After decades of offshoring manufacturing to save on labour, the vulnerabilities of relying on overseas production have become increasingly clear. Along with a rise in cyberattacks and ongoing trade wars, Canadian manufacturers have also seen how even slight disruptions can have an outsized impact on just-in-time production. 

As jurisdictions raced to secure limited supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), an ugly nationalism set in — by April 2020, 69 countries had banned or restricted the export of many types of medical supplies. “We’ve learned the hard lesson that relying on global supply chains for critical products is a problem,” says Jeremy Hedges, president of Waterloo-based medical supply manufacturer the Canadian Shield.

The massive shortage of PPE caused by delays on overseas orders prompted Hedges to found the company to produce face shields and medical masks locally. Within three short months, the company grew from 10 to 150 employees. 

The pandemic highlighted how high the stakes are in relying on far-flung manufacturers for vital products. Bringing manufacturing back to Canada, referred to as nearshoring or reshoring, also creates a more predictable flow of in-demand goods with more resilient supply chains. But it has several advantages that will outlast the pandemic: local jobs, shorter delivery times, reliable quality and a smaller carbon footprint.

Ontario is Canada’s traditional centre of manufacturing, but the sector has been greatly affected by global trends, shedding some 250,000 jobs since the 2008 recession. But advanced manufacturing, which uses innovative technology to make complex products like medical devices and airplane parts, has been driving a new trend in Ontario. Since 2010, it’s accounted for more than half of the 45,000 jobs created in the sector, according to an analysis by the Innovation Economy Council. This, in conjunction with the shock that supply chains experienced during the pandemic, has the potential to bring back a wave of manufacturing to the province. 

Chris Labelle, co-founder of 3D printer maker Mosaic Manufacturing, has been championing reshoring for the last seven years, based on what he’s seeing in the market. “Companies were experiencing really long lead times: you send an order out to China, they have to make the part, they have to package the part, they have to ship it to you,” says Labelle, who is also COO of the Toronto firm. “There’s just so much waste and so much inefficiency in that process.”

Customizable apparel is the perfect example of where 3D printing makes sense, says Labelle. Taking a small order of little league jerseys as an example, they could be printed locally with a 3D printer in one to two days compared to sending it overseas which could take six to eight weeks.

And as 3D printers are often used for prototyping, it also makes it much easier for manufacturers to tweak products or build new ones. That’s just one example of how local manufacturing can drive innovation, another key benefit of reshoring, says McMaster University professor of engineering Stephen Veldhuis. 

While necessity motivated the Canadian Shield into the PPE business, it’s exactly this kind of innovation that helped the company deliver on its promise to produce locally made face shields and medical masks. They started making face shields with 3D printers, but that was too slow. The company has invested in an automatic travelling head-cutting press, massively scaling production. 

Now the company focuses on making medical masks and also making this scale of production more accessible. The company developed its own automation line to avoid the waste that imprecise manufacturing tools created. And now, the Canadian Shield is selling its automation system to others. “There’s no way to compete with countries like China if you don’t have industry-leading automation, so that’s what we’ve built,” says Hedges.

Mosaic is also using automation to enable larger-scale production. While its key product is a 3D printer that allows for multi-material printing, Labelle and his team have been working to eliminate key problems their clients face. A new product Mosaic just launched, called Array, can enable hundreds of prints without anyone having to touch the machine. With Array, Labelle says a manufacturer can run up to the equivalent of 1,000 printers with a team of four or five, which would previously require a team of 50 to 60. 

While that means fewer operators, scaling up production spurs the creation of other jobs, says Labelle, including those in assembly, marketing or machine maintenance. And the need for this among local manufacturers has become even more obvious to Labelle in the few weeks since they introduced Array — demand has already poured in from aerospace, automotive and apparel manufacturers. 

As for the Canadian Shield, the company is developing a plan to evolve beyond medical equipment, given that supply will eventually drop off. But Hedges hopes the lessons from the pandemic won’t be lost on policy-makers on how reshoring can boost the Canadian economy. “I hope that this is the catalyst for the recovery effort to reimagine what the economy looks like and bring back a variety of manufacturing,” he says.

Source: Toronto Star