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The making of a PPE manufacturing powerhouse

In just 6 months, Waterloo has grown from a community with limited personal protective equipment manufacturing to 90+ operations. Here's how they did it.

It was clear from the start that COVID-19 was going to drive significant change. That’s what happens when the global economy is shut down.

One of the predicted changes was that supply chains would “reshore” to reduce risk in an increasingly uncertain global environment. The return of medical and personal protective equipment (PPE) manufacturing was widely expected to lead the way. It has.

We just didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. Six months ago, Waterloo had limited PPE manufacturing capacity. Today, our team can count about 90 local operations making everything from N95 respirators and ASTM-rated surgical masks to sanitary wipes and syringes.

While some of these are simply limited-time pivots to help in a crisis, many are permanent new fixtures on a substantial scale. In fact, in some categories – PRIMED’s acute care surgical masks come to mind – Waterloo-based companies are in a position to supply all of the Canadian market’s needs.

This incredible pivot for the Waterloo community is in line with our international brand: a place that gets things done. Often, that sentiment gets attributed to our world-class tech community, but you don’t become Canada’s largest robotics and automation cluster by resting on your laurels.

Here are the factors that have helped Waterloo adapt its manufacturing capacity so quickly:

An experienced automation and robotics community

Waterloo has more than 40 years of experience in automation (on top of about 150 years of experience in manufacturing).

ATS Automation, for example, began providing industry-leading automation solutions around the globe in 1978. Their experience has led them to help companies in chemicals, consumer products, energy and more, but most recently, in creating medical devices during the COVID-19 crisis.

Companies like ATS Automation and Eclipse Automation – another global company that has pivoted to produce world-class PPE supplies during COVID-19 – just scratch the surface of a community with an incredible depth of robotics and automation expertise and experience.

Companies located in Waterloo have the distinct advantage of having a local industrial community that can help make big pivots happen quickly.

Talent to help companies grow quickly

If you’re looking to scale production capacity you need to have the right talent. The Waterloo story is often focused on tech talent – and for good reason – but it’s important to note that about 17% of our labour force works in manufacturing.

It’s a highly-trained manufacturing workforce, too. Our university and college programs churn out graduates with the exact skillsets needed to help companies looking to grow and adapt in the new world of manufacturing and automation.

The University of Waterloo offers graduates in systems design, electrical, mechanical and mechatronics engineering. Conestoga College produces future leaders in applied manufacturing management and automated manufacturing.

Perhaps most importantly, Waterloo’s workforce is often heralded for its adaptability, ingenuity and entrepreneurship. For companies looking to pivot quickly – like InkSmith – these qualities are invaluable.

Research and technical support from leading post-secondary institutions

If you’re looking to incorporate robotics, automation or artificial intelligence to your manufacturing operations, it helps to have access to world-class experts. Waterloo has expertise to spare.

For example, the University of Waterloo is home to the Multi-Scale Additive Manufacturing Lab, which develops next generation additive manufacturing technologies, which has a large group of engineering and manufacturing researchers on hand.

Conestoga College is home to the SMART Centre, which focused on applied research in high-performance manufacturing and ICT-enabled intelligent manufacturing.

Want to learn more about Waterloo’s unique mix of tech and manufacturing?