Helping SMEs plug into digital technology expertise at local colleges

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Georgian College

Introduction

About 100 km north of Toronto, Ontario the Centre for Applied Research and Innovation (CARI) at Georgian College provides small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in central Ontario with access to affordable resources to help them grow and prosper. Launched in 2010 and based in Barrie, the centre is a business and technology resource for SMEs in diverse industries across an 18,779-sq-km geographic area.

The area boasts a variety of enterprises in a range of industry sectors, but SMEs continually lose business to more competitive regions such as Toronto and Ottawa. As a result, many enterprises leave to pursue more lucrative opportunities elsewhere. The unemployment rate, which is consistently between 9.5 and 10.5 percent, is one of the highest in the province.

One way to facilitate SME prosperity within the area is to help them implement digital technology that improves their productivity and profitability. Others include providing access to state-of-the-art technology and laboratories, and giving advice on business processes, equipment purchases and technology adoption.

To help promote technology innovation at the 2013 Innovation Showcase, students prepared a collage that illustrates Georgian College's capabilities and services.

CARI is the only local facility equipped to provide such assistance to the area's SME sector. CARI manager Chris Berni explains that most SMEs traditionally come to the college for enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems in addition to computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) demonstrations, rapid prototyping and robotics. However, the business community's low awareness about the affordable technology and expertise available at the college is one of the biggest challenges facing CARI.

Through support provided by the Digital Technology Adoption Pilot Program (DTAPP) delivered by the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP), the centre has raised awareness considerably over 18 months. This has led to a need for the centre to increase its existing capabilities and add new services.

"While we had always provided demonstrations, we have added onsite business and operations assessments, as well as digital technology planning and implementation services," explains Berni. College support can include co-op students, faculty, technicians, and technical and training support to employees. In addition, the centre created a staff industry liaison position to conduct operations evaluations and support SMEs' technology needs. It will also be expanding its services to the colleges six other campuses.

"During our first eight months of working with DTAPP, the awareness we generated led to SME demand that initially exceeded the college's capacity, so we have now increased the quantity and reach of our services," says Berni. CARI responded to 31 SMEs seeking information, advice or demonstrations of digital technology. These businesses did not have the resources to hire outside service providers, so Georgian College stepped in with a mix of services and financial assistance to help them move forward.

The current DTAPP project, which builds on the success of those first months is targeting visits to 24 SMEs to identify opportunities for helping them increase productivity and profitability. The college expects these visits to lead to six assessments of business operations that include analyzing the potential impact of adopting digital technology and making recommendations. Four of these are projected to lead to a detailed technology adoption plan and subsequent implementation.

This project is already providing 25 percent more assistance to SMEs than anticipated. This includes support in information technology and manufacturing process productivity software, systems and procedures; 3D printing; computer-aided design; and cloud computing.

DTAPP: Facilitating Digital Technology Adoption

A Georgian College student assembles a 3D prototype following a DTAPP demonstration.

"While SMEs know they need help with technology adoption, most are unaware of the extent of the support that colleges offer," says Berni. DTAPP assistance has helped CARI show more members of the business community how colleges can play a significant role in supporting local SMEs. The joint DTAPP-CARI initiatives included conducting awareness sessions and hosting a seminar in partnership with organizations such as the Excellence in Manufacturing Consortium and the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters. Seminar topics included productivity improvement through digital technology, value stream mapping, CAD/CAM, robotics and ERP systems. These sessions generated considerable interest in CARI's technology, and led to requests from SMEs to use it to become more productive and competitive.

The DTAPP partnership also included SME site visits by NRC-IRAP Industrial Technology Advisors (ITAs) and college staff and students to help define opportunities for working with businesses on projects to help them succeed. In the first eight months of the partnership, the college visited 15 SMEs (50 percent more than planned). Of these, six visits evolved into formal needs assessments that quantified the firms' current capabilities and requirements for digital technology adoption. Four of these led to additional projects with companies such as RM Products of Orillia, EZ Hanging Color Rack of Thunder Bay and Busch Systems of Barrie.

