Smarter tools on the shop floor sharpen the bottom line for suppliers

Investments in advanced technologies are necessary to put Canadian auto suppliers in the pole position in the wake of plans by Stellantis and LG Energy Solution to build a $5-billion electric-vehicle battery plant in Windsor, Ont., industry experts say.

It’s an inflection point for the sector, said Todd Deaville, R&D director at Magna International Inc. The shift to electrification is overhauling not only products and components but also manufactur-ing processes as automakers and suppliers embrace digitization to cut costs, reduce cycle times, reduce bottlenecks and increase profits.

“The vehicle is becoming software-driven and the manufacturing is also becoming software-driven,” said Deaville.

Driving the electric revolution are Industry 4.0 technologies, the collective term for tech that enables a flexible, connected “smart” factory. These tools — including artificial intelligence and machine learning, data analytics, automation, cloud computing and digital simulation — provide real-time feedback on operations so decision-makers can increase efficiency.

For suppliers helping develop new products for EVs, Industry 4.0 presents “opportunities to not just tweak a process, but to implement a new, much better process,” said Brendan Sweeney, managing director of the Trillium Network for Advanced Manufacturing, a London, Ont.-based nonprofit that raises awareness of the province’s advanced manufacturing.


Adopting Industry 4.0 is “critical” to Canada’s EV competitiveness, John Laughlin, chief technology officer at Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen), said in an email to Automotive News Canada.

“As the technologies transition, volumes will reduce on the legacy technology as they increase for the new powertrains,” Laughlin said. “[This] will require more flexibility in the production system to remain profitable.”

Because EV powertrains are currently 19 per cent more expensive to manufacture than their internal-combustion counterparts, automakers and Tier 1 suppliers will seek agile and resilient supply chains that support environment, social and governance goals, Laughlin said.

Canada is a good sell, especially for its casting, forging and machining capabilities. But traditional powertrain suppliers must be equipped to handle the new challenges that EV production brings, or they risk being left behind, Laughlin said.

Technologies such as advanced machining and vision-inspection systems will be required to combat higher costs and lower production volumes, Laughlin said.


NGen, the industry group heading Ottawa’s manufacturing supercluster program, is spearheading some of this technology adoption through ongoing initiatives that include a $76-million investment in 15 R&D projects for zero-emission vehicles, announced May 3.

At Magna, Deaville is research lead on one such project with Rayleigh Solar Tech, a Dartmouth, N.S.-based startup and producer of thin-film solar panel rolls.

The companies are testing Rayleigh’s technology on Magna’s automotive polymer panels. If successful, it will allow the parts maker to integrate solar power directly onto injection-moulded parts, which can then be used to power auxiliary functions such as heating, cooling, security and battery support.

While the application of the thin-film technology is in its infancy, Deaville expects Industry 4.0 solutions such as process simulation will optimize production once they are ready to scale.

At Precision Resource Canada Ltd.’s plant in Cambridge, Ont., another NGenfunded EV project is under way to develop and produce metal components for on-road mobility platforms.

Although Industry 4.0 technologies and automation elevate project costs, they’re necessary to win contracts, said Chris Weiland, a market analyst at Precision Resource. The company, once a contract manufacturer for automotive and other industries, now works directly with Tier 1 suppliers and automakers. That has translated into adding process monitoring and AI-backed analysis to its production processes.

“Being able to run lights-out and automate inspection is no longer a ‘nice-tohave,’ ” said Weiland. “It is the only way to be competitive.”


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