Strength in numbers: Collaboration is critical for aerospace growth

Global aerospace is on the brink of great innovation, and Ontario is determined to emerge as a sector leader in the post-COVID world. The path forward may not always be clearly defined, but there’s no doubt it will involve collaboration, innovation and strategy.

That message came across loud and clear in a Nov. 10 webinar hosted by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce and featuring key stakeholders from the aerospace industry, academia and government.

Opening remarks from Dr. Craig Stephenson, president and CEO of Centennial College; Mike Nadolski, VP of communications and public relations at Bombardier; and Monte McNaughton, Ontario’s minister of labour, training and skills development, all highlighted the importance of working together to create a sustainable future through a national aerospace strategy.

Pictured is the Centennial College Downsview Campus/Downsview Aerospace Innovation and Research (DAIR) hub. Initiatives like DAIR that promote collaboration and partnerships are key to future aerospace success. Andy Cline Photo
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The webinar was moderated by Samantha Anderton, executive director of the Downsview Aerospace Innovation & Research (DAIR) cluster and R&D manager and senior engineering specialist at Bombardier. Anderton welcomed three panellists to the event: Rahul Gangal, aerospace and defence leader for the Roland Berger consultancy, Americas division; Anthony Norejko, president and CEO of the Canadian Business Aviation Association (CBAA); and Alan McClelland, dean of the School of Transportation at Centennial College.

The agenda aimed to examine the impact of COVID-19 on Canadian aerospace, as well as explore future opportunities for a strong and sustainable future.

Jobs and Training

In 2018, the Canadian Council for Aviation and Aerospace (CCAA) released a national labour market information report that predicted a need to hire 55,000 new workers by 2025, to keep pace with industry growth. Granted, COVID-19 has certainly slowed that growth, noted Anderton, but how can industry and future job seekers prepare for a resurgence in the demand for talent?

Roland Berger’s Gangal pointed out that talent must be globally minded. Post-COVID, there will be a greater reliance on tech, including artificial intelligence, virtual reality, big data and human-machine interface. He said that while it’s important for talent to align with these skills, technology changes quickly and so workers must be mentally prepared “to re-skill yourself on new disruptions over time. This will be accentuated in a post-COVID environment.”

Centennial College’s McClelland believes the skills gap can be bridged by re-focusing on core skills required in today’s workplace. “We have identified future technologies, but there are many things that still need to be performed today,” he said. “I think COVID has provided us all with an opportunity to work differently using new tools and methods.”

Hubs, Partnerships and Strategy

Collaboration will be key to future aerospace success. DAIR is a good example: By bringing Ontario aerospace players together in one centralized location, it promotes partnerships and will better position the province to compete on the global stage.

“It’s about bringing people together up front to get a sense of where synergies and resources are,” said McClelland. “It brings the students together where there are opportunities to work together, and shares knowledge across levels.”

Gangal noted that co-location can help accelerate innovation and, by extension, pandemic recovery.

“We believe that clusters which intermesh academia and industry could essentially foster innovation in all these future zones of growth: green technology, sustainability and advanced manufacturing,” he said. “It would be far easier for clusters like this to do it, rather than in an isolated space. You are at a natural advantage where you have industry, government and academia all coming together.”

Anderton noted that as an industry, aerospace is five times higher in R&D investment than the manufacturing average, saying, “that will be a key driver in pivoting out of COVID impacts.”

DAIR brings Ontario aerospace players together in one centralized location — promoting partnerships that will better position the province to compete on the global stage. Andy Cline Photo

Gangal agreed, but cautioned that Canada does not celebrate its aerospace industry enough. “We also need the government to step in with a sector-specific strategy,” he said. “We are the only country that does not have one.”

He pointed out that Canada has dropped from the world’s fifth largest aerospace power to ninth place, and “there are other countries in the world that will step into our space if we don’t up our game. We are on the cusp of losing it; government initiative is the issue.”

Norejko agreed, saying that smart incentives drive bold innovation. “That level of innovation requires support and a recognition that we are trying to build on the legacy of what we’ve created here in Canada. I think if we do that the right way, we have a tremendous story to be told.”

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McClelland also counselled greater co-operation, noting that Canadian schools have competed against each other in the past. “None of us can meet the needs of this sector on our own,” he said. “We must work together to build stronger regional support networks and then look across the country for a stronger Canadian system.”

Moira Harvey, executive director of the Ontario Aerospace Council, posed a question to the panel about how small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) can take advantage of opportunities with green and sustainable aviation initiatives.

Norejko sees great opportunity for SMEs in Canada to contribute to the production of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). He pointed to business aviation’s past accomplishments, such as the development of winglets for fuel efficiency, the design of increasingly efficient engines, and its promotion of SAF. “We can make Canada a leader in adopting these technologies,” he said.

Gangal said that while SAF is one part of the equation, the other is electrical propulsion and the development of alternative fuels such as hydrogen. “Cumulatively, these will help us solve the problems.”

Sector Growth

In the long term, panellists agreed, aviation and aerospace will make a full recovery. Although numbers have contracted in the short term, the more pressing issue is to find ways to remain globally competitive.

“For us, we’ll have to follow a diverse agenda of pushing as many green technologies as possible, so we will become a centre of excellence for the world,” advised Gangal. “It’s a global problem and a global opportunity.”

Norejko sees opportunities for growth through collaboration with government, as well as an integration between provincial and federal governments. He sees that Canada could be a leader in drone technology, with its massive geography and many applications for such technology, such as wildfire detection.

With sustainability and green technologies tied to future aerospace success, it’s incumbent upon industry, academia and government to work together, so that Canada can once again regain its rightful place as a global aerospace leader.

Which brings us full circle, back to knowledge hubs and partnerships. There’s a lot riding on initiatives like DAIR.

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