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Oct 13, 2023

Automation: The U.S. Also Has Some Catching Up to Do

by Hugues Foltz Executive vice-president

Digital transformation, Technology, Artificial intelligence

If I can affirm something like what is written in the title, it’s because I recently attended "Automate", one of North America's most significant automation and robotization manufacturing events. With over 700 exhibitors and more than 20,000 attendees, this is undoubtedly the place to go if you want insight into the future of automation.

The 300,000 square feet of exhibition space offered exciting surprises such as robots preparing hamburgers, playing basketball, serving beer, and even preparing cappuccinos with latte art that rivals any local café!

From the looks of it, you'd think the USA is leading the way in automation and integrating new technologies. This is likely due to the large amount of tech companies originating from this country. Historically, Americans have been pioneers in technological innovation and automation adoption, particularly in manufacturing, automobiles, logistics and information technology.

Undoubtedly, American companies such as Tesla, Amazon and Google demonstrate in remarkable ways how automation can improve efficiency and productivity. However, one may wonder if American companies are really that far ahead and if we should be concerned about the progress of automation in small and medium-sized businesses. My answer to this question is ambiguous.

During my business trip, I had the opportunity to meet numerous companies interested in collaborating with us for their artificial intelligence projects because, yes, Canada is a "hot" destination for AI in the eyes of many Americans. It's not just a myth!

In addition to this, I’ve also come back with other interesting observations and comparisons. During our discussions with manufacturers of all sizes, we've observed that medium-sized companies and/or those from more traditional sectors are less automated than the well-established giants in the industry. It appears that the rapid advancement of new technologies over the past 5-10 years has taken many by surprise.

Essentially, we discovered from the people we spoke to at Automate that the level of automation adoption varies significantly between industries and regions in the USA. For instance, areas like California's Silicon Valley are known for being highly advanced centers of technological innovation and automation, just as some Canadian provinces, such as Ontario and Quebec, have prosperous manufacturing and technology industries that have adopted automation on a large scale.

American companies have slightly different priorities from those of most companies here. While labour shortage may be a minor issue for them right now, their focus is on productivity and competitiveness.

Speaking of productivity, did you know that the U.S. experienced its sharpest decline since 1947 during the first half of 2022, despite having a solid year in 2021? According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics and the Washington Post, this information raises questions about the effects of remote work and the phenomenon of "quiet quitting". It seems that our neighbours to the south are also facing their challenges!

Forbes magazine even wrote an article last March on the subject: To Bring Back U.S. Manufacturing, We Need to Invest In Advanced Technologies. It is no surprise that many American companies are trying to do so at a breakneck pace!

On the other hand, I was delighted to see companies from our region with whom we have projects underway. They were there to gather inspiration and bring back new ideas to Quebec! I advise all companies looking to embark on their digital transformation journey to explore international events and visit innovation fairs in their industry. Above all, do not hesitate to venture outside Canada for fresh perspectives and ideas!

The main feeling I'm bringing back from Automate is the fear that Canadian manufacturers lack sufficient knowledge or awareness of the rapid acceleration currently taking place in the United States. While it is true that most large U.S. companies are more advanced than their Canadian counterparts, we must remember that most SMEs are also on the fast track to automation.

In addition to lagging, Quebec and Canadian manufacturers are far from feeling the same sense of urgency we could clearly perceive at Automate.

We're still a long way from flying cars becoming a reality, but certainly not from collaborative robots performing a whole range of everyday tasks. Automation is probably a lot more accessible than people may think!