It’s been a while in coming, but the National Research Council’s $62-million advanced manufacturing facility in Winnipeg is just about ready to open and the timing couldn’t be better.
The facility near the corner of Inkster Boulevard and Route 90 will focus on research in digital manufacturing and sustainable packaging both hot-button issues the pandemic and climate change have made difficult for industry to ignore. And while the facility will have a national mandate to be integrated with four other NRC manufacturing research centres in Ontario and Quebec, it has marching orders to be attuned to the needs of the Manitoba sector as well.
Originally announced in 2015, it took a little while to get rolling and COVID didn’t help, although Eric Baril, the NRC’s acting vice-president of transportation and manufacturing and the senior official in charge of the project, said the construction process was not hampered by the pandemic.
It has however, meant that the commissioning process including staffing up the facility has been more low key than otherwise would have been the case with uncertainty about travel for potential new hires.
While the building is to be "delivered" sometime in the coming weeks, Baril said it will likely take until next spring to have the entire 25-person research team in place.
The facility will add new capacity for the NRC in the field of digital manufacturing. With most new manufacturing equipment fitted with sensors to capture much more data, research will centre on using that data to create more value for manufacturers.
"Out of the data now produced by the manufacturing processes, research will key on how to reduce cost, reduce time, reduce energy consumption, be more efficient and maintain the competitiveness of the manufacturing industry by the integration of new technology in manufacturing companies," said Baril.
There will also be attention paid to what is referred to as additive manufacturing — the use of 3D printers using metallic, plastic and plastic-composite components.
Another part of the research agenda that has been added since the facility was first conceptualized is in sustainable food packaging in response to the zero plastic waste initiative in Canada.
The fact the Manitoba economy has probably featured more investment in the food processing sector than any others over the past few years — think Maple Leaf Foods, Roquette, Simplot, Merit Functional Foods — and that one of the largest food packaging material manufacturers in the country, Winpak, is based here, it is seen as an attractive and strategic inclusion to the centre’s mandate.
"We are working on new materials that integrate residue from the food manufacturing," said Baril. "For instance, one of the big by-products of plants like Roquette’s pea protein facility is starch. Starch can be used as a material for plastic. We will be working to see how we can reduce the utilization of petroleum-based plastic by blending in vegetable starch."
While there is plenty of serious acknowledgement of the potential such a facility will have one the local market, the NRC does not have a stellar track record in Manitoba. There is some residual skepticism about this project after the NRC’s previous Winnipeg facility, the Institute for Biodiagnostics, that was long considered underutilized. (That building — opened in 1985 and closed in 2012 — is still on the market to be sold but NRC staffers in the Medical Devices Research Centre remain on the premises and continue their research activities in support of the research centre.)
Ron Koslowsky, the head of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters Manitoba operations said, "We have positioned this as a great opportunity to tap into a resource for research and technical expertise by virtue of having a place in Winnipeg to connect to. But there is some ‘wait and see’ attitude from some local players as to whether or not this going to be the same as the last go-around or something better."
Last month, about 70 members of the CME were part of a virtual meeting with Baril and his NRC team about what was going to be happening in Winnipeg. A CME committee was set up more than a year ago to prime the pump for collaboration with the NRC. Research consortia are an economical way for companies to leverage NRC expertise. But Kozlowsky said it means Winnipeg companies will have to think bigger than themselves and be willing to team up with others to solve industry-wide challenges.
While the NRC is already engaged with some of the larger companies in the region there is a keen awareness that for it to be a success in Manitoba, small and medium-sized companies need to be able to take advantage of the opportunity.
"It is very easy for the NRC to connect with the big companies because they have research departments… and more money and resources to throw at a project," Koslowsky said. "But that said, we have been making the point that in Manitoba if you are not able to touch SMEs (small medium-sized enterprises) you will be another pink elephant (what the NRC’s Ellice Avenue building has sometimes been referred to as). They understand it, intellectually at least."
In the meantime, there is already some serious engagement from some large companies and real acknowledgement that the NRC’s presence in the city will be a valuable addition.
Winpak has been working with the NRC for few years now on turning starch into thermoplastic starch to make high-barrier packaging.
Olivier Muggli, the CEO of Winpak, said he’s just submitted a three year strategic plan to his board that includes the hope of making an investment in a brand new line to produce high-barrier thermoplastic starch-based material for packaging in Winnipeg.
"We are excited," Muggli said. "Among other things, this new centre in Winnipeg will have a very nice pilot line. Having something like that down the street and the ability to be working with the NRC brain trust… our people are already salivating at the idea of working with those guys."
Michael Mikulak, the new head of Food and Beverage Manitoba (formerly the Manitoba Food Processors Association), said consumers are becoming more aware of the problems with plastic. Now that there is legislation in the works in Ottawa on banning single use plastics, there is plenty of uncertainty in the industry.
"Food packaging does a lot. It’s not just about bringing the product to you," Mikulak said. "In a lot of cases it’s about moisture management or how it interacts with certain enzymes on the product. Having something like the NRC facility is hugely needed in order to do the kind of research needed.
"The last thing we want to see is a well intentioned single-use plastic ban leading to more food waste," he said.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.