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Auto factories remake medical equipment, but sector’s future might be impp

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“Our generation has had life so good for the longest time — this is almost our world war three,” says Joe D’Angelo about the COVID-19 pandemic.

D’Angelo is the president of Mitchell Plastics, an auto parts company that normally employs 2,800 people in factories across North America. It manufactures centre consoles for cars and trucks, supplying many of the world’s largest automakers.

COVID-19 has shuttered that business.

D’Angelo could have turned the lights out at his factory in Kitchener, Ont., but instead he’s using the facility to help in the fight against the virus.

“We want to have an impact,” says D’Angelo, as he tours the factory his engineers have retooled to make plastic face shields, a piece of personal protective equipment (PPE) needed for health care workers.

“We want to hear that there’s no longer this shortage of PPE out there, and hope that one day we can say we had an impact to improve the situation.”

 

Joe D’Angelo, right, is the president of Mitchell Plastics, an auto parts company that normally employs 2,800 people in factories across North America to make centre consoles for cars and trucks. Now the company is using its Kitchener, Ont., facility to make PPE for health care workers. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

 

D’Angelo is not the only auto-parts maker who has joined the fight against COVID-19.

Flavio Volpe is the president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association — he represents 300 companies. He says the only way Canadians were ever going to get all the PPE needed to fight COVID-19 was if the auto sector was able to convert some of their factories to do it.

“It’s like in World War Two when we were making planes and boats and guns,” Volpe says.

“Just like in a war, during a pandemic the people who are on the front lines need things to get between them and the enemy.”

Since the pandemic started, Volpe has been working as a middleman between auto parts companies and different levels of government trying to get everyone the information they need.

In recent weeks his stress and anxiety has grown, and he says sleep can be a problem.

“I get messages and emails from front-line workers who are in tears,” Volpe says. “They read the news and they say ‘we’re there to serve, and we’re going to show up to work, but we’re in danger — can you help?’ And I say we’re trying our best. How can you sleep when you get that?”

 

‘I call it the largest peace-time mobilization of Canada’s industrial capacity,’ says Flavio Volpe, right, the president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

 

D’Angelo says the stakes are so high when it comes to protecting health-care workers from the virus that he didn’t wait for an order to start modifying his assembly line to make face shields. He told his staff to figure out how to make face shields before he even had someone to take them.

“We just jumped on it,” D’Angelo says. “We bought the materials and started making the shields before we had an order. We just knew that the demand was there.”

The company is now able to manufacture around 18,000 shields a day. The day CBC News visited the Kitchener factory, the company was about to deliver its first shipment to the Ontario government.

While the province pays for the shields, making PPE isn’t a money-making venture for Mitchell Plastics when you consider the work that went into designing the products and the retrofitting of the factory. In fact, the company may lose money on the venture.

“It’s just the right thing to do,” D’Angelo says.

 

‘We have to help out the hospitals. We have to help everyone there who is trying to keep us safe,’ says Danielle McLeod. She is normally a supervisor at the Mitchell Plastics auto parts factory in Kitchener, Ont., but now she’s working on the machines to produce face shields for front-line workers. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

 

The race to mass produce test swabs

In total, Mitchell Plastics aims to deliver somewhere around half a million face shields to front-line workers to be used in hospitals and nursing homes.

Recently, the company was contacted to see if it could also mass produce COVID-19 testing swabs. D’Angelo asked his engineers to get to work on the problem.

The director of engineering at the company, Jason Fraser, says making the plastic swabs hasn’t been all that difficult, it’s the necessary sterilization that’s been a challenge.

“Obviously we don’t need to do that with auto parts,” he says.

 

Jason Fraser, left, normally engineers auto parts, but now he’s trying to mass produce COVID-19 test swabs. The director of engineering at Mitchell Plastics says that making the plastic swabs isn’t that difficult, it’s the necessary sterilization that’s been a challenge. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

 

“I was born and raised in Canada and have lived in Ontario my entire life,” he adds. “It gives me and my group a huge sense of pride to be able to help out all Canadians in this challenging time.”

