Spotlight on international collaboration

- Vancouver, British Columbia

How an innovative Canadian–German collaboration is helping mitigate a global shortage of welders

As more and more baby boomers retire, the world is seeing a growing shortage of welders, which presents a serious challenge for the industry, especially as demand explodes for expert pipe fabricators to support infrastructure, oil and gas, wastewater, ship-building and industrial projects.

To help bridge the gap between supply and demand, the welding industry has worked to automate its processes as much as possible. However, robotic welding applications have generally failed to provide a solid return on investment for manufacturers who produce a wide variety of products in small quantities. In addition, the complexity of robotic applications requires workers to be skilled not only in welding but also in programming and operating these systems.

Enter Vancouver-based robotics firm Novarc Technologies, a proven pioneer in the design and commercialization of collaborative robots (known as cobots) for industrial applications. With a vision to lead the innovation of AI and automation in welding, Novarc is helping solve today's industrial automation challenges while also improving customers' bottom line.

Seeking international partnerships

In 2018, a team from Novarc travelled to Germany as part of a partnering mission to visit the country's advanced manufacturing supercluster of 200 companies, research institutes and organizations. The goal of the mission, organized by the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP) together with Global Affairs Canada and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), was to connect Canadian innovators with German partners to establish project consortiums for collaborative R&D projects.

While in Germany, Novarc met with the Fraunhofer Institute for Mechatronic Systems Design (IEM), a 100-employee research organization focused on innovative methods and tools for developing intelligent products, production systems and services. During their meetings, both organizations discovered they had similar visions, expertise, and goals, and an idea for a collaboration began to take shape.

They began working on an international 2+2 collaboration project focused on developing innovative automated welding technology, an area that has historically required specialized skills—plus, this technology promised significant commercial potential. The 2+2 format required at least one small or medium-sized enterprise from Canada and one from Germany as well as at least one university partner on the Canadian side and one academic or research institute partner on the German side. NRC IRAP, along with NSERC and the German ministry of research and education (BMBF), is providing advisory services and funding to support the project.

The Canadian partners are Novarc and the University of British Columbia while the German partners are the Fraunhofer Institute and manufacturer Moderne Industrietechnik. Together, the 4 organizations aim to develop 2 similar but distinct automated solutions to innovate fillet welding—a very complex welding process that involves joining together 2 perpendicular pieces of metal.

The value of international cross-collaboration

According to Soroush Karimzadeh, co-founder of Novarc, the real value of the collaboration project is in the continuous sharing of information among all partners. Working with their partners in Germany has also allowed Novarc to benefit from access to specialized skills, thus accelerating the company's R&D capabilities.

"When it comes to making robots intelligent using different technologies, both the Fraunhofer Institute and Novarc are trying different things and sharing our findings. And what we have all found is that we can move at a much faster rate and reach our objectives more quickly because we're able to avoid certain paths when we learn one path isn't working," says Soroush.

Andrew Bauder, an NRC IRAP Industrial Technology Advisor on the project, points to the rare opportunity a 2+2 collaboration project offers partners who want to broaden their expertise and offerings. "This type of international project provides a unique opportunity for organizations to work together on a project where you have not only an international mix but also a company and academic mix, which makes it possible for companies to commercialize technology they might not otherwise be able to commercialize if they had worked solely with universities or research institutes," he says.

Soroush agrees. "The Fraunhofer Institute is one of the largest research institutes working in Germany's manufacturing hub, elevating projects to a world-class level in terms of R&D. We could never have reached out to them ourselves or defined this international project all on our own because it can be very difficult to find the right partners who understand things like confidentiality, IP and more," he says. "We are grateful to NRC IRAP and other governmental partners for giving us the advisory services and resources to both come together and drive innovation beyond the status quo. One of Novarc's core values is to consistently strive to exceed expectations, so I'm excited to see we're doing just that with this project."

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Project at a glance

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Partners: Novarc Technologies, University of British Columbia, Fraunhofer Institute for Mechatronic Systems Design and Moderne Industrietechnik

Sector: Industry 4.0

Total project value: $580,000

Length of project: 3 years