a pretty good description of any successful business model.

They were also clear that those capabilities extend far beyond technology itself.  They start with processes – understanding where in a business or production system technologies should be deployed to achieve the best results for the company as a whole.  Fundamental Lean principles like improving processes that generate customer value and eliminating those that do not are key to their business approach and the engineering solutions they offer. 

People also need to be front and centre in any technology deployment.  Of course, training is essential to ensure that operators have the skills to use technology successfully.  But, so too is ensuring that workflow and information systems are managed to achieve desired results, and in a modern production environment, that often requires an enterprise-level view of the business.  People also need to buy in to the technologies and the processes they are working with.  MDA’s experience with astronauts learning to trust robotic arms while orbiting thousands of kilometres above the earth brings that point home very clearly.

MDA is a big company – one of the few OEMs that Canada has.  But, the lessons that MDA can teach us about how they approach their business and about what needs to happen in order to ensure the successful deployment or scale-up of technologies are relevant to any company in the field of advanced manufacturing, large or small.

MDA is one of Canada’s flagship engineering, technology, and manufacturing companies. For many good reasons.  I was hugely impressed.

This article was previously published in Plant Magazine.