The next challenge for Fraser is certification.

He’s sent sample swabs to the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg, where they are being tested to see if they meet rigorous medical industry specifications.

If the swabs pass, then Mitchell Plastics will conduct additional sterilization testing before it begins mass production and distribution.

A lot of failure — a lot of success

It’s been challenging for the auto parts sector to shift gears.

When the pandemic first started, Volpe says 165 companies reached out to volunteer their production facilities.

“They said ‘send us the specifications, explain the volumes and we will tell you if we can do it or not,'” says Volpe.

However, there were a lot of failures as companies attempted to manufacture what was needed, but realized they weren’t able to, Volpe says. Of the 165 companies, 77 came through with proposals saying they could make items needed by health-care workers.

So far, 25 of those companies are producing things like ventilators, face shields, and gowns.

A plant in Tilbury, Ont., that normally makes vehicle airbags, for example, now produces material for medical gowns.

Another nearby auto parts company is manufacturing masks.

 

Workers at Mitchell Plastics have retooled their production line to make face shields for health care workers. The company can make about 18,000 a day. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

 

Volpe stresses that for auto parts companies, making PPE doesn’t even come close to replacing the income from the auto industry, due to the cost of making moulds and prototypes and getting them certified.

“If a company makes a mould [for PPE], then they are out $60,000 to $90,000 in a time when they are getting no revenue,” says Volpe.

By the time a company sends a prototype for sterilized testing at a federal microbiology lab, Volpe points out, they have likely spent more than $350,000.

“But they just did it,” he says. “This is the most wasteful, from a business perspective, the most wasteful exercise anyone could be involved in. And they’re only doing it because it matters. And I love it.”

A uncertain future

In fact, Volpe says working to defeat COVID-19 has been one of the most rewarding things he’s ever done.

Still, that doesn’t mean he isn’t worried about the auto industry post-pandemic.

“I get paid to worry about the health of the companies,” Volpe says.

His main concern is that some auto parts manufacturers won’t make it through the pandemic.

“You go two to three months without revenue and you burn through working capital, and there are going to be failures,” he says.

 

‘Our generation has had life so good for the longest time – this is almost our world war three,’ says Joe D’Angelo, right, about the COVID-19 pandemic. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

 

“This is the industrial engine of Ontario and one of the industrial engines of Canada. And we’re all very proud of an industry that has been around for 120 years, but there are going to be companies that don’t come out of this,” Volpe warns.

Meanwhile, D’Angelo wonders how many people will want to buy a car even when the economy opens back up. He says before the shutdown there was a 70-day supply of cars in North America. With the new reality of a struggling economy, he wonders if that supply of unsold cars would now last 200 days.

“You would hate to think that this can go on past the end of May,” he says.

“Any longer than that, it’s really an ugly situation. We are concerned about other suppliers that may fail, and once the whole supply chain starts to break down we’ll never be able to put a car together anymore.”

Hope

D’Angelo has worked his entire adult life to build his company up to what it is today, with facilities all over the world.

It’s remarkable growth, considering that in 1997 when he and his partner first started in the auto business, their company was so small D’Angelo jokes there were only 14 people at the staff Christmas party.

Just prior to the COVID-19 shutdowns, the facility in Kitchener usually employed about 700 people over three shifts.

 

D’Angelo, right, says it’s hard to see his Kitchener factory so empty. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

 

Now there are only 30 people working in the plant to make the face shields — all of them volunteer company staff who don’t normally work on the machines.

D’Angelo says it’s hard to see his factory so empty.

“Usually this plant is humming. There’s a buzz, you can just feel it being very productive, it’s full of people working hard. It’s kind of heartbreaking.

“But making the face shields gives us a glimmer of hope in an otherwise very bad situation.”

Edited by Harry Miller

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Unemployment rate increases in Alberta despite more jobs: StatCan – CTV News

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CALGARY —
Alberta gained 28,000 jobs in the month of May, according to the latest Labour Force Survey released Friday morning from Statistics Canada. 

