“Manufacturers should put tech in its place”

Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME) says companies should push for greater high-tech expertise and improved links with research entities to meet the industry’s future challenges, but they should also avoid putting technology ahead of the job at hand.

CME, an advocacy group for the manufacturing sector, released A Call to Action last month. The document, available on the organization’s Web site, indicates what manufacturers should do to succeed in the coming years.

As far as technology goes, the CME advocates sourcing technology expertise so manufacturers can deal with and build upon advanced IT infrastructure.

“We’ll see much more integrated technologies in production, design, engineering and services, connected through IT systems,” said Jayson Myers, CME’s chief economist and senior vice-president, explaining why manufacturers need tech experts. “There are a whole range of new production technologies that we’re going to be looking at, things like industrial applications of biotechnology, or advanced robotics, micro machining, nanotechnology, molecular manufacturing [and] artificial intelligence.”

CME also advocates industry-specific technology liaison officers to co-ordinate R&D efforts at universities and research labs with manufacturer requirements. Such co-operation has been lacking lately, Myers said.

He pointed out that in chats with manufacturers across the country last year, CME learned how big the gap between R&D and real-world needs is these days. According to Myers, R&D teams are coming up with interesting technologies, but said teams aren’t necessarily building design, production or engineering systems that manufacturers want.

“We’re saying to the universities, the research centres, and the government programs in support of manufacturing, make sure your services and research activities are aligned to meet actual industry requirements,” Myers said. “That’s where the role of the technology liaison officers is really crucial.”

The situation noted above stems from a “bass-ackwards” way of looking at technology and innovation, Myers suggested, pointing out that R&D doesn’t necessarily spell improved margins for manufacturers.

“We’ve had a technology approach to innovation. You can see it in the underlying assumption that all companies need to do is learn more about technology and they’ll apply it.”

The real solution: “Work backward from the customer and align the research, the innovation, with offering a solution to customers,” Myers said.

Some research centres do a good job of targeting manufacturers’ requirements, he said. “[The] IRAP (the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program) is extremely successful because they marry up the support programs in the federal government and other places to industry needs. They do it because they have a group of technology advisors out there talking to manufacturers on a constant basis, trying to understand what industry really needs.”

Myers said ultimately it’s up to manufacturers to forge their own path towards innovation and success in the ensuing global marketplace.

“It’s a call to action first of all to manufacturers,” he said of the Call To Action document. “The one thing we didn’t want is a list of things the government had to do. The responsibility for keeping pace with technology — keeping pace with customers — lies with manufacturers themselves.

“Everybody needs a new business strategy; everybody needs innovation in order to compete with what’s coming from China and other low-cost countries,” he continued. “What China and the dollar have done is really raise the bar for manufacturers in Canada and right across North America. Any product can commoditize quickly. What can you do to offset that trend? The only way you can beat it is by finding something that will differentiate your product — its capabilities, or its ability to meet customer demand, its service, or time for product development. All of that requires innovation.”

To access the Call To Action document click here.

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