A look at automation in Canada.

Canada is positioned slightly above the world average in robot density in manufacturing, as per the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). According to Manufacturing Automation magazine, the 2020 World Robotics Report (based on 2019 statistics) ranks Canada 18th in the world for robot density, with 165 units installed per 10,000 employees.

Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen) points to Canada’s rich automation and robotic ecosystem in the manufacturing and automotive sectors, and rapidly emerging sectors (such as vertical farming and logistics) that have also invested in automation deployment in recent years. Ontario is home to Canada’s largest concentration of robotics and automation firms with just over 350 related companies – a list that includes Autodesk, Siemens, and Rockwell Automation. These firms have developed advanced technologies including surgical robots, optical imaging solutions, autonomous warehouse solutions, and other technologies spanning a multitude of industries.

Canadian Tire’s Bolton Distribution Centre (DC) is a prime example of a business that uses advanced warehouse technology to increase efficiency. That warehouse serves 500 Canadian Tire locations 20 hours a day, seven days a week, and is home to an automated tire gantry, five kilometres of hanging platform conveyors, and five four-level spiral pick modules with spiral conveyors. In 2021, the Ontario government provided $1 million in funding to auto tech start-up NuPort Robotics to develop an automated heavy-duty trucking system with Canadian Tire – moves that help the company reach its goal of being the most reliable retail brand for its consumers by 2022.

Pandemic-related labour shortages have already prompted an increase in automation in numerous sectors. A Conference Board of Canada report concludes that automation will be concentrated in a few key industries in the next few years, including accommodation and food services, retail, construction, and health care.

Accommodation and food services has already integrated automation with touch-screen kiosks replacing cashiers, and automated deep fryers and burger-flipping machines replacing food preparation workers. Although in its early stages, automated drive-thrus are becoming a common sight in Canada. And Tiny Mile, a start-up aiming to revolutionize courier services in the inner city, deployed small food delivery robots in downtown Toronto – an option that Tiny Mile’s founder claimed is 10 times less expensive compared to the traditional delivery model.

The retail sector has already experienced a major shift towards e-commerce during the pandemic, with added improvements in supply chains and customer service, catapulting the retail industry into an automated future. Sanitation companies are increasingly integrating robots in their operations, eliminating manual labour and moving human efforts to supervision. Commercial cleaning companies are installing robots to clean floors at malls and supermarkets; Neo is a cleaning robot who can be found scrubbing floors at Montreal’s airport, and a disinfectant robot emitting UV light is being used to disinfect surfaces in a wildlife rehabilitation centre in Manitoba.

Health care and social assistance are set to transform as services shift to a digital delivery models, such as telemedicine. Labour shortages also point to a need for automation in healthcare; general medical office support workers (such as receptionists and janitors) could be replaced by robots, reducing the number of people in close contact with sick patients. And in another recent first, the University Health Network (UHN) and Unither Bioelectronique together used an unmanned drone to deliver lungs for transplant at a Toronto hospital. It took the drone six minutes to carry the lungs 1.5 kilometres between the Toronto Western and Toronto General hospitals – an event that is expected to change the future of organ delivery.

RBC report Farmer 4.0 states that Canada could face a labour shortage of 123,000 farm workers by 2030. As many as 110,000 farmers are expected to retire from the sector in the coming decade, and fewer Canadians are entering agriculture to replace them. Automation expected in this sector includes self-driving tractors, robotic harvesters, and automated cultivators, among others. Young programmers, engineers and technicians – needed to tend these robots – may find opportunities in the agricultural sector.

Unlike other leading global economies, Canada’s manufacturing industry consists of smaller companies that may not have the resources to widely adopt automated solutions. The sector also holds a fear of potential negative employment impacts as a result of widespread automation (although Statistics Canada states the Canadian labour force has a higher risk of job transformation than elimination). Companies offering robotics products and related services may find numerous opportunities in the Canadian market.

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