Local companies aim to cash in on $950M federal supercluster program

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Windsor Star/Dave Battagello


A bid by Windsor area companies wasn't selected for federal funding, but now many have joined a successful Toronto-based bid focused on advanced manufacturing.

A group of Windsor business owners held a series of meetings last year to tap into a new federal program that would bring together the country’s best minds in research, academia, technology and manufacturing.

The Trudeau government planned to distribute $950 million to five “superclusters” from across the country and the local group wanted in on it.

They were tool and die makers, auto parts manufacturers and mould makers. Working with the WindsorEssex Economic Development Corporation, the business owners held low-key meetings and tried to stay under the radar. They quietly assembled their ambitious proposal, focusing on automotive manufacturing — their specialty. 

Over the course of several months, discussions centred on whether the group’s pitch would be too narrowly focused on the auto sector to prevail, said Stephen MacKenzie, the development corporation’s CEO.

They knew the federal government’s goal was to push Canada into the forefront of innovation — an area where the country has lagged globally. Canada was ranked No. 22 in the world — far behind countries like Sweden, Germany, South Korea, Japan and U.S. — in the annual Bloomberg Innovation Index released last month. 


Those involved were well-aware there was a similar bid in the Greater Toronto Area that focused on advancing robotics and machining, MacKenzie said.

Nevertheless, the locally-backed auto parts industry proposal — called Building Canada’s Advanced Automotive Supercluster — was among 50 submitted nationally by the July 2017 deadline. It was an expensive venture. The cost for assembling the bid was $518,000, MacKenzie said.

“A lot of work went into it. It would have been great to be at the centre of something like that. It was a darn good proposal, too.”

Given the auto industry is one of Canada’s top economic drivers, support for innovation is critical to compete globally, he said. The group’s proposal detailed research being done at local tool companies and others in the region.

Several dozen companies involved with the proposal were also willing to contribute $250 million in matching funds over five years to get the government money.

Unfortunately, the Windsor-based effort did not make the shortlist of nine announced in October by federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains. On Feb. 15, he revealed the five winning bids, which will cash in on the $950-million federal supercluster program.

Even though their bid wasn’t selected, the Windsor business and industry leaders are still rejoicing. When they didn’t make the shortlist in the fall, six Windsor area entities joined the Toronto-area group, which is one of the five winners.

The Toronto-based advanced manufacturing supercluster has 140 partners — a coalition of industry and academic partners located primarily in Toronto, Hamilton and Kitchener-Waterloo.

In the coming weeks, there will be opportunities to benefit for more Windsor and Essex County companies — as well as research teams from the University of Windsor and St. Clair College.

“With what we have announced it’s always possible for any similar business to get in the game and join the cluster,” said Karl Sasseville, the minister’s press secretary. “That’s the whole purpose of the initiative — to get the conversations started. The more the merrier in this situation.”

The largest chunk of the $950 million in federal supercluster funding is likely going to the manufacturing group, Sasseville said.

Every dollar in federal funding will have to be matched by a $1.50 from the companies involved. The companies and entities involved in the advanced manufacturing supercluster bid aren’t being named by the government until agreements are signed, he said.

Jayson Myers, former head of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, has been named CEO of the supercluster.

Bringing together the best research teams, technology firms — big and small — and manufacturing companies will help create thousands of new jobs in Ontario, Myers said in a telephone interview.

“The problem we will try to solve is lots of manufacturers in Ontario are looking at investing in advanced technology, but don’t know how,” he said. “We will help their business on where to go. On the other hand, there are lots of great research and start-up tech firms, but what they need are companies to work with. We will connect the dots.”

While it’s centred in Toronto, all those involved in the supercluster — from Windsor to Montreal — will be equal partners, Myers said.

“You have a lot of mould makers, die casters, robotics companies that are strong around the Windsor area,” he said. “They are very engaged with us already through their industry associations.”

The early focus will be advancing 3D printing, digital technology, robotics, machining and equipment improvements.

“This will be a Canada-wide supercluster on technology and manufacturing,” Myers said. “We will leverage all the technology and work being done. This is not a Waterloo or Toronto initiative.”

“This will be cross-sector and cross-technology,” he said. “There will be no attempt to exclude anyone.”

Myers expects to disclose the first research investments and the companies involved this summer.

The Canadian Association of Mold Makers, which includes numerous Windsor area tool and die shops, is one of the six partners in the supercluster, said chairman Jonathon Azzopardi.

The Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association and Laval Tool, of which he is president and CEO, are other local partners, he said.

Azzopardi is disappointed the Windsor-based auto sector bid failed.

“The auto industry is at the forefront of innovation every day,” he said.

Nevertheless, Windsor’s involvement in the advanced manufacturing supercluster is critical in the months ahead, given how this region has “the most to gain and the most to lose” when it comes to innovation in manufacturing and remaining competitive, Azzopardi said.

“We are closest and most integrated with the U.S.,” Azzopardi said. “They are our largest trading partner. Our ability to stay competitive (in innovation) will affect our ability to sell to (the U.S.). We are the front line of exports. If you can’t keep this region competitive other regions will suffer. There will be a ripple effect.”

He believes the new federal program will make a big difference in terms of jobs, but said much will be in the hands of the supercluster’s board and its decisions about which innovation projects and companies to support.

“Hopefully it will be equally dispersed on different industries,” Azzopardi said. “There are certain industries which can use this more than others. Auto manufacturing is highly competitive on a global scale and needs (innovation and research) to survive.”

Other superclusters selected for funding by the federal government are digital technology in British Columbia, protein industries on the Prairies, ocean-based industries in Atlantic Canada, and intelligent supply chains using artificial intelligence and robotics in Quebec.

Bains says the initiative will expand Canada’s economy by $50 billion over the next decade and create more than 50,000 middle-class jobs.

Tony Faria, co-director of the Office of Automotive and Vehicle Research at the University of Windsor, predicts the university’s engineering school will soon find a way to get involved with the advanced manufacturing supercluster.

The value of the superclusters is not the money involved, since $950 million spread among five entities “is not that big,”  he said. “It will be about the companies working together and synergies from that.”