Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Vehicle tech gets $500-K install

Province now sole funder of heavy-vehicle R&D non-profit

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Paul Soubry, president and CEO of New Flyer, which is using the Vehicle Technology Centre to produce new battery-only buses.

MELISSA TAIT / WINNIPEG FREE PRE Enlarge Image

Paul Soubry, president and CEO of New Flyer, which is using the Vehicle Technology Centre to produce new battery-only buses.

Since the beginning of this year, New Flyer Industries has acquired one of its four competitors, bought the aftermarket business of another and took on as an equity partner one of the largest bus-makers in the world.

But in order to secure its position as the largest bus-maker in North America, it needs to continue developing innovative products such as a 19-metre articulated compressed natural gas bus and an all-electric battery-powered bus.

The former is commercially available and the latter is still in development with several suppliers including Manitoba Hydro, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Red River College.

But it's also getting assistance from the Vehicle Technology Centre, a non-profit industry-government funding organization formed in 2002.

Friday, the province announced it is providing $500,000 to the VTC for another year's support. The VTC works with Manitoba manufacturers and suppliers to foster research and competitiveness.

"This funding enhances our bus-electrification-development program, and, more specifically, our rapid-charging technology prototypes that are so key for effective and broad commercialization and acceptance," said Paul Soubry, president and chief executive officer of New Flyer.

In the 11 years since the VTC was created, the heavy-vehicle-manufacturing industry in Manitoba has grown into a $2-billion industry with about 6,500 employees.

New Flyer is currently on a roll, though it and Motor Coach Industries are susceptible to market cycles. But there is also a host of beneficiaries -- agricultural- and specialty-equipment manufacturers such as Fort Garry Fire Trucks, the largest fire-truck manufacturer in the country, which just spent $7 million on a new 50,000-square-foot plant and Buhler Industries and MacDon Industries, which have been steadily increasing production rates on the large agricultural equipment they make.

With some of the largest employers in the province's manufacturing sector, the vehicle group represents about 10 per cent of total manufacturing employment and 10 per cent of Manitoba's total exports.

The VTC -- which operates with a volunteer board and no employees or bricks and mortar -- is not just supporting the large original equipment manufacturers.

Ron Vanderwees, president and chairman of the board, said the first project the centre was involved in was purchasing testing equipment that still sits at the province's Industrial Technology Centre and at Westest in Portage la Prairie.

"That's there for everybody to use," Vanderwees said. "The beauty of that program is that this is a lot of equipment that smaller manufacturers can't afford. We were able to get it in place and it can be used for a fee to benefit the whole sector."

For the past three years, the VTC has participated in 11 separate projects as part of its original-equipment manufacturer (OEM) supplier-development program that included seven OEMs and more the 40 Manitoba suppliers.

In the past, OEMs would do all their design and tell their suppliers exactly how they wanted the work done.

"But we understand if you want a vibrant heavy-vehicle-manufacturing sector in Manitoba you really have to be vertically integrated," Vanderwees said. "We identified a need in the industry to be able to support and improve the technological capabilities of our local suppliers."

The province's latest financial commitment -- which is typically leveraged by a factor of four by the industry partners that actually conduct the research projects -- means the province is now the sole funder of the VTC since funding from the Canada-Manitoba Economic Partnership Agreement has ended.

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 6, 2013 B6

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