ARCHIVED - Evaluation of Central and Western Cluster Initiatives - NRC Aluminum Technology Centre

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Executive Summary

In 2001, NRC was allocated resources to target a number of emerging research and technology fields that were identified by local partners in consultations with NRC. Under the central and western technology cluster initiatives (CWI) six initiatives were funded, each with an identified technology focus. These included:

  • aluminum transformation in the Saguenay;
  • photonics fabrication in Ottawa;
  • biomedical in Winnipeg;
  • nutraceuticals and functional foods in Saskatoon;
  • nanotechnology in Edmonton; and
  • fuel cells in Vancouver.

In 2005, an evaluation of these Round II technology cluster initiatives was launched and this report presents the key findings, conclusions and recommendations related to the evaluation of the initiative in support of aluminum transformation in the Saguenay, namely the NRC Aluminum Technology Centre (NRC-ATC).

The primary reasons for conducting an evaluation of the initiative at this time are as follows:

  • to collect information on the progress of the initiative to date, including lessons learned and novel practices, as a means of supporting NRC's strategic direction in contributing to the socio-economic sustainability of Canada's communities, through technology clusters;
  • to provide an opportunity to communicate with initiative stakeholders in the communities; and
  • to provide information on NRC's performance to date, to be used to facilitate decision-making around funding renewal of the cluster initiatives, which expires at the end of a five year funding cycle (2006-2007).

NRC Senior Executive Committee approved the Terms of Reference for this evaluation in September 2005.

The evaluation covered the period 2002-2003 to 2005-2006 inclusive. It addressed issues related to relevance; early outcomes and impacts; design, delivery and cost-effectiveness; and lessons learned and novel practices. The federal government's Expenditure Review Committee questions were also taken into account in the development of the evaluation issues.

The key methodologies used to address the evaluation issues included a review of documents; a review of administrative and performance data; key informant interviews; and a cluster measurement study.

Aluminum Technology Centre Initiative Overview

NRC launched its aluminum technology initiative in 2002 as part of a second round of funding dedicated to technology clustering. Footnote 1 Lead delivery of the initiative is the responsibility of NRC Industrial Materials Institute (NRC-IMI). NRC Canada Institute for Scientific and Technical Information (NRC-CISTI) and NRC Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP), along with a number of regional partners, also play roles in the initiative.

NRC-ATC was created to undertake research that would support industry in the development of value-added products and services for the transformation of aluminum. Overall, the mission of NRC-ATC is to "Support the development and implementation of the second and third aluminum transformation industry in Canada." Its strategic objectives include the development of R&D knowledge to support the aluminum transformation industry in Canada; the establishment of a regional R&D investment plan to complete and strengthen the national infrastructure; and the promotion of partnerships and alliances between industries, R&D laboratories and universities.

A total of $27M in federal government resources was allocated to the aluminum cluster initiative in its 2001 Budget. In addition, Economic Development Canada supported the initiative with a one-time contribution of $25M to support construction and fit-up of NRC-ATC.

Based on the evaluation study conducted from October 2005 to June 2006, the following key evaluation findings and recommendations were identified.

General Conclusion

NRC's overarching rationale for launching technology cluster initiatives is to support the economic prosperity of communities. The evaluation found that the aluminum technologies initiative is a relevant initiative that fits with the socio-economic needs of the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean (SLSJ) region of Quebec, and is complimentary to ongoing activities designed to foster growth in a cluster context. The creation of an R&D facility dedicated to supporting the development of the region's and the aluminum industry's capabilities in secondary and tertiary transformation (i.e., the creation of value-added products), is viewed by both the region and the sector as being of preeminent importance. The solution to Canada's trade deficit is viewed as being found among the realm of scientific discovery and the transfer of those discoveries to firms that can capitalize and exploit them.

To date, the establishment of NRC-ATC has generally been executed according to plan, although staffing is slightly behind projections. The initiative has benefited by collaborations and shared resources, and is viewed as a full collaborator in putting in place research programs and activities that will enhance SME capabilities. NRC-IRAP and NRC-CISTI have contributed in ways appropriate to their mandates. In fact, novel agreements between NRC-IMI, NRC-IRAP and NRC-CISTI are facilitating the achievement of NRC's wider technology cluster strategy.

