Talk of the “tech” industry often conjures up images of smartphone apps, social media platforms, viral videos, memes and offices that resemble a place to hang out with friends rather than a corporate environment. But as businesses in nearly every industry adopt new technology to improve productivity and processes, “tech” is starting to take on a whole new meaning — especially in manufacturing.
Alberta’s advanced manufacturing capabilities caught the attention of Nexii Building Solutions, a green construction technology company based in Alberta’s neighbouring province of British Columbia.
In 2020, Nexii signed a manufacturing agreement with Alberta-based Newvi Building Solutions. Newvi is investing approximately $15 million to develop a 50,000 sq ft production facility in Winfield – a hamlet in central Alberta that’s about 120 kilometres southwest of Edmonton – which will create over 100 full-time highly skilled jobs in the area. Once fully operational, the manufacturing facility will have the capacity to produce more than 4 million sq ft of building panels annually.
Abubakar Benna, president of Newvi Building Solutions, explains that the high-performance building panels are designed to provide industrial and commercial builders with a product that uses less energy and can be rapidly assembled on site in less than 20 percent of the time of other more conventional construction projects.
“A lot of the skilled trades that are required for in-situ building are not as attractive as they used to be, so we’re seeing a shortage in this kind of labour in the market,” says Benna.
Being able to build portions in a manufacturing facility, pack it and transport it out to a site where it needs to be assembled – rather than built – cuts down on construction time and costs. This innovative change to construction processes is just one aspect of Newvi’s “tech” adoption. Benna also notes that the more Newvi, and all manufacturing businesses, can integrate automation and robotics into their operations, the more efficient and cost-effective they can be.
It’s that type of thinking in Alberta’s advanced manufacturing space that also caught the attention of the federal government.
Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen) is a not-for-profit organization established to run Canada’s advanced manufacturing supercluster, which aims to match manufacturing companies with new technologies to drive advanced manufacturing in the country. Canada’s supercluster initiative was launched in 2018 when the federal government committed $950 million over 5 years to incent largescale collaboration among industry leaders, small-to-medium sized businesses and post-secondary institutions in five focus areas: digital technology, protein industries, scale AI, ocean and next generation manufacturing.
“No single company will be able to develop all this new technology in-house, so we need to find the right partners to help with this innovation and that’s what I am most excited for with this supercluster.” —Abubakar Benna, president of Newvi Building Solutions
One of NGen’s goals is to help industry clusters that already exist extend their reach and break down sector silos, ensuring that small- and medium- sized businesses can find the resources they need to further innovate their operations. The organization is also looking for opportunities to help fund research and development projects in robotics, artificial intelligence and 3D printing.
The not-for-profit organization now has members from the advanced manufacturing ecosystem all across Canada, including 191 in Alberta.
“Canada has always had immense strength in research, technology and manufacturing goods,” says Rob MacLeod, director of strategic communications with NGen. “What NGen does is help tie all of these strengths together and create connections so an area’s entire manufacturing sector can benefit from the innovation and growth.”
The total investment from NGen was last reported at around $124 million, resulting in $230 million in new business-led research and development projects being launched and contributing to local economies.
MacLeod adds that the power in supporting and connecting clusters comes from businesses finding complementary capabilities, so that any additional resources or support that’s needed can be found in the company’s own backyard.
“No single company will be able to develop all this new technology in-house, so we need to find the right partners to help with this innovation and that’s what I am most excited for with this supercluster,” says Newvi’s Benna.
Kimberley Worthington, executive director with Central Alberta Economic Partnership (CAEP), agrees that with many manufacturers in her region being small businesses, they are nimble and can collaborate to integrate new technology and innovations into their operations.
Central Alberta has an established manufacturing sector servicing a wide range of industries including food, petrochemicals, agriculture and forestry. Worthington points out that even with so many of these businesses being smaller employers, Alberta is a leading province in metal and machinery fabrication, ahead of Quebec and just trailing behind Ontario, with 190 innovative and highly competitive companies currently employing around 3,900 people.
“Albertans are known for their entrepreneurial spirit, so having a supercluster project in place will help a lot of the smaller and specialized companies think even further outside of the box,” says Worthington.
CAEP is an alliance of 36 communities promoting economic development in central Alberta and Worthington says that collaborations like superclusters are known to grow their ecosystem, attracting new complementary industries which may provide quality jobs as companies expand to fill the supply chain gaps, which could do a lot for Alberta’s overall economy.
“Getting Albertans back to work requires a multi-faceted approach that includes academics, training, and business attraction,” she says. “The proposed advanced manufacturing supercluster appears to have all these elements and by working collaboratively, we’ll have one piece of the puzzle in creating new jobs.”