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N.B. Companies Looking For Advanced Manufacturing Help Are Finding It In Their Own Backyards

The Los Cabos drumstick sorting system. Image: CCNB-INNOV Applied Research Network

Not all drumsticks are created equal, as Dr. Sylvain Poirier, executive director of CCNB-INNOV Applied Research Network, could tell you. Different species of wood have different characteristics and the world’s best musicians can tell by feel if weight, pitch or balance is off by just a little bit.

Poirier’s knowledge of rock drumming ramped up when Los Cabos, a drumstick manufacturer in Hanwell, N.B., approached his organization for help in modernizing their production processes without sacrificing the quality and precision demanded by world-class musicians.

“They supply drumsticks to some of the most well-known drummers in the world so the stakes were high for them,” said Poirier.

“We developed a processing line that allows them a way to make sure the sticks are straight, and sort them by weight. It can also sort them by pitch.”

Los Cabos was just one of dozens of New Brunswick companies for which CCNB-INNOV Applied Research Network has supplied customized technical services. Poirier leads a team of about 30 people at the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Department at College communautaire du Nouveau-Brunswick (CCNB), with locations in Bathurst, Caraquet, and Grand Falls.

They help small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) – mostly in the manufacturing sector – with specialized technical assistance on business or production challenges. Most of their clients are in the Maritime provinces but they’ve also done work in other provinces and internationally.

“Industrial operations and manufacturers can rarely order ‘off-the-shelf’ solutions to their challenges and growth needs. Especially small and medium-sized manufacturers. Having a local source of expertise that can provide customized technical and innovation assistance is critical to the survival of these operations,” says Poirier.

CCNB-INNOV provides almost anything an SME may need support with, including recommendations and solutions to improve their productivity, feasibility demonstrations and studies, mechanical prototyping and production of a few product samples, advanced welding, project management, access to funding, proposal writing, and the integration of existing and new technologies.

“In Bathurst, it’s like an industrial campus. It’s very well-equipped to produce prototypes of machines or equipment that some SMEs have in mind…We provide expertise that SMEs cannot afford. We’re also contributing by helping New Brunswick SMEs develop a culture of innovation and investment,” he said.

CCNB-INNOV deals with around 40 to 60 projects a year with new and returning clients. In the last 30 months, its industry liaison officers have met with around 400 companies and organizations. CCNB has full-time dedicated personnel to help SMEs instead of relying on instructors and students to do that.

“It’s fine when you have very small projects and when the enterprises that you’re dealing with are willing to take the time it takes to integrate students and instructors, and deal with the fact that there are some time off during the year. But many companies don’t have that luxury,” Poirier said.

Dr. Herb Emery, the Vaughan Chair in Regional Economics at the University of New Brunswick and Program Chair of the JDI Roundtable on Manufacturing Competitiveness in New Brunswick agrees that when it comes to innovating, New Brunswick manufacturers are past the point of luxury. Modernization is now a matter of survival.

The drive to innovate and modernize manufacturing in the province will be a central focus at the JDI Roundtable on Manufacturing Competitiveness Forum on September 25-26 in Fredericton.

“Canada has always lagged the United States in capital investment in the manufacturing sector. And New Brunswick’s investment levels are some of the lowest in Canada,” says Emery. “That’s in part because we’ve historically been a labour abundant jurisdiction and our competitive advantage is tied to the Canada-US exchange rate. We don’t re-tool to increase productivity, we ramp up with personnel.”

“The new normal in New Brunswick is rising wages and labour scarcity. Companies that ramped up production by hiring more people when the Canadian dollar went down won’t be able to do that anymore. We don’t have the people and we don’t have the wage rates anymore to support that business model.”

Emery says that’s why organizations like CCNB-INNOV Applied Research Network are so important.

“This organization can help a small or medium-size manufacturer modernize their plant, improve their processes, or build better production machines to help make those critical productivity improvements.”

“For some New Brunswick companies, access to the knowledge, research, and technical expertise will mean the difference between staying profitable or being forced to shutter an aging and inefficient plant.”

Turning Bad Into Good

New Brunswick’s manufacturing sector is spread throughout an already rural province.

“Many of these manufacturers might as well be operating on an island. It’s not like they get to have water cooler conversations about the latest innovations in their field,” says Emery. “They don’t have the time or resources to go out and research it themselves.”

Sylvain Poirier’s group solves a bit of that isolation problem, says Emery.

“The mining companies and big mills have gone from Bathurst but we have all that equipment and all this knowledge that we’re putting to another use now, which is helping the smaller companies innovate in New Brunswick. We can build just about anything,” confirm Poirier.

CCNB-INNOV had heard of companies attempting to innovate and modernize on their own, with little support, and failing. “It’s not a just a waste of money, they become reluctant to invest in any more innovation.”

“For example, welding robots is something we’re familiar with in Ontario, we see that often in car manufacturers, but we don’t see that often in New Brunswick,” he said. “We’ve heard cases of companies actually buying robots, trying to integrate them in their production line, running into problems and eventually just disposing of them in a shack and not using them anymore.”

CCNB-INNOV hired two welding engineers to travel around the Maritimes to talk about welding techniques and address the challenges before they become a failure.

“I think we’re one of the best-kept novel economic development tools in New Brunswick,” said Poirier. “We’re solving problems that have an immediate impact on the profitability and sustainability of New Brunswick companies.”

To learn more about the forum and how to register as a participant, visit the web site for the JDI Roundtable on Manufacturing Competitiveness: https://www.unb.ca/roundtable/forum/

This story was sponsored by the University of New Brunswick.