On July 1, Canada celebrated its 147th birthday. The relatively young country faces some of the same problems the US does, namely taking a major hit to manufacturing hubs as a result of globalization. While there is no magical remedy for that situation, applying new technology, including 3D printing, can help the industry get back on course.
All the articles on 3D printing and manufacturing in Canada I've seen refer to Nigel Southway, a productivity consultant and the co-author of Cycle Time Management. He serves as the chair of the Toronto chapter of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, which launched Take Back Manufacturing two years ago. He also currently teaches a college course on supply chain management. I spoke with him at some length on the phone about his take on the problems and possible solutions for manufacturing in Canada.
Current state of manufacturing
Southway said that Ontario had been the manufacturing hub of Canada, serving a function rather like Chicago in the US. At the turn of the millennium, it had the "heart ripped out of it" due the offshore movement. As a result of the shift in manufacturing, the local industry became much less effective at manufacturing and failed to advance as far as innovation. And now that industry is also facing higher costs on Chinese imports.
Restoring manufacturing to Canada will take a serious shift in both thought and action. Practically speaking, Southway lists the "three legs of the stool" that have to come together to make it possible for manufacturing to make a comeback in Canada.
- Government needs to make it a priority.
- Training with hands-on experience needs to be incorporated into education. Formal apprentice systems like those found in Germany is something to be pursued.
- The manufacturing industry must pursue cutting-edge technology, which includes computerization and 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing.
If you can't beat 'em, join 'em
I asked Southway if he regards 3D printing as a truly positive force or just something that has to be taken on because others already have. He conceded that 3D printing is a "me too technology." He explained that it already has made great headway in Asia and in Europe, and Canada has to keep up technologically. "If you can't be in the lead, you need to be a very close second and apply it well." He sees it as "another tool-kit item," and if "the other guy has it," you need to have it and master its application as soon as possible.
3D printing as game changer
Nevertheless, Southway does see great potential for manufacturing in 3D printing. One way that it makes a real difference in manufacturing is in rapid prototyping, a way to get working models done much more quickly and cost effectively than has been possible in the past. But the real transformative effect Southway sees is in its application to metal and what it can do for the tool-making industry. That, rather than the consumer space which deals primarily with the printers that work with plastic, is where he believes it will make the most difference.
Improving manufacturing with 3D printing
Instead of seeing 3D printing as the direct means of production for the consumer, Southway sees its real value in its applications for manufacturing engineers who will "rule the game." The key is to improve on existing technology through the fine-tuned precision enabled by 3D printing. The technology allows machines designed to operate more efficiently in order to cut back on processing time and reduce cost in the final product.
To illustrate his point, Southway offered the example of a 3D-printed machine made for a bottle cap manufacturer. The process of forming caps necessitates some cooling time for the molded plastic. The machine used was improved with 3D printing that incorporated honeycomb openings to allow for faster cooling. By improving the thermal management, the production time was cut in half and the cost reduced by 25 points. Reduced cooling times is just one example of the ways in which innovative applications of 3D printed design can improve productivity and profitability.
Still much untapped potential
The way Southway puts it, "3D printing is about putting particles of material only where you want it and building it up to suit the shape of the design." That has tremendous potential for a whole range of products and industries, from prosthetics to architecture. But how do we get there, he asks. To achieve innovation, you have to build on science and technology, both of which form the core of manufacturing.