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Engineers can play a role in lowering production costs, avoiding the trap of protectionism, says CEO's Matthews

May 17, 2018  

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IPP&T sat down with Bruce G. Matthews, P.Eng., Chief Executive Officer at Consulting Engineers of Ontario, for an exclusive interview on where he saw Canada’s economy headed, and how this will affect the process manufacturing sector.

IPP&T:  The pulp and paper producers, mines, metal and petroleum processors and food and beverage manufacturers are all facing unique challenges given the protectionist climate that currently exists south of the border.

From your experience on the engineering side, can planning engineers play a role in ensuring that these industries can remain competitive?

Matthews:  Protectionist actions are taken to defend domestic production industries that, for a myriad of reasons, appear unable to compete effectively with foreign-based supply. Quite often the foreign-based supply is either priced artificially low (i.e. “dumping”) or reflects a lower cost-of-production environment where the socio-economic systems, social safety nets, worker protection regulation, etc., that we have in Ontario do not exist.

I certainly would not support dismantling those things that make Ontario and Canada such a great place to live simply to lower the cost of our manufactured products. 

The answer, therefore, has to be in finding other ways of lowering the cost of production – and this is where engineers can play a significant role. Industrial engineers, process engineers and planning engineers all have a role to play to find innovative ways to address these issues.

The relationship between “cost” and “value” are not well understood and are often misunderstood as being directly correlated. Further, the timeframe under which “cost” and “value” are considered typically reflects only the phases of design and construction of a project; and attention to life cycle is critical. The cheapest plant to build, or the cheapest process to implement, doesn’t guarantee the lowest product cost going out the door for years to come. 

IPP&T:  Robotics and smart automated systems are the future of industry. 

Where do you see these technologies coming in to play on projects, and what can the industrial process sector to address properly prepare for this?

Matthews:  It would appear that there are no limits as to the potential for robotics and smart technology to play a role in the design and delivery of infrastructure projects, or other engineering projects for that matter.

While we often think of these technologies in the context of manufacturing, more and more we are seeing them applied on a grander scale and in the outside world. The first 13 years of my engineering career were applied in the area of human factors engineering – looking at the interface between people and the equipment, machines and systems that they interact with.

While most of my applications were in aerospace and defense systems, there are general considerations in human factors regarding the kinds of tasks should be performed by humans vs. automation. As technology has evolved, however, the “skill set” of automation has been greatly expanded and that comparative list has changed.

My advice to those in the industrial process sector, and to anyone being impacted by automation and smart technologies, is to cautiously embrace the change. There is great potential in these systems to increase productivity, enhance safety and improve quality. The trick is to select and employ these technologies wisely, using the right type of automation for the right application.

Proponents of automation and smart technology would have us believe it is a panacea for all that ails the worlds of manufacturing, industrial process and construction. Careful consideration must be given to the realities of those worlds so that the technology can still provide benefits in a worst-case scenario.

As an example, my car is equipped with a lane-keeping assist feature. There is an indication on my dashboard when the system is “active” and can “see” the markings denoting either side of the lane. It appears to work well 95-plus per cent of the time. The other day I was driving on the highway at night, in the rain, with a lot of spray in the air from the vehicles around me.

While I could (barely) make out the lane markings ahead of me, the lane-keeping assist feature could not. Had my car been equipped with any sort of autonomous driving capability that used the data from the lane-keeping system, it would not have been usable in that situation.

I encourage the industrial process sector to investigate the potential for these technologies to make the improvements I mentioned earlier. However, it will be necessary to play devil’s advocate and consider the realities of the environments in which these systems will be employed.

IPP&T:  Infrastructure is in desperate need of updating and expansion in this country. 

What can governments do to facilitate these projects, and can working with the private sector more closely help to do this?

Matthews:  Over the past couple of years, governments at every level have made announcements committing significant funding to infrastructure projects in Ontario over the coming decade. From transit to roads to facilities, there appears to have been recognition that infrastructure investment has been lacking in the past, and acknowledgment that infrastructure is the foundation on which future economic growth and social prosperity are built. That’s the most important thing that governments can do – recognize the need and keep funding.

But even with funding approved, these projects face risks that government can mitigate. First, politics has a way of interfering with the timely implementation of approved projects. A current example is the Scarborough subway extension in Toronto (previously planned as an LRT system). Uncertainty and change have resulted in delays and wasted resources.  Second, the relationship between “cost” and “value” are not well understood and are often misunderstood as being directly correlated. Further, the timeframe under which “cost” and “value” are considered typically reflects only the phases of design and construction of a project.

Governments need to understand that “lowest cost” does not equate to “best value” for taxpayers, and failing to consider the full life-cycle costs of a project (including the operating and maintenance costs) skews the value proposition of a project. A design that is the cheapest to build may not be the cheapest to operate and maintain. The challenge is that infrastructure projects have a very long life-cycle, and political decision makers tend to be focused on election cycles.

Working more closely with the private sector can alleviate these risks.  Anything that minimizes the impact of politics on infrastructure projects, and that supports objective, evidence-based decision making that reflects the true life-cycle of the infrastructure in question, is going to be a good thing. Our member firms stand ready to provide that kind of support and make a positive change when it comes to the planning, design and execution of infrastructure projects.