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Alberta Manufacturers Looking Within for Competitiveness

David McLean

Alberta manufacturers see the landscape changing. The pandemic and collapsed energy prices have sparked a renewed interest in squeezing every dollar out of their operations for efficiency and productivity. Even before a global pandemic was a thing, Alberta manufacturers were feeling the impacts of the lockdown in Wuhan, China and a little later, Italy. Once solid supply chains suddenly wobbled. This was on top of the Trump administration’s steel and aluminum tariffs, the retaliatory measures enacted by our own government and the massive disruption caused by rail blockades across Canada.

Supply chains are more complex than ever and infused with new technologies like automation, digitization, machine learning and advanced enterprise resource planning software platforms. Logistics specialists are increasingly important and prominent in the Alberta manufacturing scene – professionals who understand how to optimize procurement and transportation, synchronized with in-house production to provide customers with efficient solutions.

A few weeks back Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters announced the creation of an Alberta Supply Chain Leaders’ Council, in partnership with Supply Chain Canada, Alberta Institute. This council will put supply chain and logistics leaders together to share information and best practices, tour each other’s operations, and tackle problems in a confidential, safe environment.

To launch the council, CME held a virtual information session to showcase the group facilitators and walk through the value shared, experiential learning can bring to a company or a supply chain professional individually. With more than 50 companies registered to attend the event, it’s safe to say the response illustrates Alberta manufacturers’ commitment to the topic.

A short while later CME launched a Manufacturers’ Operations Council (MOC) and, once again, the interest demonstrated commitment. MOC’s offers confidential peer-to-peer sharing opportunities for senior manufacturing operations professionals. Council members collectively hash out problems ranging from human resources challenges and technology hiccups to achieving leadership buy-in or dealing with a difficult CEO.

CME has been running peer councils and consortia for years, but Alberta has always been a bit of an outlier in that the boom and bust nature of our economy meant other priorities prevailed compared to peers in other provinces. Perhaps years of intense growth with billions poured into our energy sector over 30 years shielded Alberta companies from the realities faced elsewhere. The focus was on growth, business development and delivering orders. At times, Alberta manufacturers have been price setters. This is no longer the case.

We’re seeing an uptick in interest in continuous improvement training as well. Perhaps anticipating a “new normal” of tougher competition and slimmer margins, Alberta manufacturers are looking at lean manufacturing to optimize their processes. Across the prairie provinces, manufacturers are training their key staff with CME Lean Yellow Belts and Green Belts.

Maybe we’re seeing a shift. Recognizing the game has changed, Alberta manufacturers – including energy and petrochemicals operations – may be increasingly looking inward to find ways to compete and win. This can’t be anything but a good thing. Our manufacturers are among the most advanced in the world. Our technical and engineering strengths are well-documented. Layer on top of that world class operational performance, and Alberta makers could be even more formidable.

Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME) is the voice of Canadian manufacturing. CME represents more than 2,500 companies who account for an estimated 82 per cent of manufacturing output and 90 per cent of Canada’s exports.