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.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

From left to right: Vicki Barta, Bruce Ormond, Greg Heide, Gord McInnis, and Charles Harman rehearse via zoom for the upcoming radio play, “Visitor from Planet Zoltan”. (Submitted photo)
Radio plays prove successful for Ladysmith Little Theatre, four more in production

Ladysmith Little Theatre pivoted to producing radio plays during the pandemic

Two men were seen removing red dresses alongside the Island Highway in Oyster Bay. (Submitted photo)
Two men filmed removing red dresses from trees in Oyster Bay

Activists hung the dresses to raise awareness for Vancouver Island Murdered/Missing Women & Girls

Ladysmith’s Taylor Walters received the Terry Fox Humanitarian Award and is hard at work pursuing her Bachelor’s Degree in Human-Computer Interaction at Quest University. (Submitted photo)
Ladysmith teen receives Terry Fox Humanitarian Award for advocating equal access to STEM opportunities

‘Different people think differently and that’s so important for innovation,’ Taylor Walters says

A vehicle is totalled after a driver crashed into the side of a tow truck outside Central Island Towing. (Cole Schisler photo)
Car totalled after colliding with the back of a tow truck in Ladysmith

Nobody was injured, but repairs on the tow truck are expected to cost thousands of dollars

Photo collage of loved ones lost to substance use and overdose. (Photo courtesy Moms Stop The Harm)
B.C. overdose deaths still rising 5 years after public health emergency declared

Moms Stop the Harm calls on B.C. to provide safe supply in response to deadly illicit drug use

Demonstrators at the legislature on April 14 called on the province to decriminalize drug possession and provide widespread access to regulated safe supply across B.C. (Jake Romphf/News Staff)
Rally calls for decriminalization, safe supply on 5th anniversary of overdose emergency declaration

From 2016 to the end of February, 7,072 British Columbians died due to overdose

Nanaimo Regional General Hospital. (News Bulletin file photo)
Nanaimo hospital experiencing another COVID-19 outbreak

Three patients tested positive for the virus in NRGH’s high-intensity rehab unit

(Government of Canada)
Liberal MP caught stark naked during House of Commons video conference

William Amos, in Quebec, appeared on the screens of his fellow members of Parliament completely naked

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature, Feb. 1, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 case count jumps to 1,168 Wednesday, nearly 400 in hospital

Now 120 coronavirus patients in intensive care, six more deaths

Moss covered branches are seen in the Avatar Old Growth Forest near Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island, B.C. Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. blockades aimed at protecting old-growth forests reveal First Nation split

Two Pacheedaht chiefs say they’re ‘concerned about the increasing polarization over forestry activities’ in the territory

Richmond RCMP Chief Superintendent Will Ng said, in March, the force received a stand-out number of seven reports of incidents that appeared to have “racial undertones.” (Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
‘Racially motivated’ incidents on the rise in B.C’s 4th largest city: police

Three incidents in Richmond are currently being invested as hate crimes, says RCMP Chief Superintendent Will Ng

Commercial trucks head south towards the Pacific Highway border crossing Wednesday (April 14, 2021). The union representing Canadian border officers wants its members to be included on the frontline priority list for the COVID-19 vaccine. (Aaron Hinks photo)
CBSA officers’ union calls for vaccine priority in B.C.

Border officers at ports including, YVR and land crossings should ‘not be left behind’

(Amandalina Letterio - Capital News)
Kelowna demonstrators show support for Vancouver Island logging activists

Two Kelowna men stood atop a pedestrian bridge on Harvey Avenue to raise awareness about old-growth forests

Most Read