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Edmonton region leads in manufacturing productivity

A strong and growing cluster

Did you know the Edmonton Metropolitan Region is home to one of Canada’s major manufacturing clusters?

In fact, over the last decade, and on a per capita basis, the region outperformed any other major city in Canada in manufacturing sales – a strong indicator of the sector’s productivity (Figure 1). And in absolute terms, Edmonton is the clear hub for manufacturing in western Canada.

Productivity is key in manufacturing, helping organizations to boost their ROI. This is why the region’s local manufacturing expertise would be useful both to international companies with expansion plans that include the need to have their products manufactured in North America, as well as North American companies exploring opportunities to onshore or partially onshore their manufacturing – a growing trend that we are seeing in the global market.

What makes the Edmonton region so attractive for manufacturing? Well, it all comes down to the five T’s.

Talent, skills & expertise

Post-secondary institutions like the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, one of Canada’s leading polytechnics, and the University of Alberta produce some of Canada’s most talented engineers, machinists, welders, technicians, operators and other manufacturing experts.

Technical Standards

Rigorous standard certification sure, combined with highly skilled staff and infrastructure mean that goods manufactured in the region meet the highest international standards for quality.

Technology

Whether it’s orbital welding, laser cladding, 3D-printing, nanofabrication, automation or rapid prototyping the region has technology experience to meet your requirements for advanced manufacturing.

There’s also plenty of resources available for those looking to drive innovation in their manufacturing operations. For example, InnoTech Alberta’s Alberta Manufacturing and Fabrication Innovation program supports the manufacturing sector through education, de-risking technologies and processes, by providing resources and expertise to support the technology adoption process. There are also private sector groups driving innovation in the sector. One example is Prototype Hubs  – they have developed an advanced manufacturing platform that automates the manufacturing process and connects those needing prototypes with those who can make them.

Transportation

The Edmonton region is strategically located on major trades routes including the Canamex highway system that links Canada to Mexico. The region is also home to one of North America’s closest major airport to Asia. The region is also linked both major Canadian railways providing convenient access to west coast ports and inland transportation hubs like Chicago.

Trade

Edmonton’s designation as a Foreign Trade Zone (FTZ) means investors are eligible for duty and tax relief. This means investors can establish a presence in the region, import components, complete manufacturing of products and then export those products to international markets as made-in-Canada products. The Edmonton region saw the strongest trade growth in Canada during the 10-year period from 2009-2019 at 10.8%, that’s double the national average. We expect a strong rebound in international trade post-pandemic.

Diversity

The region sold over $28 billion in manufactured goods in 2020 (figure 2) – and when we look at this chart it’s clear why the Edmonton region has a reputation as Canada’s petrochemical centre. These three areas (petroleum, chemicals and plastics) represent about two thirds of the region’s manufacturing sales in 2020. But what’s even more interesting to me are the region’s manufacturing capabilities in areas that are less well known. In 2020, the Edmonton region sold more than $200 million in twelve sub-categories of manufactured goods (see figure 2).

Machinery

Let’s take a look at the region’s expertise in the manufacture of machinery. In 2020 the Edmonton region led the country’s major cities for per capita sales ($1,550/capita) or $2.3 billion in sales in absolute terms- trailing only Toronto and Montreal (figure 3).

The region is home to more than 460 companies making everything from photography equipment (e.g. Lightrein) and chainsaw components (e.g. Goldtec International) to data centers (e.g. Silent-aire) and custom metal parts (e.g. Alco). From heavy construction equipment (CRS Cranesystems Inc) and pumps (e.g. Water Buoy Pumps Inc), to internet of things hardware (e.g. Titan Logix) and agricultural equipment (e.g. Hay Boss Feeders) – there’s a ton of innovation happening in this sector.

Computers and Electronics

Edmonton also has underappreciated capabilities in the manufacture of electronic components including computers, electronics and nanotechnology.

The Edmonton region includes 145 companies making everything from analytical instruments (Vanko Analytics) and printed circuit boards (Levven) to medical imaging equipment (MagnetTx) and data auditing equipment for the transportation and logistics industry (Data Audit Industries). Antennas (Power Antenna Manufacturing) and process control equipment (Dycor) to semiconductors (Micralyne) and novel propulsion technologies for the aerospace sector (Space Engine Systems).

In all, the region manufactured $259 million in electronics and computer equipment in 2020 across 21 subcategories of electronics (Figure 4). There is a whole other category called “electrical equipment and components”, not captured here, which resulted in an additional $205 million in sales from the region in 2020.

2020 – A challenging year

Like other jurisdictions across Canada, the Edmonton region suffered steep losses as a result of COVID-19 falling from $3 billion in January 2020 to a low of $ 1.7 billion in April 2020 before returning to $2.4 billion in January this year.

While some regions have experienced a lot of volatility, the recovery in the Edmonton region has been slow but steady, continuing to trend in the right direction – up.

Adaptability

Even before COVID-19, local manufacturers were adapting to changing markets – often using capabilities that were built up to serve traditional markets to diversify into other verticals. A few interesting examples include:

  1. Cougar Drilling leveraged their expertise in oil and gas drilling to build a product to serve the growing geothermal energy market.
  2. Karma manufacturing added the manufacture of medical devices for rehabilitative medicine to their product portfolio.
  3. G2V developed its first products for use in solar energy applications and later expanded into lighting solutions for the greenhouse sector.
  4. Appolo Machine and Welding built upon their deep experience in manufacturing to become leaders in advanced 3-D printing and laser cladding.
  5. Lea-der Coatings is best known for their drill floor traction matting but also produces an ER quality wound closure device called ZipStitch.

COVID accelerated diversification in the sector and inspired a number of local manufacturing leaders to assist in the response efforts in innovative ways. Here are just a few examples:

  1. Cowan Graphics Inc. pivoted from printing advertising and marketing materials to signage promoting social distancing; and then went further to manufacture face shields.
  2. Gear Halo went from making sports equipment to manufacturing masks for health-care workers.
  3. Orion plastics added personal protective equipment to its offering with the addition of N95 masks.
  4. Applied Quantum Materials pivoted its nanotechnology to build COVID testing kits.

Evolutionary theory holds that it’s not the strongest or even the most intelligent that survives – rather the most adaptable to change. If this holds true in a business sense, companies in the Edmonton region are demonstrating that they’re here to stay.

Not to be overlooked

We’ve been paying a lot of attention to the Edmonton region’s capabilities in areas like energy, agriculture and life sciences – the region’s manufacturing expertise isn’t always given the attention it deserves. But expertise in this sector is a major asset that shouldn’t be overlooked. Whether you’re considering expansion or re-shoring operations to North America, chances are good that the Edmonton region has the skills and infrastructure to deliver on your manufacturing requirements.

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