TECH HUB NORTH.....?
By Patrick Marshall, B.M.E. (undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Australia), Vice President of Product Management, MacLean Engineering.
When I moved to Collingwood, Ontario in September 2018 I was excited. Both for the job I had signed up for at MacLean Engineering and to get back into the outdoor activities I love, like downhill mountain biking and skiing. I didn't think much of a substantial company like MacLean being located up in a little town like Collingwood, but as I got to know the area better I was surprised. Looking at the number of local companies serving the mining industry, you might be tempted to think South Georgian Bay is a major centre for mining technology in Canada: MacLean Engineering, Breaker Technology, MEDATech, Masaba Canada and other specialized manufacturers form a veritable mining technology hub, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest mine.
A BREATH OF FRESH AIR
I came to MacLean from Barrick Gold's head office in Toronto, where I was most recently in charge of autonomous and electrification projects. It was rewarding work: we were building out the initiatives required to design and implement a fully autonomous electric mine. 'Autonomous electric' is the highest aspiration of current and developing hard rock underground mines today. But after many years living in big cities- Brisbane and Toronto - my girlfriend and I wanted a change. I was presented with opportunities across Canada, in the US, in Sweden and back home in Australia. However, the MacLean offer was too good to pass up, in large part because it would land me in Collingwood. This is a place that has most of the urban amenities and all the outdoor activities that got me excited to move from Australia to Canada in the first place.
MINING HUB...IN COLLINGWOOD?
Collingwood has four manufacturers that build equipment for mines, yet the population is just over 21,000. The population of greater South Georgian Bay area barely crests 100,000. It makes you scratch your head. What's going on here?
I talked with Rob Rennie, P.Eng., President at MEDATech Engineering, who offered this explanation: "Smart people move here on purpose for the lifestyle. But if you're smart, moving somewhere shouldn't preclude you from working in your field. So people bring businesses with them, or start businesses, and good people flock to good jobs. It's a very slow-moving snowball:'
Rob says that MEDATech itself is a more quickly-moving snowball, much like MacLean, doubling in size last year and set to do so again this year. They conduct research & development work for some of North America's largest heavy equipment manufacturers. A big deal for them right now is AltDrive, an industry-leading electric propulsion solution for heavy equipment.
Predictably, there is quite a bit of cross-pollination between mining companies in the area. At Maclean, we use MEDATech's innovative electric vehicle (EV) powertrain for our battery electric hard rock mining fleet. This has enabled us to connect the battery cycle to the mining cycle in a bid to electrify entire fleets of vehicles at mines.
The more I learn about my new home, the more I realize that the area isn't just a mining hub; it's a tech hub in general. Martin Rydlo, Director of Marketing and Business Development for the Town of Collingwood, ticked off a few local companies as we talked: There's Agnora, fabricator of the largest architectural glass in North America (including all Apple stores). There's Jentii, whose network solution addresses all20 SysAdmin, Audit, Network and Security (SANS) vulnerabilities and mitigates any data breach in minutes. There's AdBank, a blockchain-based digital ad brokerage platform that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to combat fraud. There's Greenland Engineering & Technologies Group, a company that's spearheading a local water technology cluster. And the list goes on.
Greenland's story is interesting - they are focused on improving water management globally. Aside from traditional engineering services and many other things, they build software for flood forecasting I mapping (ISWMSTM) and water quality protection (CANWETM).
When I spoke with Mark Palmer, P.Eng., Greenland's President, he was more excited than usual about the area's growth. "We're building an innovation hub here, a kind of mini Communitech with Internet-of-Things health & wellness business priorities. One theme is 'smart' water technologies not surprising considering what Greenland does-but there's enough critical mass here technology-wise for a broader spectrum:'
Other water-sector companies include Isowater, Canada's only heavy water producer, and Sensor Technology, Canada's leading manufacturer of acoustic ceramic products, whose customers including the US Navy and NASA. All three companies export their products and solutions around the world.
''Collingwood has four manufacturers that build equipment for mines, yet the population is just over 21,000. The population of greater South Georgian Bay area barely crests 100,000. It makes you scratch your head. What's going on here? ''
STARVING FOR TALENT
There is a thriving start-up community as well as plenty of small, niche businesses in Collingwood. There are two large and many smaller co-working spaces around town where fledgling companies and entrepreneurs build their businesses. As they, MacLean, and many other firms demonstrate, there's lots of work here. It's varied and interesting. But the biggest problem that companies like mine are experiencing is staffing. There is an overwhelming demand for skilled trades, including engineers like me, but also programmers, welders, fitters and machinists. At MacLean the need is so acute that we have employees commuting from Toronto every day.
In speaking with Rydlo and business leaders in the area, I know that other companies are feeling the pinch as well. A group of them have joined forces with the Town of Collingwood and the South Georgian Bay Small Business Enterprise Centre to launch a campaign, TechHubNorth.ca, designed to address the problem by motivating engineers and tech workers to move here.
I find it surprising that more people aren't flocking to Collingwood. I have been here for less than a year, but I already love the place. There's so much to do. Which is precisely the catch when it comes to attracting new arrivals, according to Dan Hurley, P.Eng., President of consulting civil engineering firm Tatham Engineering. "Paddy, you love it here because you've bought into the outdoor lifestyle concept;' Dan told me. "Like you guys, we are always looking for new staff and the trick is to find qualified people who also love what the area has to offer. When that happens, they're here for the long term: ”Good thing that I'm into mountain biking! I can say for myself that I'm looking forward to continuing to learn and lead at McLean, getting to know more people and to explore more of what the area has to offer.”