Windsor becoming automation technology hub
The Windsor Star/Doug Schmidt
Local folks — much less the rest of the world — have little understanding that Windsor-Essex has morphed into an automation technology hub, and some say it’s time for the region to shed its modesty.
“What’s going on here is remarkable, and that message is not getting out,” said Stephen MacKenzie, CEO of the WindsorEssex Economic Development Corporation.
More than 300 local companies are now engaged in engineering, designing and manufacturing cutting-edge automated industrial manufacturing systems for clients stretching the globe.
“That’s a staggering figure — this is where innovation is happening,” said Brent McPhail, president of Windsor-based Brave Control Solutions. His company, which for the third straight year has been listed as one of Canada’s fastest-growing companies in the PROFIT 500 report compiled by Canadian Business and PROFITguide.com, uses software developed for video games to help manufacturers develop new industrial technology.
“We have this high-tech hub — let’s promote it and use it to drive the local economy,” said MacKenzie, who only took over the WEEDC helm a few months ago. Such tech-driven jobs, he added, typically have a five-fold multiplier effect in creating other jobs.
To help get the word out to others, WEEDC, in partnership with government, business, WEtech Alliance and the local chamber of commerce, held its first Emerging Technologies in Automation Conference and Trade Show at Caesars Windsor on Tuesday. MacKenzie said about a third of the almost 300 delegates were on the receiving end of information about what’s going on locally, including engineers for the Detroit Three and Honda and Toyota vehicle manufacturers.
In a keynote presentation on the Internet of Things, author and technology futurist Ian Khan told the conference that innovation technology in the age of iPads and instant global connectivity has “barely scratched the surface … (and is) now taking off.”
He told the Star that cities and regions that want to get ahead are investing in startup incubators, with even municipal governments providing subsidies to help those with ideas get products launched and businesses established.
“The only way forward is to get involved — there is no going back on technology development,” said Toronto-based Khan.
Pointing to the local area’s important agricultural sector, Khan spoke of the farms of the future, with “survey drones” providing instant operational feedback to plugged-in farmers; crops being tended with autonomous “agribots” that can save 99 per cent on fertilizer costs by applying precise amounts; and “connected cows” in which livestock are equipped with sensors to monitor and collect production data.
“What would you like to solve? I guarantee you you’ll find the resources in technology to help you,” said Khan. He said it’s hard for people to grasp the speed at which technology is progressing and that companies are pouring resources into continuous research, “afraid of being left behind.”
McPhail said he used to find it “incredibly difficult” just to explain to his family what his company does. Brave Control applies software developed for gaming to the manufacturing sector.
“Instead of auto racing games, we’re programming the software (to design and develop) new machines,” said McPhail.
He said the particular skill set needed attracts younger people to his company. Getting Windsor to become better-known as an emerging technologies hub would assist in getting more tech-savvy workers to locate here, he said, adding many local companies have to “build” their talent in-house.
McPhail said he’d like to see the CEOs of the Windsor-Essex tech community band together to assist in luring skilled automation workers and more business to the region.
“Talent begets more talent,” said MacKenzie.
Silicon Valley is “great at solving problems,” McPhail said, but its automation developers don’t set foot in the manufacturing facilities they’re helping. A big local advantage, he said, is that automotive and other tech-hungry clients are located “a stone’s throw away.”