New portal gives innovation a boost in Waterloo

An online portal launched this week will help manufacturing firms in Waterloo, Ont. share tips, trade goods and do much more.   

Dubbed the Manufacturing Innovation Network or MIN, the site was set up through the collaborative efforts of the University of Waterloo and Conestoga College, as well as industry leaders.

With approximately 65 to 70 members, it is hoped the portal will boost productivity and innovation in Waterloo’s manufacturing sector through heightened collaboration and information sharing.

The network is also expected to help manufacturers reduce logistics costs, learn from others’ experiences and enhance employment levels, according to Terry Riedel, executive director of MIN.

Riedel was former president of Kuntz Electroplating, a nickel/chrome plating and metal finishing firm for the automotive and motorcycle industries.  Having worked in the manufacturing sector for eight years, he says he knows first hand the obstacles to collaborating with other companies in the region.

Manufacturers can join MIN free of charge and access a collection of social networking tools, blogs featuring special interest groups, experts in finance and marketing, a question submission area, newsfeeds related to the industry, and a job board with additional HR resources and articles.

The tech-savvy with the region’s business community will contribute to the success of the MIN initiative, predicts Cambridge mayor Doug Craig, a supporter of the project.

“I think anything at this point will assist the industry,” Craig said. “It’s like if you go to a weekend conference and come back with single idea – then it was worthwhile…”

Certain economic circumstances – including the high Canadian dollar, rising fuel costs, and job losses in the automotive sector – have combined to put pressure on the manufacturing industry over the past few years, says Waterloo region councilor Sean Strickland.  

He says this has led to staff reductions in high profile companies –including 1,000 layoffs at NCR, a closure of a Goodrich-Michelin tire plant and 500 jobs lost at Lazy Boy all within the last three years.

The MIN site is the fruit of a 2006 community survey conducted by the City of Kitchener and 61 automotive-related manufacturers. It found communication between local manufacturers was sorely lacking, and the industry wasn’t keeping track of new technology systems and trends.

Subsequently, at a 2008 symposium, around 68 per cent of the regions’ manufacturers said they would be interested in collaborating.

One key problem was the export-focused nature of the industry, Strickland said.

Waterloo’s GDP, he said, is around the same size as the province of New Brunswick. But because everyone is export-dependent, companies aren’t aware of innovative developments occurring in their own community.

To tackle these issues head on it was suggested that Web 2.0 tools be used to build an online community that fostered collaboration and communication among the region’s manufacturing firms.

The fallout was the launch of MIN, which – among other things – will help companies share knowledge on marketing, employment and environmental law, health and safety hazards. assist human resource professionals search for employees.

The ultimate goal is for companies to be more innovative, said Dan Latendre, CEO of Igloo Software, a provider of social media tools in Kitchener, Ont.

He said this happens when firms are able to track innovations across the region.

That can seem difficult given that “the Waterloo region has 1,200 manufacturers,” Latendre noted

But MIN allows this to happen by serving as an information exchange where companies can keep tabs on innovations, and best practices and quickly access expert advice.

Igloo contributed $250,000 worth of technology and employee hours to the project.

Latendre said the most active portion of the Web site so far has been the job board.  It features career resources from recruitment agencies in the region and information on Conestoga College’s re-training program.   

And “security” is one of MIN’s vitally important features, Latendre said.

Manufactures, he said, won’t be barraged by service providers and marketers. While the site is open to the public, only members can use private messaging and discussion boards.

Igloo has designed similar workplace and marketplace sites for businesses, non-profit organizations, and government jurisdictions, such as the City of Ottawa, where the social media portal helps to keep citizens engaged in community affairs.

Latendre said Igloo is working to ensure manufacturers in the Waterloo region understand how to use the tools and know what they can do. The MIN site has its own community facilitator, who provides guidance and moderates the community.

Igloo has also created a “playbook” of best practices for the community, which can help professionals network more effectively – allowing the Waterloo site to be expanded for other sectors or into other geographical areas.

Regions such as Windsor or Montreal, with strong manufacturing sectors could also eventually benefit from the community, Latendre said.

For now the focus is on making the community work in the Waterloo region, but a national or global community would definitely be possible and useful, the Igloo executive said.

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