GM workers use human assistance automation to weld vehicle doors at the General Motors assembly plant during the COVID-19 pandemic in Oshawa, Ont., on Friday, March 19, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

GM workers use human assistance automation to weld vehicle doors at the General Motors assembly plant during the COVID-19 pandemic in Oshawa, Ont., on Friday, March 19, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Manufacturers hopeful COVID-19 will force a rethink of Canada’s supply chains

Manufacturers scrambled to fill cracks in the supply chain exposed by COVID-19

Penny Wise became president of 3M Canada on Feb. 18, 2020, just as the COVID-19 virus was beginning to take hold in Canada. 3M had tackled health crises before, but like most Canadians, Wise had no idea how much the world was about to change.

Wise plunged into a logistics crash course as, the pandemic gained momentum and demand surged for 3M’s Canadian-made cleaning products while the parent company began a global push to make two billion N95 respirators, tripling production in a single year.

Leading 3M Canada through the pandemic has taught Wise that the country needs to rethink supply-chain self-sufficiency for products such as personal protective equipment. Manufacturers such as 3M are hoping that the past year has convinced Canadian policy-makers, taxpayers and buyers to support local assembly lines after the pandemic exposed critical weakness in Canada’s supply chains.

“I think there’s a broader discussion to be had for manufacturers and businesses in Canada in general,” says Wise, who is working on a new 3M plant in Brockville, Ont., to make N95 masks as Canadians rethink the trade-off between the variety and affordability of goods made overseas, and the importance of domestic manufacturing.

“One of the things I think that we need to change and look at from a Canadian point of view, is this idea of our industrial strategy. Canada is very much recognized as an international trading partner, and we are very engaged in that …but what do we need in order to be self-sufficient as we move forward, so that we can protect our population during a crisis?”

Other manufacturers also scrambled to fill cracks in the supply chain exposed by COVID-19. At General Motors’ plant in Oshawa, Ont., COVID-19 was yet another upheaval for a workforce still reeling from the plant’s closure in late 2019 and subsequent reopening as a parts plant in the first quarter of 2020.

Ian Soutter, who helped set up GM’s mask-making operation in Canada, said his spouse, a pharmacist, struggled to get a steady supply of protective equipment in the early days of lockdown.

“A year ago I was in a very different role. I was a plant guy and pivoting to electric vehicles,” says Soutter. “There is not much about welding, painting or shooting screws into a truck that looks like this.”

But GM found that much of the machinery and logic behind making a mask was the same as an auto part, and was able to produce about 10 million masks, at about one million per month. GM has a long history remaking its supply chain after events like the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, but COVID-19 presented new challenges, Soutter says. For instance, the raw materials to make masks were in extremely short supply, so GM reached out to its sources of acoustic insulation and asked them to pivot, too.

The pandemic also meant making hard choices for smaller manufacturers who saw their orders dry up last spring.

“I don’t even want to say the number of hours per week (we’ve been working),” says Jamie Bakos of Titan Clean Energy Projects Corp. “It’s not sustainable, but it is very busy.”

Saskatchewan-based Titan repurposes materials headed for the landfill into products like soil enhancer or charcoal kitty litter. The company also makes biodegradable melt-blown fabric for use in PPE and air filters to help reduce the environmental burden of disposable PPE.

Molded Precision Components in Oro-Medonte, Ont., says it had about two months of cash on hand when orders for its automotive parts dropped to near-zero last March. The advanced manufacturing company sought grants to make protective equipment, moving 3D printers into engineers’ homes and machinery into local fire halls and hockey arenas. On top of making face shields, the company devised a hand-sanitizer bottling system that was more efficient than purchasing the sanitizer ingredients from overseas.

While some of the auto business has now come back, the family business plans to stay in the medical supply industry and build a medical industrial park for other local suppliers.

Owner David Yeaman says Canadian companies can’t just expect buyers to pay a made-in-Canada premium forever, or they risk the PPE supply chain slowly migrating back to cheaper goods made overseas. Instead, Yeaman says advanced manufacturing technology is needed to make a premium product that is competitive with outside bidders.

“We’ve got to think differently as Canadians,” says Yeaman.

But entrepreneurs like Yeaman now face an uphill battle getting hospitals and other PPE purchasers to commit to contracts going forward, says Next Generation Manufacturing Canada, which gave Yeaman’s company a grant. Many corporate PPE buyers have rigid requirements, like certifications that are done in U.S. labs which have been closed during the pandemic, says NGen chief executive Jayson Myers.

Myers is hoping that COVID-19 prompts buyers of PPE to rethink their mandates to buy specific overseas products and test new Canadian-made alternatives.