RM Products: Access to specialized testing facilities and expertise facilitates global expansion

When RM Products (rmfiberglass.com) decided to expand into the military market, they realized they would need access to specific technology and expertise to test their modular fibreglass structures so they could be certified for military use. Until then, RM Products had been manufacturing the structures for the forestry, utilities and mining industries. According to RM Products owner, Randy Chotowetz, these were the only products of their kind in the world. With only 20 employees, RM Products did not have the resources to conduct the testing themselves. They also did not own the expensive digital technology for such testing, which is a long, risky process that could indefinitely delay getting the product to market.

Looking for options to solve this problem, they learned that Georgian College had exactly what they needed. The college provided student researchers with the right analytical and technical expertise as well as the specialized equipment to test the product for strength, durability, resistance to wind and snow, and other critical elements. With Georgian College's assistance, RM Products has been able to change their manufacturing processes, take the product to market more quickly and expand their operation to become a global player.

EZ Hanging Color Rack: Printable electronics and rapid prototyping speeds products to market

EZ Hanging Color Rack manufactures wall units for hanging hair-colour containers in salons. After six years of successful sales across North America, the company realized that to stay in business and grow, they needed to redesign and re-engineer the bulky units, originally made of steel. "The salons loved them, but we had to make it easier for distributors to warehouse our products and cheaper to ship or they would be disinclined to carry them," says co-owner Michael Muia. "We had to make the units lighter and smaller, and wanted them to be eco-friendly as well, so we moved to a collapsible plastic design."

EZ Hanging Color Rack found Georgian College's 3D printer to be an affordable solution for quickly generating prototypes of a new product.

But Muia and his partner Judy Tribe found that getting a prototype ready for testing was a frustrating and time-consuming process—until Thunder Bay-based ITA Paul Tulonen introduced them to Chris Berni, who steered them toward Georgian College's rapid prototyper, a 3D printer that generates prototypes quickly and seamlessly. "We had access not only to the printer, but also to all the college resources including an engineering student," he says. "This helped us get to market sooner; if we hadn't connected with the college, we'd still be spinning our wheels." Muia reports that having access to the college's 3D printer also saved them about $5,000 for a manufactured prototype.

The company is now poised to release the new product to distributors across Canada and the U.S. "We hope to sell 50,000 units this year—almost 300 percent more than the 14,000 we sold in our first six years." Encouraged by the possibilities, the partners are now developing a series of related products.

"We would not be where we are today if we did not have prototyping assistance from the college," concludes Muia. "The whole process is a huge advantage for any small business to utilize."

Busch Systems: ERP helps manage growth

A recycling-bin manufacturer for almost 30 years, Busch Systems had grown to the point at which their current manual processes simply weren't robust enough to handle their current and rapidly expanding enterprise resource needs.

We would still have been able to grow, but not nearly as quickly - Marty Pepper, Busch Systems

Busch Systems director of operations Marty Pepper found out about DTAPP and Georgian College's SME services at the first seminar organized by the college in partnership with DTAPP, the Excellence in Manufacturing Consortium and Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters. He subsequently invited ITA Mike Curry and CARI's industry liaison, Bob Kelly to conduct an assessment of their current system and suggest an ERP solution for the long term.

"The manual system was prone to considerable human error, so we spent lots of time correcting mistakes," says Pepper. "An ERP system will help us improve efficiencies on the administration side, so instead of hiring people to push paper, we can increase the number of salespeople as well as warehousing and manufacturing staff to get the products out." Once the automated processes are fully implemented and operational, Pepper anticipates more efficiency throughout the company, greater accuracy, faster estimating and prompter shipping. The ERP system will also help the company measure productivity and provide data to help with future decision-making.