NRC-ATC was quick to identify research projects and place the necessary resources (people and equipment) in the region to get R&D going. Much of this activity has been linked to Alcan, through a major contribution by the firm to support projects related to transformation.

Where the major challenge lays is in identifying and linking firm needs to R&D and supporting commercialization of these outputs. This is a complex, mid- to long-term activity that will require commitment in order to see results.

The main findings of the report, and any associated recommendations, are outlined below.

Summary of Findings and Recommendations – Relevance

The evaluation found that the establishment of NRC-ATC in support of an aluminum technology cluster initiative was consistent with federal government and NRC priorities established in 2002 through the Innovation Strategy. The initiative continues to be aligned with federal priorities, and in particular, with NRC's new Strategy. The evaluation also found that there is a legitimate role for NRC in fostering the development of clusters, and in supporting the development of firms focused on secondary transformation in the Saguenay region.

From an industry perspective, the relevance of a centre such as NRC-ATC was identified through an industry-led technology road-mapping process which occurred in 2000. One of ten recommendations emerging from the Technology Roadmap was to "Create a Canadian aluminum research and development institute."

Summary of Findings and Recommendations – Early Outcomes and Impacts

Access to Research Facilities: The construction of NRC-ATC has increased access to specialized research facilities related to aluminum transformation in the region. The region now has access to specialized equipment in support of laser welding, aluminum forming, and semi-solid casting. These facilities and equipment are being used by stakeholders to respond to their technological needs. For instance, an electron microscope has been made available by NRC-ATC and data shows that it is being used by the private sector and the local university. The presence of NRC-ATC is also proving influential in drawing other R&D investments to the region. A decision by the Ministère du Développement économique, de l'innovation et de l'Exportation (MDERR) to invest in the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi's Centre universitaire de recherche sur l'aluminium (CURAL) was made as a direct result of NRC-ATC's presence in the region.

Attraction and Development of Highly Qualified Personnel: NRC-ATC's presence is contributing to the development of HQP in the region, both through the hiring of researchers, as well as through the training of students. As a result of the investment in NRC-ATC, there are now 27 researchers supporting research in aluminum transformation. Thus far, its researchers have supported the work of 32 students from universities across Quebec. It is now estimated that 300 researchers directly involved in aluminum research work in the region. It is also having an indirect impact on the evolution of education programs related to aluminum transformation. The region has also seen the introduction of at least four new training and education programs, at both the secondary and post-secondary levels, in support of improving the SLSJ's ability to produce value-added aluminum products.

Access to NRC Technology and Industry Support Resources NRC-IRAP activities are contributing to the extension of NRC-ATC R&D capabilities to firms and NRC-CISTI was cited by firms as being a valuable resource. Through an agreement with NRC-ATC, NRC-IRAP can 'purchase' time at generally agreed upon staff rates with NRC-ATC researchers on behalf of its clients. Further, NRC-IRAP and NRC-ATC now work jointly in support of various firms through both the provision of contributions and scientific expertise.

With respect to NRC-CISTI, firm access to the Institute has been facilitated by an agreement with NRC-IRAP as well as by a commitment by NRC-IMI to commit 4% of the NRC-ATC budget to support the establishment of an NRC Information Centre at NRC-ATC. Despite the value-added by NRC-CISTI, difficulty in hiring qualified staff to fill a vacant position has hampered service delivery.

Level of Research Activity: NRC-ATC's presence has served to introduce new technologies to the region. Through its focus on semi-solid casting, aluminum forming and laser welding, the Centre is introducing to the region novel, and what the industry considers to be leading edge, technologies. Examples include laser welding and friction stir welding technologies.

