The series: We look at the manufacturing industry which is using technology to create “smart factories” fit for long-term global competitiveness.
Over the past 100 years, Sheridan Nurseries has grown into one of Canada’s leading landscape architecture firms.
Operating on more than 1,200 acres of growing space in Southern Ontario, the company now produces 600 varieties of perennials to go along with 600 nursery stock varieties.
For the past few years, it has also offered something else: cutting-edge innovation.
Environment is everything when it comes to growing plants and shrubs, particularly in the widely varying climates in which Sheridan has to operate. So the company went on the hunt for a system that uses wireless probes to monitor variables such as soil moisture, acidity and temperature.
“It’s the old 80/20 rule,” says Pieter Joubert, Sheridan’s vice-president of nursery operations, based in Georgetown, Ont. “Eighty per cent of your problems come from 20 per cent of your crops.”
The company found its solution at Peytec Inc., which has built a cognitive network to control asset management and inventory. Since its founding in Toronto in 2011, Peytec’s aim has been to create disruptive and innovative Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) solutions to enable the businesses of the future.
The company’s technology features a series of electronic tags. Any number of sensors can be plugged into the tags, depending on the variables a client wants to monitor. The tags then wirelessly transmit information via e-mail or text whenever those variables change.
At Sheridan, they have proved particularly useful for measuring ambient temperatures in greenhouses over the winter, with the company now using them in 60 nurseries.
“We can set it up so if we’re really worried about a crop, and there’s little forgiveness, we can tell it to send a signal back to us every two hours or every half an hour, depending on how nervous people get about certain things,” Mr. Joubert says.
To track deliveries of nursery supplies as far afield as southern Illinois and Newfoundland and Labrador, Sheridan also uses Peytec tags outfitted with GPS tracking technology. By adding a tag onto each load of shrubs transported by a third-party trucking company, Sheridan can give customers delivery updates, showing exactly where their order is.
“This gives them reliability of when their truck is going to be there because guys in dispatch officers are not very well known for their truthfulness,” Mr. Joubert adds.
Growing out of Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone in Toronto, Peytec has worked with a number of industries, performing inventory control, quality control or asset management.
For instance, its tags have been used by Toyota Canada Inc. to ensure that the colour of bumpers match the paintwork on the bodies of its high-end Lexus line of cars. In this case, a distinct change in the ambient temperature in the workshop can affect the colour of the paint.
Another client is Kirkland Lake Gold, which operates a mine in Northeastern Ontario as well as another in Victoria, Australia, and has a target production this year of more than 635,000 ounces of gold.
Peytec’s tags can help Kirkland Lake keep tabs on its inventory of gold, particularly during the processing stage, when a company attempts to find gold in the heap of muck and rubble that has been brought out of the ground.
“They take our tag and throw it with the muck, so that tag becomes part of the muck,” says Peyman Moeini, president and chief executive officer of Peytec.
“So when the loader comes in and loads a truck, that tag goes along with the muck as well.”
Peytec’s patented wireless positioning and sensing network can even work four kilometres underground. The tags can also be customized for any variable a company wants tracked, simply by plugging in another sensor. That allows for cost-efficient and individually tailored tracking systems for a variety of industries.
“If you were going to go back and customize this tag for every single application, then we’d just end up in a very costly and unreliable process,” Mr. Moeini says. “So by making it modular the way it is, we eliminate that problem.”
Jodie Wallis, Accenture’s managing director for artificial intelligence, says that finding ways to collect and process data is becoming an essential part of doing business in this country.
“I think Canadian companies have woken up to the fact that data-centric capabilities are absolutely critical, so we’ve seen a lot of investment, particularly from large companies, in data infrastructure,” she says.
Rather than data teams operating in individual silos, Ms. Wallis says companies need to have all leaders on board, working with data scientists to bring these solutions to life.
Much like with Sheridan and Toyota, she says the use of data needs to be focused on the benefits for the end consumer: the customers. As an example, she points to SomaDetect, a Fredericton company that manufactures sensors for the dairy industry to monitor every aspect of product quality. Those sensors give real-time updates on dairy quality at milking time and cut down on waste, ultimately resulting in more affordable and better quality milk and cheese.
While large companies are investing money in data-driven processes, Ms. Wallis also says the environment is ripe for smaller companies, particularly as smaller teams of employees are more agile and are more easily able to adopt newer processes.
“The small and medium enterprises are really able to capitalize on the fact that we have hundreds, thousands of these startups investing in new and interesting technologies and just looking for customers to use it,” she says.