Report: Canada has the potential to be a robotics powerhouse

Friday November 02, 2018
Written by Kristina Urquhart
November 2, 2018 – Canada is poised to become a future leader in robotics with the right government support in place, according to a recent study conducted by CATAAlliance and Sciencetech.

The advocacy group and the engineering consultancy surveyed 465 Canadian companies for their report titled, “Automation of the manufacturing sector: Market study of Industrial Automation in Canada – 2017.” Almost 75 per cent of the respondents declared that they use robots or other advanced automation.

When it comes to robot density and deployment, Canada currently lags behind other major robotics centres such as the U.S., China, Japan and South Korea. But we do have 136 robots per 10,000 employees – well above the world average of 69 robots per 10,000 employees. That puts Canada at an estimated 26,000 robots with an average purchase and install price of $200,000, for a total investment of $5.2 billion.

Professor Clément Gosselin, director of the robotics laboratory at Laval University and the Canada Research Chair in robotics and mechatronics, said in the report that there’s no reason Canada can’t increase that total investment or even outpace foreign markets. He pointed to GE Aviation’s 2013 investment in a global automation and robotics R&D centre in Bromont, Quebec, as well as federal investments in university research throughout the 1990s as foundational in Canada’s nascent robotics industry. But Gosselin said any current government investment doesn’t do enough to discourage the purchase of foreign equipment or to promote a made-in-Canada strategy.

“In order to have a complete robotics program, it is also important to consider injecting money into universities and research centres – not to increase the volume of research, but to link up with the commercial phase,” Gosselin noted. “We have excellent research results in robotics. Now they have to be transformed into commercial products.”

One of the industry professionals surveyed was Patrice Charlebois, industry segment manager at Festo. He agreed with Gosselin, stating, “For too long, the government of Canada has shifted away from manufacturing jobs. Manual labour has been devalued. It is the opposite of Germany where manual labour has always been the object of all the attention of the government. The result is that Canada has many good engineers, but a chronic shortage of technicians.”

Canada does not currently have a nationwide strategy for manufacturing automation. Conversely, China has its Made in China 2025 strategy. The U.S. has the National Robotics Initiative as part of the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership. Europe’s SPART project develops robots for a number of industries. Japan’s Robot Revolution aims to double the number of robots in the Japanese manufacturing sector. And South Korea has made multiple massive investments in robotics since 2012.

The CATAAlliance/Sciencetech study recommends ten actions that the Canadian government should undertake to strengthen the manufacturing industry and have it compete on a global level:
  1. Establish a nationwide Canadian Manufacturing Day that recognizes and celebrates the manufacturing trades through open houses.
  2. Collect and distribute case studies chronicling the use of robotics in SMEs, which were noted in the survey as trailing behind large and very small organizations in their adoption of automation.
  3. Institute a tax credit for the portion of SME investment that relates to the acquisition of automation equipment.
  4. Mobilize the industry associations to be the conduits for information about the government programs.
  5. Officially recognize the Group of Experts in Automation and Robotics (GEAR). The survey identifies Canada’s robotic integrator industry as one-of-a-kind but not well known. Using already-established manufacturing centres as hubs or “clusters” may prove to be attractive for new talent or investors.
  6. Create a structure to support applied research for industrial automaton equipment manufacturers, as well as company-university partnerships.
  7. Implement a “Made in Canada” strategy that puts high value on innovation here at home, rather than on exporting the output of Canadian integrators.
  8. Promote standardization among integrators and establishments embracing Industry 4.0.
  9. Embark on pilot projects with integrators and universities to learn how automation can best be incorporated into different industries.
  10. Fund a "FutureSkills Lab" to log the impacts of automation and to help employees displaced by automation access more varied training.
The survey showed that a lack of skilled labour is the main problem affecting Canada’s manufacturing industry. A greater level of involvement from the government would not only help to promote the industry as a viable career choice for those entering the workforce, but also ensure a robust, diverse strategy to position Canada as a global robotics leader.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 edition of Robotics Insider, a quarterly e-book produced by Manufacturing AUTOMATION

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