Its presence and research programming also is fuelling expansion of research activity by the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi. Its presence appears to have been a clinching factor in a decision by the Ministère du Développement économique, de l'Innovation et de l'Exportation (MDEIE) du Québec to provide approximately $3.4M in support of the construction of the University's new facility, the Centre universitaire de recherche sur l'aluminium.

Cluster Networking: NRC was a key instigator in a technology road-mapping process that represented the first major networking process on the path to concretely identifying the priorities of the aluminum sector, including the need for a research hub such as NRC-ATC. Since then, NRC-ATC has established itself as a key participant in cluster building activities through its involvement in various promotion and liaison activities. Although NRC-ATC plays a significant role, there is involvement by all key organizations in cluster building activities. NRC is a viewed as a critical contributor to a larger effort.

Industry Development: There is a strong network of activity in the SLSJ region focused on industry development. NRC-ATC is tied into this network through collaborative and cooperative agreements with industry associations, Alcan and the academic community. With respect to firm incubation, currently NRC-ATC has not established incubation facilities, however foresees that it could incubate firms in the future.

The issue of intellectual property (IP) management is an important one in terms of industry development. However, SMEs in the region stated that they did not want to see IP issues stand in the way of commercializing technologies.

The development of industry is dependent upon a series of critical success factors. The presence of NRC-ATC is but one component of a successful innovation system. Other elements, such as the presence of markets, risk-taking entrepreneurs, innovative ideas, etc., will be required.

Recommendation 1: Fast-track the planned undertaking of needs analysis within local industry in the SLSJ region to determine opportunities related to the technology platforms that are being put in place in NRC-ATC.

Management Response and Proposed Actions: Accepted. The Canadian Aluminium Transformation Technology Roadmap, of which NRC is a key stakeholder, will bring forward national and local industry needs. Through a number of workshops those firms are voicing their views on the sector priorities and their challenges to answer them.

An integrated approach with all stakeholders of the cluster in order to develop programs and services dedicated to the need of SMEs, in particular:

  1. NRC-ATC, NRC-IRAP and NRC-CISTI will introduce new joint activities to provide competitive technical intelligence and an information hub for industries mainly for SME's.
  2. NRC-ATC and NRC-IRAP will work together for the creation of new R&D programs dedicated to the needs of SMEs and in line with the objectives of cluster stakeholders such as CED, CQRDA, TRANSAL, APMA, REGAL and other Canadian universities.
  3. NRC-ATC and NRC-IRAP plan to effectively reach out for industries not only in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region but all across Canada.
  4. Using the same successful vehicle that has been used at IMI-Boucherville, multi-partners projects will be created to address common opportunities and issues of SME's.

Using the same successful vehicle that has been used at IMI-Boucherville, multi-partner projects will be created to address common opportunities and issues of SMEs.

Recommendation 2: Examine the management of IP with key collaborators to ensure access to new knowledge by members of the 'cluster' community.

Management Response and Proposed Actions: Accepted (with clarification). The approach used so far with our key collaborators has been to maximize the speed of commercialization, knowledge generation for NRC-ATC, access to facilities and transfer of expertise for the other users in the cluster or in Canada. The agreements signed by NRC-ATC will continue to maximize NRC's strategic objectives allowing knowledge transfer to other users of the cluster community to create wealth, jobs and benefits for Canada.

Other Early Outcomes or Impacts: The NRC-ATC facility has drawn attention to the region by virtue of its mandate, and its architecture. NRC-ATC facilities are viewed by community stakeholders as being representative of a coming-of-age for the region, and its presence has drawn the interest of political leaders, dignitaries and others who visit the area. The building has also been awarded two architectural prizes, including the Prix Energia from L'Association Québécoise pour la maîtrise de l'énergie (AQME) and the Ordre des architectes du Québec's Awards of Excellence in Architecture (Industrial Projects category).

Incremental Benefits: The addition of an R&D component to the emerging innovation system in the region is believed to have been imperative. Progress, most interviewees believed, would be hampered in the absence of an entity such as NRC-ATC.

