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Industry clustering: Collaboration takes flight

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WMCO by Mike Baker
Mike Baker is the Chief Executive Officer of the Wood Manufacturing Cluster of Ontario. He can be reached at: mbaker@wmco.ca
In my last column, after previous columns introducing the concept of industry clustering, and examples around the world for the wood industry, we shared examples of actions and results here in Ontario with collaborative plant tours, and testimonials from companies who have grown through clustering.
Today, we are going to share some exciting results of industry collaboration activities that are on the cutting edge of our current wood industry transition revolution: digitization, data integration, and Industry 4.0.
Part of the job of a cluster is to identify the collective needs of its members, and execute activities to meet those needs, while where appropriate, engaging government partners to support the specific activities on a project basis. In the EU, industry clusters act as the go-between with government and industry to administer programs to support the companies on specific initiatives. WMCO identified the move to Industry 4.0 long ago as an important trend 
that small and medium 
sized manufacturers (SMEs) need to address to become globally competitive.
Three years ago, WMCO went to Ottawa to meet with representatives with Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) Investments in Forest Industry Transformation (IFIT) program. Typically, this program catered to large companies with multi-million-dollar projects in mainly the primary wood sector. Due to the complexity of the program applications, SMEs didn’t have the resources to apply for it, or have the spending capacity for such huge projects. The program was designed to work with one company at a time.
WMCO made the case that the IFIT program should be helping SMEs in the secondary manufacturing industry. By working with the cluster, they could support multiple companies at once with one main project. Cluster members can collaborate on the project and share their best practices and ideas. IFIT became interested in working with us and at that time a call went out to members interested in data integration projects. Delays took place due to the pandemic, and finally, while our big proposal was asked to be scaled back to a study, we were successful in securing a pilot project with 10 SME member companies representing three industry segments: cabinetry, furniture, and commercial millwork. The project started in September 2021, but was only recently officially announced due to the fall 2021 election and transition with the minister at NRCan.
Administered and managed by WMCO, the scope of the project is to identify Industry 4.0 integration road maps for each of the manufacturing segments. Participating companies identified gaps in their data integration and created projects to close those gaps. Metrics are being tracked by all of the participating companies and submitted to be mixed into collective metrics for the group, tracking the impact of the project. Members submit their expense claims and brief progress reports on a quarterly basis. WMCO gathers all of the claims and creates one large claim to submit to IFIT. Upon claim approval, the funding is sent to WMCO, where it is then distributed to each participating member as per their claim. This way, companies deal with the WMCO cluster, and not directly with the government, and don’t need to create huge laborious project applications; this is done by WMCO.
Collaboration takes flight here on several levels. By clustering a collective of companies together for a mutually benefitting project, government partners can help multiple companies at once through the cluster. SMEs can get access to funding programs they would not otherwise have access to on their own. SMEs can share best practices and ideas and leverage the knowledge of the group to help the implementation and sustainability of their projects.
An example of this took place on Aug. 9. The first face-to-face meeting of the WMCO IFIT project members took place, hosted by Elmwood Cabico in St. Catharines. Cluster members participated in a roundtable update of their project activities, and shared their successes and challenges, and solutions, followed by a plant tour. This event also coincided with the official project announcement by MP Chris Bittle on behalf of Hon Minister of Natural Resources Johnathan Wilkinson.
Read the details of this announcement on page 12.
The breakthrough with this project is we now have government partners open to working with the WMCO cluster to benefit multiple SMEs at once. WMCO is now working to develop a larger project to build on this one that can be rolled out to the entire cluster next year.
The collaboration results speak for themselves. Multiple companies having the same needs, collaborating on solutions and opportunities. It takes forward-thinking, like-minded SMEs like you to see the benefits from clustering.
To get involved with the only wood industry cluster in Canada, contact me directly at mbaker@wmco.ca or go to: www.wmco.ca.

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