Future Auto 2: Plants will still have workers, but they'll produce more product

Thursday, December 12, 2019

The London Free Press / Norman De Bono




Natashia Mierkalns has to move fast on the job.

Wiring electronics for a video module, or installing sensors, she is always moving and training, learning new skills to keep pace with technology on the job, she says.

Mierkalns is a 21st century auto worker, and we can forget those old clichés about auto workers doing low-skilled, repetitive labour.

“Cars have a lot more connections than they used to, but there is a lot of training, they are very good with training,” said Mierkalns, who has been at Cami four years.

“It has become very knowledge-based.”

Welcome to the new automotive plant where demand for technology is driving change on the shop floor. To compete for future work, and keep what manufacturing we have, the factory of the future will be even more wired, say automotive industry observers.

The good news is that with Canadian workers’ skill set and the extensive research now ongoing across the country, we can compete, they agree.

“There is a heckuva lot going on,” said Grant Courville, vice-president products and strategy at Blackberry QNX, in Kanata near Ottawa, a leading technology supplier to the auto industry.

“I am bullish on it,” he said of the auto industry’s future in this country.

“We have talent across Canada that applies to the next generation of cars. We should be waving the flag and beating our chest.”

Simply put, the steady decline in auto assembly will continue, but likely stabilize as automakers want a presence here, albeit a smaller one.

But there will be growth in the parts sector, observers also predict, as Canada is well positioned with a skilled workforce and good research ongoing, to supply technology that will drive the sector.

Consider there are now more than 30 schools, businesses and centres doing automotive research across Canada and more than a dozen centres for research by automakers. That does not include the National Research Council doing work in advanced manufacturing research across Canada, also aiding the auto sector.

“There is a lot of focus right now on modernizing products. Everyone is excited about the advanced technology in vehicles,” said Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association.

“The jurisdictions that will win will be the ones that offer skilled employees, who can work in a field where technology will dominate vehicle production,” he added.

“There will be an overhaul of the entire production base and in 20 years, I will be surprised if Ontario is not (near) the top of that list.”

Parts makers and assembly plants all have modernization plans, and are focused on “continuous improvement,” he added.

But perhaps most importantly there will be demand for that innovation, said automotive analyst Dennis DesRosiers.


In the U.S. 97 per cent of people own cars, and in Canada 86 per cent. In Mexico, that number is only 20 per cent and Canadian industry will help supply the cars that more Mexicans will buy, he added.

“That could double to 40 million,” he said. “They may be buying a lot of vehicles. It is pretty positive and may mean strong growth for 20 years.”

There has also been a shift in recent years away from foreign-made nameplates. There are now 28 import nameplate plants in North America and the total of vehicles imported from overseas has dropped 15 per cent as a result.

The bottom line is, we are making more in North America than ever, and that will keep growing, said the analyst.

DesRosiers however also envisions a time when every manufacturer is reduced to one major assembly plant in Canada, meaning the Fiat-Chrysler Brampton plant may eventually close considering it makes large, muscle cars that are not the future of the industry.

“We might lose anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000 assembly jobs. But we may see growth in raw materials, tool and die, and stability and growth in the parts sector and significant growth in the retail sector,” said DesRosiers.

“Any jobs lost in vehicle assembly may be replaced two-or-three fold in other areas of the industry. The auto sector will survive nicely in Canada, even though assembly as sector skinnies up quite a bit.”

News last month that Ford is cutting an additional 450 jobs at its Oakville assembly plant, after eliminating 200 in the summer, and is ending production of two vehicles, the Flex and Lincoln MKX, appear to back him up.