Summary of Findings and Recommendations – Design, Delivery and Cost-Effectiveness

The implementation of the NRC-ATC initiative has unfolded according to established plans and budgets, although the hiring of planned staff is slightly behind schedule. Staffing delays can be attributed to challenges in attracting prospective researchers and other employees to the region, the NRC-ATC decision to hire based on incoming opportunities, and the decision to manage administrative and research management functions out of NRC-IMI in Bouchervillein the early years of the initiative.

The implementation of the aluminum NRC-ATC has benefited from effective management practices, including sound governance and administration. Implementation of the initiative by an existing Institute with experience in the implementation of projects of this size and scope facilitated a smooth process. The establishment of NRC-ATC has been facilitated through knowledge transfer by NRC-IMI staff, and via staff training and mentoring.

Effectiveness of Management Practices:

Governance: From the outset, the initiative has had in place governance or oversight mechanisms. A coordination committee with both NRC and Canada Economic Development – Quebec(CED-Q) representatives was established at the outset to ensure that annual plans for implementation were developed and reported against. Now activities are overseen b the NRC-IMI Advisory Board.

Performance Management: Very early on the coordination committee developed an accountability and reporting structure (Results-based Management and Accountability Framework) for NRC-ATC. It is believed that the early creation of the RMAF was a facilitator in generating a wide variety of information for the evaluation.

Administrative Practices: The overall implementation of NRC-ATC was facilitated by NRC-IMI staff, some of whom shared their 'day-jobs' at NRC-IMI with the set-up and administration of NRC-ATC in Chicoutimi.

Role of NRC Institutes, Programs and Branches: Having an institute such as NRC-IMI 'parent' the initiative facilitated its implementation due to the knowledge and technological capabilities brought to bear by NRC-IMI staff. The transfer of NRC-IMI staff and equipment to the region early in the initiative's implementation permitted the initiative to get off the ground prior to the construction of facilities.

There were no significant examples of linkages to other NRC Institutes.

Joint Initiatives: The aluminum technology cluster initiative is the result of an agreement between two federal agencies (NRC and Canada Economic Development), and the provision of resources (e.g., land and facilities) by the UQAC.

Program Complimentarity: There is a high degree of complimentarity between NRC-ATC initiative and other activities related to the development of the aluminum sector, both at a regional level and beyond. As an example, CED's Regional Strategic Initiatives (RSI) establishes as an objective supporting the enhancement of technological capacity of industries in the region that are closely aligned to the SLSJ region's strengths – notably in the area of secondary transformation of aluminum. Another example of close aligned includes one with the UQAC, where when planning for the CURAL's design, equipment purchases, and research program, there were discussions held to ensure no duplication of technology and research activity.

Level of Resources: The level of resources provided in support of the aluminum technology cluster initiative, in the range of $57M in total over five years, were sufficient to achieve planned outputs and early outcomes. The bigger challenge for the initiative, in terms of objective achievement, will be the ability to have an impact on SMEs given the current nature of firms with limited technological absorptive capacity.

Alternatives: Given the strength of conviction of the region and the larger aluminum sector in the need for an R&D Centre focused on aluminum technologies, stakeholders did not identify alternative means of delivery that would prove as responsive to the sector's needs.

Lessons Learned and Novel Practices: The final area examined by the evaluation was lessons learned and novel practices. The findings highlight key lessons learned that could be applied or adopted by the central and western technology cluster initiatives as well as other initiatives launched by NRC in support of technology clustering.

  • Use technology road-mapping as a means to identify strategic direction.
  • Support the implementation of new initiatives that are located in discrete facilities, away from host institutes, with experienced administrative and support staff.
  • Mentor new administrative and support staff.
  • Use reporting systems to track initiative performance independent of the Institute's activities.
  • Support regional R&D by placing HQP and equipment on-site with the SME.
  • Trust and collaboration pay dividends.
  • Technology forecasting is an effective method for building cohesion within a sector.

Footnotes

Footnote 1

NRC's first round of Technology Cluster funding was for the Atlantic Initiatives, a series of five initiatives launched in Atlantic Canada from 2000-01 to 2004-05.

Return to footnote 1 referrer

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