Curry and college staff worked together as consultants to Busch Systems, with DTAPP providing some funding and technical expertise. The company augmented this with its own funds and employee time, but Pepper acknowledges that without support from DTAPP, it would have been much more difficult to move to an ERP system in a timely way. "We would still have been able to grow, but not nearly as quickly."

Pepper believes that 2014 will be the company's best year yet with digital technology speeding up their processes and ensuring greater accuracy. "We're expecting at least 10-percent sales growth next year, and related employee growth in sales, marketing, warehousing and manufacturing."

He also foresees continuing to use CARI's resources in the future for product R&D and prototyping of their injection-moulded products. This includes using co-op students to help custom-design processes.

Underlining the Benefits

One of the biggest benefits of working with DTAPP, according to Berni, is the personal service by ITAs such as Mike Curry. "He not only provided us with expert advice and guidance, but also connected us with funders, outside support and ITAs in surrounding regions," says Berni. "This generated referrals to new projects and clients who were not aware of what we do, and helped us almost double our work annually."

Other benefits:

  • The DTAPP projects have helped Georgian College raise awareness in the SME community about the availability and affordability of college resources—whether technology, students, faculty or advisory services.
  • SMEs that have connected with the college realize that it adds value to their digital technology adoption process by helping them with needs assessments, providing unbiased advice and offering ongoing support.
  • DTAPP involvement helped the college reach more companies, broaden its knowledge of business needs and modify its programs to train highly qualified graduates who can contribute more to local enterprises.

Berni reports that CARI has had a very positive impact on the companies it has assisted in their technology adoption, and through this process, has gained a new appreciation for just how much support SMEs need. Students and faculty also benefitted from the experience, and as a result have become more valuable assets to SMEs and the college.

DTAPP's expert advice and connections generated: Referrals to new projects and clients who were not aware of what we do and helped us almost double our work annually - Chris Berni, Georgian College

With their involvement in the DTAPP projects, students gained experience outside the classroom by conducting research, leading technology demonstrations, and providing design and consulting services. This also allowed them to showcase their talents and give clients an appreciation for the contributions they can make to a business. Some served in co-op terms; others were paid on a per-project basis.

The growth of CARI's role due to the DTAPP projects has also provided opportunities for faculty to expand their knowledge, experience and industry relevance. For example, they now fit SME site visits into their schedules, learn about emerging technologies, get involved in commercially valued research and innovation, and bring the latest information back to the classroom.

Berni adds that nurturing connections with the community is critical to raising awareness of CARI's capabilities, as well as gaining a better understanding of the needs of local businesses. Every program has an advisory committee comprising successful businesspeople and industry partners who guide the college on tailoring learning outcomes to industry needs. And the co-op program with 6,500 participating firms is an important aspect of that community connection.

"We are trying to change the culture of Canadian businesses to be more forward-thinking and open to investigating the adoption of new or existing technologies," says Berni. "Programs such as DTAPP have helped us move in that direction, because once businesses see we have such support, and become aware of our abilities, they readily come to us for assistance." The opportunities available for community colleges everywhere to provide digital technology impact across the country are extensive and the benefits to all involved are an important part of improving Canada's overall productivity.

About the Digital Technology Adoption Pilot Program (DTAPP)

As part of the Government of Canada's Digital Economy Strategy, NRC-IRAP is delivering the Digital Technology Adoption Pilot Program (DTAPP).

DTAPP represents a significant investment in the Canadian economy to increase the productivity growth of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Canada across all sectors through the adoption of digital technologies.

An important component of DTAPP is to assess and measure the outcomes of digital technology adoption on the productivity of SMEs. DTAPP will utilize this aggregate knowledge and transfer successful practices and lessons learned to the broader SME community in order to:

  • improve the rate of digital technology adoption by SMEs
  • improve understanding of the link between digital technologies and productivity
  • raise awareness of the benefits and importance of adopting these technologies

This information will be a critical tool to encourage prospective adopters of digital technologies and will continue to impact the potential productivity growth of the Canadian economy well into the future.