“We’ve already seen a number of companies that are laying off their employees and shutting down the production of PPE that they’ve set up, simply because…they can’t get them on the market. In fact, some of them found better markets outside of Canada,” says Myers.

“Some of these problems existed way before COVID. But the fact that we have these structural problems has become very apparent — the major one is around the procurement system itself.”

Just Posted

Nootka Sound RCMP and DFO Conservation and Protection Officers seized this 30 foot vessel, fishing gear and equipment as well as Chinook salmon, salmon roe, rock fish and ling cod after an investigation on Sept. 11. A judge in Campbell River on February hit the owner and his accomplices with significant fines, a ban on holding fishing licences and loss of equpment, including the boat’s motor and trolling motor. RCMP photo
Washington State trio’s fisheries violations the worst veteran officer has seen in 20 years

Judge bans three men from fishing or holding a fishing licence anywhere in Canada

A 41-person air task force, including 12 members from 407 Long Range Patrol Squadron at 19 Wing Comox, seized more than $3 million CND worth of cocaine as part of Op Caribbe. Photo by Canadian Armed Forces Operations/Facebook
Vancouver Island team helps make $368 million three-tonne cocaine seizure

12 members from 407 Long Range Patrol Squadron involved in Op Caribbe

Wild Wise Sooke is urging the public to be bear aware. (Photo by Brian Rundle)
Wild Wise Sooke reminds public to be aware of bears

Residents asked to be mindful of their garbage habits, not to draw in wildlife

Restaurant owners Oura and Kymon Giakoumakis visit the PQB News/VI Free Daily studio. (Peter McCully photo)
PODCAST: COVID-19 pandemic hits Vancouver Island’s food service industry hard

Parksville Qualicum Beach restaurant owners share thoughts and advice

April 11 to 17 is Emergency Management BC’s Tsunami Preparedness Week. (Black Press Media file photo)
Tsunami preparation in the forefront across Greater Victoria

Tsunami Preparedness Week runs April 11 to 17

Burnaby MLA Raj Chouhan presides as Speaker of the B.C. legislature, which opened it spring session April 12 with a speech from the throne. THE CANADIAN PRESS
B.C. NDP promises more health care spending, business support in 2021 budget

John Horgan government to ‘carefully return to balanced budgets’

A lady wears a sticker given out after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS
B.C.’s COVID-19 case count slows after last week’s peak

3,219 new cases since Friday, 18 additional deaths

North Cowichan councillor Tek Manhas did not violate the municipality’s code of conduct by posting a sexist meme on Facebook, council concludes. (File photo)
B.C. municipality to take no action against councillor who posted sexist meme

Tek Manhas’s meme doesn’t violate North Cowichan council’s code of conduct, municipality concludes

A few dozen students and parents gathered outside Lansdowne Middle School South Campus Monday morning to protest proposed budget cuts to SD61 music programs. From left to right: Lyra Gaudin, Cleo Bateman, Abby Farish, Brigitte Peters, Enid Gaudin, Des Farish. (Jane Skrypnek/News Staff)
South Island students protest proposed cuts to school music programs

Proposed $1.5-million cut would hit elementary and middle school programs

Killer whales surface near Sebastion Beach in Lantzville on Sunday, April 11. (Photos courtesy Ella Smiley)
Chainsaw and friends near the beach thrill orca watchers in Lantzville

Jagged-finned orca named Chainsaw and 17 others spent hours off Sebastion Beach this weekend

A sign on a shop window indicates the store is closed in Ottawa, Monday March 23, 2020. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business is raising its estimate for the number of businesses that are considering the possibility of closing permanently. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Small business struggling amid COVID-19 pandemic looks for aid in Liberals’ budget

President Dan Kelly said it is crucial to maintain programs to help businesses to the other side of the pandemic

—Image: contributed
Indoor wine tastings still allowed in B.C., not considered a ‘social gathering’

“Tasting is really just part of the retail experience. The analogy I use is you wouldn’t buy a pair of pants without trying them on.”

The National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians says that includes attempts to steal Canadian research on COVID-19 and vaccines, and sow misinformation. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)
Intelligence committee warns China, Russia targeting Canadian COVID-19 research

Committee also found that the terrorist threat to Canada has shifted since its last such assessment

Part of the massive mess left behind in a Spallumcheen rental home owned by Wes Burden, whose tenants bolted from the property in the middle of the night. Burden is now facing a hefty cleaning and repair bill as a result. (Photo submitted)
Tenants disappear in the night leaving Okanagan home trashed with junk, feces

Spallumcheen rental rooms filled with junk, human and animal feces; landlord scared to rent again

Most Read