As the COVID-19 pandemic forces Canadian automakers and suppliers to key on employee safety, automation will become critical to the longterm survival of those businesses, say experts.
“They absolutely have no choice but to escalate their investment in technologies,” said Shelley Fellows, chair of Automate Canada, an industry association. Increasingly, technology will become the eyes, ears and hands of the modern factory as sensors, data analytics and other types of remote monitoring track deliveries and performance, and collaborative robots work alongside employees on tasks that require physical distancing, said Fellows.
“The world where you had people who were able to walk through the plant floor and hear the difference, hear a problem starting to happen before it actually happens, is no longer.”
It’s already happening, Fellows said, citing results of a May 12 survey Automate Canada conducted along with the Canadian Association of Mold Makers, that found 18 of 44 respondents — 41 per cent — named adoption of new technologies as one of the top five positive outcomes of COVID-19.
“That’s almost half,” Fellows said, noting all the respondents are either in the mold-making or factory-automation business with customers in a variety of industries from automotive to food.
She said new technologies could be anything from accounting software, time tracking platforms to more robotics on the plant floor.
But it remains to be seen just how many businesses in the industry can afford to invest in automation as they face higher reopening costs to implement new health and safety protocols after months of lost sales during the COVID-19 shutdown.
Companies that were in business in 2019 might not be operating in 2021, said Brendan Sweeney, managing director of the Trillium Network for Advanced Manufacturing.
“We don’t know what the other side of this pandemic will look like,” he said. If there’s a shakeout, the winners are likely to be the ones that “are the most productive, the most efficient, the most highly automated.”
Companies are going to need help with the cost of new technology, he said. “If this is something we really want to do, some kind of government incentive program would be really important.”
Automation was deeply rooted throughout Canada’s auto industry before the pandemic, a factor that will facilitate the sector’s recovery, said Linda Hasenfratz, CEO at Linamar Corp., a global parts supplier based in Guelph, Ont.
“It is a fact that we are so highly automated in our facilities today compared to 10 years ago that we’ve been able to come back to work safely,” she said.
“People are already well separated because we had already implemented the automation, and I think that’s true for a lot of companies.”
Factory automation can help address challenges ranging from skills shortages to productivity, said Diane Reko, CEO of Reko International Group Inc., a factory-automation specialist based in Windsor, Ont.
“The best applications of technology are where it’s dangerous for humans. Whether it’s COVID or chemicals, or where you can’t find people to do it. That’s a good application for automation. Or just something that’s so monotonous people can’t do it consistently because you can’t focus long enough to do a good job of it.”
But few businesses have been willing to commit to new capital investments in automation during the pandemic, Reko said.
“Before it was, ‘We don’t have time for this, we have to figure out how to reopen.’ Now, it’s, ‘OK we’ve reopened. Let’s talk about other alternatives.’ My impression is they will be somewhat limited in their capital expenditures given the economy in general.”
The pandemic, by itself, won’t drive more automation, said Pat D’Eramo, CEO of global auto parts supplier Martinrea International Inc., in Vaughan.
“The only thing that’s going to drive more automation is cost. Someone might say because of these types of things, we might want to do more of it. But I guarantee you that if the cost model doesn’t match, it’s not going to be done. It has to make sense financially.”
Kristin Dziczek, vice-president industry, labour and economics at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., said the pace of automation will quicken as production resumes.
“This is happening anyway and has been happening for decades,” Dziczek said in a recent webinar. “But I think we’ll see an acceleration of automation as we restore work here. Automakers and suppliers have been struggling to find workers anyway. In a post pandemic world, robots don’t get sick. Robots can work in close proximity to each other and continue production.”
With files from John Irwin