Jarvis: U of W may join manufacturing consortium

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Windsor Star/Anne Jarvis

The University of Windsor may be included in the new, $50-million Advanced Manufacturing Consortium first announced by the Ontario government in its budget in February.

The government is brokering negotiations to include UWindsor in the consortium comprised of Western University in London, the University of Waterloo and McMaster University in Hamilton, Deputy Premier Deb Matthews confirmed in an exclusive telephone interview with the Windsor Star on Tuesday.

“We’re facilitating discussions with the existing consortium to explore ways in which the partnership can be broadened by including manufacturers, technology firms and potentially additional university partners,” Matthews said.

“We’re having those conversations to see what kind of role the University of Windsor could play in it,” she said. “I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re going to be able to find a way to include them.”

The consortium is to “lead Ontario in advanced manufacturing,” according to the announcement at the time, from 3D printing to digital components and devices. The goal is to develop new technology, create new products and production methods and generate new, highly skilled jobs. The consortium will collaborate with industry on long-term projects.   

The universities, which proposed the consortium, contributed $15 million, and the government announced $35 million over five years.

“This is very heavily aligned with our vision of what Ontario’s economy of the future will be,” Matthews said Tuesday, the day before addressing an economic policy forum here featuring auto adviser Ray Tanguay and national business and labour leaders.

The consortium is part of a new, $100-million Innovation SuperCorridor stretching from London through Toronto and including Ottawa. It focuses on research and development and is touted as “Canada’s most innovative region,” with “world-class talent.” Windsor was not included in the Innovation SuperCorridor either, and Matthews would not say if it will be in the future.

The University of Windsor was not originally included in the consortium because the other three universities proposed it, Matthews said.

“We think it’s a great idea and a great opportunity to get more by working together and that’s why we supported it in the budget,” she said. “But now, as we look forward, Windsor has a lot to offer. Windsor has some very strong programs.”

Excluding Windsor and the University of Windsor from the announcements was seen here as not only a snub but damaging, sending the message that there is little innovation here and making it more difficult to draw investment and talent and promote local companies.

Matthews credited the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce, Unifor and the University of Windsor for “strong advocacy.”

“We’re hearing they want to be part of (the consortium),” she said.

University of Windsor president Alan Wildeman cited the automotive think-tank Auto21, based at the university before its funding ended last year, the new Cross Border Institute, which researches issues crucial to Canada’s automotive exports, and a joint research and development centre with Fiat Chrysler Canada.

“A lot of research is going on in engineering and in science on new kinds of materials, new kinds of processes for 3D printing,” he said. “We’ve got some of the world’s leading researchers on power train technology here.”

The university also brings relationships with leading manufacturers, he said, citing Windsor and Essex County’s globally recognized tool and die sector.

“It would really be about extending the reach of the consortium to include what is recognized as being a very vital manufacturing sector that has contributed to the wealth of Ontario for 100 years.”

Fiat Chrysler’s Windsor Assembly Plant, retooled to build the Pacifica and other vehicles, is now one of the most advanced plants in the world. Google and FCA have also announced a partnership to put the tech giant’s self-driving technology into the Pacifica.

Wildeman would not say how much money his university would contribute to the consortium  but said it would be “comparable” to what the other universities contributed.

Being included in the consortium is critical for the city, said Matt Marchand, president and CEO of the chamber.

“It means we’re part of an Ontario network. It reaffirms in a very public way Windsor is a place of high technology, that Windsor is going to be part of the core of advanced manufacturing. It really helps solidify our position not just in automotive but in high tech,” he said.

“It’s also a way to market ourselves, to drive investment, to help keep our university and college grads here, to attract university and college grads from around the world, to make Windsor-Essex a place you want to come for higher education and a career in high-tech automotive,” he said.

Canada is ranked 10th in the world in automotive production, producing 2.4 million units in 2014. That production is expected to plunge 18 per cent, to 1.9 million units in 2021, the biggest loss of any automotive producing country. Mexico is projected to increase by 45 per cent and the U.S. by 7.8 per cent.

“That’s what’s scary,” said Dino Chiodo, president of Unifor Local 444, which represents minivan workers, and a key player in the negotiations to get the University of Windsor in the consortium.

“If we don’t start standing up, talking about what’s important, what we need to do, we’re just allowing this to happen. We’re trying to keep Windsor in the mix. Windsor is not a lost cause.”