The decline in Canadian manufacturing demonstrates a depressing reality of our position in a competitive global environment. It’s not a unique story by any means, indeed it’s a pattern repeated by every major developed country. But the inevitable migration to a service based economy just feels distinctly unCanadian.
It’s not all bad, manufacturing still accounts for sizable portion of Canada’s GDP and exports, but it’s with one eye on the future that one could be forgiven for seeing little end in sight for this downward trend. Fewer and fewer firms are making the investments necessary to get ahead of the competition.
So what is the future for Canadian manufacturing? The answer is a word that lies tucked away unashamedly in the brand propositions of most of these R&D-budget-slashing manufacturing companies, cliché’s own: Innovation.
Like it or not, innovation is what will keep Canadian manufacturing relevant on the increasingly competitive global stage. Product innovation; adapting products to new markets; or through process innovation. Ideally of course, innovation could embody all of these in the way Alberta’s Solex Thermal Sciences has led change in the bulk solid processing industry. It will be through leading developments in manufacturing that will keep Canada relevant on the industry’s world stage.
The answer doesn’t lie in simply pressuring industry to reinvest in research & development, we need to foster an innovation culture. The infrastructural challenges that face Canada will always limit the extent with which we can compete with lower-cost developing nations, but being the front line of innovation will keep Canadian manufacturing at the forefront for years to come.
Pharmaceuticals and aerospace have been two of the stronger verticals that have underpinned manufacturing’s contribution to Canada’s GDP. But in a modern landscape of tit-for-tat tarifs and developing economies hungry to undercut established manufacturing bases it can’t be depended on to carry the torch.
So what now? Culture shifts of this magnitude have to start at the grassroots. Perhaps it’s time to call out to those industries to take those former R&D budgets and invest in the universities that shape the minds that make up their workforce. Fortunately a resurgence in STEM education shows positive signs and a generation of innovators will shortly be entering the workforce.