The increase in employment follows a cumulative decline of 361,000 jobs from February to April. 

Alberta’s job increases were entirely driven by the services-producing sector after the province allowed some businesses such as restaurants and non-essential shops to reopen as of May 14. 

The unemployment rate in the province increased by 2.1 percentage points to 15.5 per cent, which is now the second highest in the country behind Newfoundland and Labrador at 16.3 per cent. 

Nationwide, the average rate of unemployment is now 13.7 per cent, topping the previous high of 13.1 per cent set back in December 1982. 

Canada added a total of 290,000 jobs across the country. According to Statistics Canada data, the total number of hours worked is increasing at a faster pace than employment. 

Total hours worked across all industries grew by 6.3 per cent in May, compared with an increase of 1.8 per cent (290,000 jobs) in employment. 

Alberta Economic Recovery Plan

In response to one of the most dramatic economic downturns in Alberta’s history, the provincial government will start rolling out an economic recovery plan later this month focused on cultivating key industries. 

Premier Jason Kenney said last week that Alberta’s strategy will take a “pedal to the metal” approach to diversification after a steep decline in the price of oil. 

On Monday, Finance Minister Travis Toews announced that his financial blueprint will be centred on growing sectors such as energy, agriculture, technology and petrochemical manufacturing. 

A recent study from the Conference Board of Canada projects Alberta will see its economy shrink by 6.8 per cent this year. 

Toews called that report realistic and noted the downturn will be measured in months not weeks.

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Canadian government pushes 3500MHz spectrum auction to June 15, 2021 – MobileSyrup

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In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the government announced that it has postponed the 3500MHz spectrum auction by six months.

The new date for the auction is now June 15th, 2021. Several of the other key dates associated with the auction are listed on the government’s site since they’ve also been pushed back by six months.

“Canada’s telecommunications service providers are doing their part in this difficult time, providing essential services to keep Canadians connected as we face the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic together. A number of providers have raised concerns, and the Government is implementing measures to address them,” said Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry.

“The Government will continue to reach out to telecommunications service providers—and to the private sector more broadly—to understand their challenges and support them to ensure that Canadians have access to high-quality networks and broad coverage at low prices.”

The government’s press release from June 5th, 2020 states that this is in line with what other countries are doing. It will help the telecommunication companies focus on providing robust service to Canadians as many of us are still self-isolating at home.

Beyond this, a consultation on the 3800MHz spectrum is set to begin in August to get the ball rolling on that slice of 5G spectrum as well. Notably, both the 3500MHz and 3800MHz are considered key due to their ability to transport data at 5G speeds at a reasonable range.

In a statement to MobileSyrup, Chethan Lakshman, the vice president of external affairs at Shaw, stated, “given the pandemic’s impact on Canadian society and overall business operations, we support the decision to provide additional time for industry and the government to prepare for this auction. A well-run auction process will ensure that Canadians and the Canadian economy will benefit from strong competition in wireless and 5G for years to come.”

“Our networks are the backbone of so much of our economy and as we continue to rollout Canada’s first 5G network, driving innovation and productivity, we look forward to accessing 3500 Mhz spectrum as soon as it is available,” Rogers said in a statement to MobileSyrup.

Telus, meanwhile, sent MobileSyrup the following statement:

“While we would like to see the auction proceed as soon as possible, we appreciate the government’s recognition of facilities-based carriers for keeping Canadians connected at all times, even during the pandemic. Because of our continued investment in building out communications infrastructure, TELUS’ 4G LTE network speeds are among the fastest in the world; faster even than South Korea’s 5G network speeds, according to Opensignal. We have long been ready to make the crucial investment in 3500 MHz spectrum and network infrastructure required to realize the full promise of 5G so that Canadian entrepreneurs, businesses, and innovators can leverage the next generation of connectivity that promises to benefit us all. In the interim, we will continue to provide our customers with access to the fastest and most reliable networks possible and focus our efforts on supporting Canada’s recovery from COVID-19 in whatever ways we can.”

