Montreal’s vibrant aerospace and digital business sectors and their latest innovations were showcased at the annual Global Aerospace Symposium (GAS) in April, held in conjunction with the fifth International Aerospace Week Montreal, drawing more than 2,000 Canadian and international attendees. Organized by Aéro Montréal (AM), a public/private strategic think tank, GAS featured seminars and panel discussions with speakers from aerospace and technology companies including Airbus, Amazon, Bombardier, Google, Pratt & Whitney Canada, and Microsoft as well as local small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
Some 200 aerospace companies in Greater Montréal employ more than 42,000 people and account for over half (53 percent) of the country’s aerospace industry activity. Five OEMs—Airbus, Bell, Bombardier, CAE, and Pratt & Whitney—have a major presence, and 25 of the world’s 100 largest aerospace companies are established in Greater Montréal, as are a network of suppliers, innovative tech companies, and collaborative research consortiums.
ARA Robotics showcased its UAV control technology, used in a recent project for the Port of Montréal to create a precise 3D movable map of the entire 2.5-sq-m facility. FZ Engineering, in one of a series of the event’s “elevator pitch” presentations, showed additive manufacturing technology it claims can reduce surface roughness of such parts by a magnitude of 35.
The convergence of aerospace and artificial intelligence was a consistent theme, seen as a combination that “will enable us to bring our industrial capabilities to another level,” Quebec Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Navdeep Bains told attendees. Fittingly, AM and the Institute for Data Valorisation signed at GAS an agreement to promote AI in the aerospace sector, “to support SMEs in transitioning to Industry 4.0,” said AM president Suzanne Benoit. Established in 2006, AM consists of Québec aerospace cluster companies and is supported by membership dues and to a lesser degree, government funding.
Indeed, GAS also served to highlight the role of public-private partnerships, government assistance, collaborative research projects, and other initiatives continue to play in the area’s success story. The umbrella organization promoting this regional activity, Montréal International (MI), a non-profit public-private partnership, was created in 1996 to attract foreign investment in the city’s high tech sector. To date, it has generated some $15.5 billion in investment projects and 65,000 jobs. MI provides single-point access to long-term strategic support, government contacts, immigration assistance, and other services.
“Europeans come here because they have access to 500 million consumers, and to free trade with the United States, Mexico, and Canada,” MI president and CEO Hubert Bolduc told attendees. “The other big reason companies choose to set up in Montreal,” he added, “is access to talent.” But if a local can’t fill the job, Canada’s immigration policies allow qualified foreign high-tech workers to get a work visa within 14 days.
Making aerospace SMEs more globally competitive is a top priority of the 2016-2026 Quebec Aerospace Strategy (“Redefining the Horizon”). AM’s MACH FAB 4.0, the newest of its MACH initiatives, helps SMEs incorporate digital technologies and advanced manufacturing processes in their operations, with (U.S.) $14.1 million in grants and other assistance available. Québec Minister of Economy and Innovation Pierre Fitzgibbon, in a meeting with journalists at GAS, said a number of these firms “have not invested enough in 4.0 innovative manufacturing or digitalization of their businesses,” and declared, “I'm going to be very aggressive to support these companies that are in need of capital.”
Investment Quebec (IQ), another support agency, provides financing for qualified foreign companies seeking to establish operations in the province. The government-created entity also sponsors trade delegations and provides extensive support to companies considering opening shop in the region. IQ’s charter mandates the organization make a profit, solely to fund its operations, derived entirely from its investments in foreign businesses. In the past, the majority of employment opportunities created by such investments were low-wage positions, and IQ is looking for higher quality of life as part of its ROI, said IQ executive v-p Paul Buron. “It’s not about job creation—It’s about wealth creation.”
Current application of digital technologies was showcased at site visits to a trio of major aerospace companies: Stelia Aerospace, Bell, and CAE. Aerostructure specialist Stelia Aerospace, an Airbus subsidiary, assembles the main fuselage section for Bombardier’s Global 7500 at its purpose-built production facility at Mirabel Airport. Robot laser cameras scan the fuselage and generate more than 1,200 data sets, ensuring the geometry of the section is within tolerance. Some 60 employees perform precision manual labor on the assembly line, but automation is coming in 2020, and most employees will be replaced by robots.
Bell’s Mirabel plant manufactures the new Bell 505 Jet Ranger X (more than 100 per year) and the Bell 407, 412, and 429. Airframes grow in traditional orderly progression on side-by-side assembly lines. But the facility also houses a research center responsible for next-gen products. Bell’s manager for innovation, Michel Dion, showed off an eight-foot-diameter ducted lift fan for the recently unveiled Nexus eVTOL and the Hydra flying ring, both developed at the facility with local expertise.
The headquarters facility at Montréal-based CAE, global training provider and simulator manufacturer, has a modern and lively front end backed by a jumble of large, interconnected assembly and test areas, the industrial age facilities contrasting with the state-of-the-art next-gen simulators under construction. In an Airbus A350 XWB sim, an engineer guided a handful of media through takeoffs and landings at Hong Kong International Airport, demonstrating the machine’s ability to mimic any condition imaginable onboard the airliner or in the air outside.
CAE’s history of innovation includes working with the FAA to certify the first Level D flight simulator, a spokesperson noted, and added that some 270,000 airline pilots and 50,000 corporate pilots would be needed by 2028. But one area CAE is not innovating: Asked if any technology under development involves a one-person crew for operating a commercial aircraft, Terry Constantakis, CAE’s director, training solutions, answered emphatically: “No.”