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ahead of the curve

Sekisui Diagnostics plans steady international growth from its Atlantic plant as it moves toward more automated assembly of its medical testing kits

The series: We look at the manufacturing industry which is using technology to create “smart factories” fit for long-term global competitiveness.

What’s a biotech manufacturer doing in sweet little Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island?

It’s staying ahead of the curve in an ultra-competitive sector, says Brian Stewart, plant manager and director of manufacturing at Sekisui Diagnostics P.E.I. Inc.

“We’re strategically located in P.E.I. to serve both the North American market and the European market,” Mr. Stewart says. “We’re really focused on trying to get ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

The fourth revolution, for those of us still getting up to speed, is the digital one – where sensors, cloud-based data and artificial intelligence (AI) are streamlining and accelerating the way products are made and services are delivered.

This next wave is the successor to the first revolution, when steam power ushered in the Industrial Age, the second, which brought electricity to the mix, and the third, which introduced mass communication.

Although it may seem unlikely to some, being in Canada’s smallest province at the eastern edge of the country is actually an asset for Sekisui, Mr. Stewart explains.

The Charlottetown facility is part of an international company headquartered in Japan that makes high-tech blood tests and other medical diagnostic tools. Sekisui bought the plant, which was started back in the early 1970s, in 2011 and has been building it up ever since.

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From left, Brian Stewart, plant manager and director of manufacturing at Sekisui Diagnostics P.E.I. Inc., Wade MacLauchlan, Premier of Prince Edward Island and Kimihiro Ishikane, Japan's ambassador to Canada, on a July visit to the expanded Sekisui Diagnostics facility in Charlottetown.

With a population of 146,000, the entire province has about half the people of, say, Markham, Ont. But Mr. Stewart believes there is talent to draw on from the island, and the plant is well-located.

P.E.I. is a good place for it to be because in addition to shipping Sekisui’s testing kits by truck or air anywhere in North America, they can reach European markets by sea.

While Sekisui has two facilities in the United States and others in Britain, Germany and China as well as Japan, Charlottetown is Sekisui’s only Canadian location. It’s also a good spot for the company to grow, Mr. Stewart says.

“P.E.I. is a great location to run pilot programs and collaborate with the provincial and federal governments. If you run a pilot program in a place like Toronto, it can get lost in the shuffle among others,” he says.

Mr. Stewart, who comes from Crapaud, P.E.I., says he originally thought he would have to spend his entire career as an engineer in Central Canada before returning home to retire.

Instead, as manager of Sekisui, he finds P.E.I. an ideal place to build a 21st-century, knowledge-based work force. In addition to working with the provincial and federal governments, the company has started a program to attract Island students into the bioscience sector.

The P.E.I. facility has 124 people on staff (as of May, 2018). While this is a tiny fraction of Sekisui’s 23,000 employees worldwide, Mr. Stewart says the Charlottetown site hopes to add another 15 in the next few years, and it recently opened a 5,000-square-foot, $1.5-million expansion.

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The Sekisui plant in Prince Edward Island makes millions of high-tech blood tests and other medical diagnostic tools.Sekisui Diagnostics

“We put money into it and the provincial government put money in,” Mr. Stewart says. The P.E.I. government contributed a $200,000 non-repayable grant for the current expansion, plus $400,000 to be paid back through the remainder of the facility lease (which the P.E.I. government owns). The earlier $3.5-million is also being paid back through the lease.

“We’re made some major structural improvements to the plant and we’re making more. It’s brighter, we’ve got LED lights, we’re improving the environmental footprint,” Mr. Stewart says.

The expanded facility includes a new sealed “clean room” so the Charlottetown facility can make the sensitive testing products now made by the parent firm in Japan. “If you saw the facility compared with what it was three years ago, it’s a whole new building,” Mr. Stewart says.

“We’re also looking at things like predictive technology, using data that we’re collecting already. We want to be able to pick up when the assembly line is likely to break down in advance of it actually happening, for example,” he adds.

As the company moves toward more automated assembly of its blood test and medical testing kits, Mr. Stewart says he wants his workers to be involved. The company was listed as one of Canada’s Top 100 Employers this year in a survey by Medicorp Canada Inc. and Mr. Stewart would like to keep it that way.

“I want to be careful. As we grow in volume, we want to maintain the work force and have it evolve,” he says. One of the Charlottetown facility’s main functions is to assemble Sekisui’s medical kits, so as the plant becomes more automated, the new jobs may be in IT.

“The next stage for us, which we’re just embarking on, gets into automation and managing the flow of data. It will take three to five years to make the changes. None of them are really fast because you have to build the infrastructure, and you need the people to support it,” Mr. Stewart says.

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'If you saw the facility compared with what it was three years ago, it’s a whole new building,' Mr. Stewart says.

Sekisui P.E.I offers tuition subsidies of up to $4,000 per year for its employees to take job-related courses, as well as subsidies for professional accreditation. It also offers on-site and online training.

A facility like Sekisui in P.E.I. is doing the right things to ride the curve toward digital transformation in both sectors it’s involved in, manufacturing and health care, says Andrew Au, co-founder and president of Intercept Group North America, a Toronto consultancy that advises businesses on making the transition to the new economy.

“We’re living in a knowledge economy, so it doesn’t really matter where you are. If you have what this company in P.E.I. seems to have, you can shine,” Mr. Au says.

Sekisui can pick a niche for its Charlottetown plant, using it for assembly and manufacturing based on the massive investment the parent company makes in research and development worldwide, he explains.

Companies in the biotech sector are using AI and cloud-based data to speed up the time it takes to analyze new medical treatments and equipment.

“I think Sekisui focuses on improving the experience for patients and medical practitioners – faster and better results,” Mr. Au says. The company can apply the results it gets from its worldwide research to keep modernizing and updating the Charlottetown plant.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said the P.E.I. government contributed $400,000 for this current expansion, along with $3.5-million it put in last year. In fact, the government contributed a $200,000 non-repayable grant, plus $400,000 to be paid back through the remainder of the facility lease (which the P.E.I. government owns). The earlier $3.5-million is also being paid back through the lease.