Manufacturing evolution gets boost from budget

Special to Western News

The Fraunhofer Project Centre for Composites Research at Western, houses Canada’s only open-access, full-scale press with manufacturing capacity. It is North America’s most advanced centre for industrial scale testing.

Western will have an opportunity to lead the region’s transition from traditional to advanced manufacturing, thanks to a significant investment by the Ontario government, announced Thursday.

As part of the 2016 Ontario Budget, the Liberal government recommended investing $35 million over five years in an Advanced Manufacturing Consortium, comprised of Western, McMaster University and the University of Waterloo. The $50-million project challenges these institutions, situated in the province’s hard-hit manufacturing region, to spark the next generation of advanced manufacturing know-how.

“This is a fantastic opportunity – a significant collaboration between universities in southwestern Ontario with complementary expertise in advanced manufacturing, an area critical to our economy and growth,” said John Capone, Western Vice-President (Research). “By combining our strengths, we have a real opportunity to make a difference in jobs and prosperity in this province and, particularly, in this region.”

The announcement was part of the Ontario government’s $133-billion budget rollout that, among other items, offered major tuition relief for low-income students, boosted health-care spending, included price hikes on wine and cigarettes, as well as promised to balance the books by 2017-18.

The Advanced Manufacturing Consortium could be the revolution the area has needed in the wake of traditional manufacturing losses over the last few years.

“This is a signal from the province that there is an important part of the economy outside of the GTA,” said Andy Hrymak, Western Engineering Dean. “Being aligned with the Kitchener-Waterloo and Hamilton areas is a positive thing for London. When you look at it from a global perspective, the distances between us are not that far. We should be looking for any opportunities to create a regional cluster that supports one another.

“And advanced manufacturing is the best area we could invest in.”

This ‘advanced manufacturing triangle’ will lead Ontario in the broadest sense, including in emerging sectors like next-generation additive manufacturing, digital components and devices, across a variety of sectors with the potential to make significant impact on a global scale. Investments will be made in infrastructure, research, collaborations and partnerships, as well as in instructing the next generation.

“We must prepare our students for their careers in these industries. An important connecting point between universities and industries is through co-ops, internships and industrial research work experience,” said Hrymak, who cited investment in research infrastructure as key to students’ future.

“There is no point training our students for yesterday’s type of equipment. We want to make sure they are exposed to the latest trends, so when they do go into the workforce, they understand where the leading edge is.”

The trio of universities has already worked together on a smaller scale, including Western and McMaster partnering on many projects involving the Fraunhofer Project Centre for Composites Research. All three universities have collaborated on a project for reducing the weight of automotive components using magnesium in an Automotive Partnership Canada project.

But this recent investment “accelerates” these existing connections, Capone stressed.

“Western is strong in material science; McMaster is strong in auto; Waterloo is strong in technology and computation. When you bring that kind of strength together, it is a tremendous initiative,” he continued.

Western has made significant efforts toward new manufacturing processes, application and innovation, including Fraunhofer, the Advanced Manufacturing Park and Surface Science Western.

“We could do this on our own – and many universities do,” Capone continued. “But when you do that you are limited to the capacities that you have – and that’s it. This investment not only broadens the knowledge, it broadens the geographic footprint. Manufacturing in London is different than manufacturing in Hamilton. The industries are different; their needs are different. We now have the ability to help each other.”

The significance of linking three universities in three cities was not lost on Capone and Hrymak, who have seen similar regional partnerships grow wildly successful in the United States and Europe.

“When you look at that footprint, it covers a hugely significant part of the manufacturing sector of Ontario – high tech, traditional, farming, whatever,” Capone said. “This is the area that will benefit the most from the knowledge that is created by this partnership. This is a region that not only could use it, but is well-positioned to take advantage of it.”

In addition to a boon for Western, the consortium holds potential for London, as well.

“From a London perspective, this reinforces the connectivity between the three major cities outside the GTA,” Capone said. “It is an opportunity for this region to show we can facilitate this type of bridge-building between universities and our industries.”