Update 05/06/20 4:19pm ET: Updated with statements from Rogers and Telus.

Source: Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada

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Canada unexpectedly adds 289600 jobs on gradual reopening – BNNBloomberg.ca

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Canada’s labour market unexpectedly strengthened after two-straight months of record losses as the country gradually reopens from COVID-19 related restrictions.

Employment rose by 289,600 in May, Statistics Canada said Friday in Ottawa, surprising economists who had been anticipating more losses last month. The gains were across most industries and provinces, though largely driven by higher employment in Quebec, the province hardest hit by the pandemic.

The numbers echo recent high-frequency data, which had signaled a recovery is underway, with job postings increasing and more Canadians reporting an increase in work at the end of May. They will be a relief to policy makers who had been scrambling to inject hundreds of billions in cash into the economy to keep it afloat. Still, just under 5 million remain without work or substantially reduced hours with the jobless rate at postwar records.

“The surprisingly positive readings on employment paint a more optimistic picture of the early part of the recovery, but there’s still a long road back,” Royce Mendes, an economist at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, said in a research report. “The increase in May only represents 10 per cent of the COVID-19-related job losses and absences that occurred over the prior two months.”

Unprecedented Losses

The pick up in May follows an unprecedented loss of about 3 million jobs in March and April. More than 2 million employed Canadians continue to experience much lower hours worked than pre-crsisis.

The unemployment rate ticked up to 13.7% in May, from 13 per cent in April, as people returned to the labor force. Economists in a Bloomberg survey expected a loss of 500,000 jobs, with the unemployment rate rising to 15 per cent.

Canada’s currency extended gains on the result, appreciating 0.7 per cent to $1.3406 against its U.S. counterpart at 9:46 a.m. Toronto time. Yields on two-year government bonds rose 2 basis points to 0.35 per cent.

The better-than-expected report suggests the governments programs to cushion the blow to the labor market are working. By mid-May, 179,000 businesses had applied for the government’s 75 per cent wage subsidy program. The pace of applications to Canada’s emergency income benefit program has also decelerated in recent weeks, suggesting the worst of the layoffs and job losses is over.

In addition to the employment pick up, Statistics Canada said the number of people who worked less than half their usual hours dropped by 292,000. That means the number of Canadians who have either lost their job or worked substantially fewer hours has fallen to just under 5 million, from about 5.5 million in April. Hours worked rose 6.3 per cent in May from the prior month but were still 23 per cent below February’s levels .

Cautious Reopening

The surprise jump reflects the cautious reopening of the economy across provinces. By the time the employment survey was taken from May 10 to May 16, some provinces including B.C., Saskatchewan and Quebec allowed some non-essential businesses to reopen.

Quebec accounted for nearly 80% of May’s gains, the statistics agency said. In contrast, Ontario -– where the economy remained largely shut until May 19 –- saw more losses.

In the early days of the reopening, employment rebounded more strongly among goods producers, the data show. The goods-producing sector added 165,000 jobs versus 125,000 in services. Lower-wage jobs also rebounded more, particularly in retail trade, accommodation and food services.

Women Lagging

Demographically, male employment increased more than twice as fast as that for women, consistent with the more rapid increase in the goods-producing industry. Women were among the earliest victims of the Covid-19 related job losses in March and the latest data suggest they are slower to recover as well.

“The kinds of jobs that reopened earlier tend to be more male dominated in employment and also that more women don’t know how to get back to work because they don’t know what to do with their kids because schools aren’t open,” said Armine Yalnizyan, a research fellow at the Atkinson Foundation.

Women with at least one child under age 6 showed a slower return to work than women with older children. Statistics Canada said it will continue to monitor labor market outcomes for men and women with children in the months to come.

Youth are still suffering heavily from the Covid-19 economic shutdown. While employment recovered by 30,000 for those aged 15-24, the cumulative job losses for this age cohort are still a whopping 843,000 from February to May.

–With assistance from Erik Hertzberg.

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