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JDI Roundtable on Manufacturing Competitiveness in New Brunswick

Early survey data shows NB manufacturers score high on openness to change, low on technology adoption 

By Sarah McRae

The provincial government has indicated it views technological maturity as the path forward for NB manufacturing. The recent throne speech observed that NB manufacturers are embracing technology in new ways and that "automation, artificial intelligence and robotics are fundamental pathways to addressing looming demographic and labour force challenges" in our province. So where are NB manufacturers currently positioned on that pathway? 

On November 27, Martin Davis of DUNELM Associates joined Dr. Herb Emery to discuss how NB manufacturers are doing in their drive towards Industry 4.0. The webinar gave a first look at data from a survey instrument built from Martin Davis’s 6-dimension model describing the path to Industry 4.0. The survey is meant to gauge the overall climate of manufacturing in NB and inform future policy decisions by identifying manufacturing strengths and opportunities. 

Industry 4.0 relates to the use of cyber-physical systems, strategies and processes to improve industrial productivity, capability and performance. Industry 4.0 is about more than having the latest technologies – it’s a philosophy and strategy for approaching industrial processes that revolves around using data to make the right decisions.  

The survey is built around six dimensions described in Davis’ Industry 4.0 Maturity Model:  

  1. Leadership & People: Drive to increase manufacturing competitiveness; clear governance model; finding the right people 
  2. Data & Information: Using operational data to make decisions 
  3. Manufacturing efficiency: Advanced technology such as automation and roboticsapplying tech to functions such as maintenance, safety, and improving efficiency 
  4. Operational Excellence: Process improvementLean Manufacturing and 6-Sigma approaches  
  5. Supply Chain: Off-site inventory; Just-in-Time delivery of raw materialsSupply chain flexibility 
  6. Technology: Internet technology and cloud computingIndustrial Internet of Things (IIoT)Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) 

Preliminary findings 

We should caution that these initial results are based on a relatively small pool of responses primarily from medium to large manufacturers, and thus the preliminary results discussed in the webinar may show an “upward bias” to suggest NB’s manufacturers overall are more advanced on the Industry 4.0 scale than they really are.  In other work we determined that half of the province’s 1200 manufacturers did not have an active website.  Eighty percent of manufacturers in the province have 20 employees or fewer, and these small firms only account for 20 percent of total employment in manufacturing. Our results likely give us a reasonable picture of the technological maturity of the smaller number of medium and large manufacturers that account for 80 percent of the sector’s total employment. 

Martin Davis Webinar

Figure 1Source: Manufacturing Technological Maturity,” Nov27, 2020 

The above chart describes how leaders of manufacturing firms rated their organizations on a scale of 1 (entry level) to 4 (advanced). The results point to an obvious weakness in technology among NB manufacturers. Meanwhile, manufacturers showed moderate scores in data and informationmanufacturing efficiency, and leadership and peopleIn the webinar, Davis noted that firms can achieve a certain amount of manufacturing efficiency without advanced technology, meaning firms can reach an intermediate level in that area without high-cost technological investments. He added, however, that advanced technology becomes required to progress past a certain level in manufacturing efficiency. 

Martin Davis Webinar

Figure 2. Source: Figure 1Source: Manufacturing Technological Maturity,” Nov27, 2020 

A closer look are areas of strength (and weakness) reveals a few things. First, firm “Openness” was surprisingly high – what is unclear is whether this openness is a reflection of leadership or company culture. Having leadership open to pursuing technological maturity is essential, but a firm-wide culture open to change is also necessary for any advances to be successful. 

Adoption of VR and AR were very lowbut perhaps these areas should be on NB firms’ radar. Right here in our province, for example, Kognitiv Spark produces industrial grade AR support tools, a technology that has applications for manufacturing such as allowing remote repairs to occur when local workers don’t have the expertise for certain equipment. 

A few other themes that emerged from the presentation: 

  • Solutions don’t have to be expensive. Manufacturing efficiency was divided between “haves” and “have-nots.” But Davis emphasized that automation doesn’t have to be expensive – firms can use basic data to understand how and when to do maintenance. There’s lots of technology that doesn’t even require internet connectivity. 
  • Firms need to cover the basics first. When it comes to Operational Efficiency, some manufacturers are still behind on the basics (e.g. LEAN). In those cases, throwing expensive tech at a problem for the sake of it won’t turn out well.  
  • We need to identify and eliminate barriers. We must figure out what’s hindering uptake of Industry 4.0 concepts and what is the role of government in helping them do so. Programs already exist to provide support for manufacturers looking to improve competitiveness. For example, ACOA offers financial assistance to firms seeking an advanced manufacturing technology assessment. One problem may be that firms aren’t aware of what help is available and how to obtain that help. 
  • We need to settle on a strategy. As for the best strategy for helping NB manufacturers advance their technological maturity, two main alternatives exist: 
  • Should government and other bodies be targeting medium and large firms further along the path to help them become “lighthouse firms” or world leaders? 
  • Should they be working with larger number of small companies to help them leverage lower-investment opportunities that could help them improve their competitiveness (such as LEAN concepts or basic use of operational data) 

Want to learn more? 

To learn more about Martin Davis's other recent work on Industry 4.0 and how it relates to our manufacturing sector in NB, check out the latest TechTalks Podcast episode. Host Cathy Simpson, CEO of TechImpact, chats with Martin Davis to unpack Industry 4.0 terminology, including the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), machine learning, AI, and advanced manufacturing. 

Check out the show notes on the TechImpact website. 

Dr. Sarah McRae is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of New Brunswick and a member of the JDI Roundtable research team.

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The JDI Roundtable on Manufacturing Competitiveness in New Brunswick is an independent research program made possible through the generosity of J.D. Irving, Ltd. The funding supports arms-length research conducted at UNB.