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Engineers at the University of Toronto are partnering with aircraft manufacturers and academic institutions to build a collective research hub they hope will strengthen Canada’s role as an aerospace leader in an increasingly competitive global market.

The Downsview Aerospace Innovation and Research Hub (DAIR) will be built at Downsview Park, and aims to bring academics and industry members together under one roof. Here they can collaborate on a variety of cutting-edge projects, such as optimizing the shapes of future airplanes and spaceships, and designing satellites. The centre would also provide aerospace training.

“It’s a new way of thinking,” said Andrew Petrou, the project’s executive director, adding that to bring so many different stakeholders together has never happened before in Canada.

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Mr. Petrou said the project will be completed over the next few years, the main phase being the hub at Downsview in North York. The first phase last month saw the opening of Centennial College’s new campus for aerospace training, while another building at the Downsview location will house Ryerson University’s new aerospace research facility. The University of Toronto’s Institute for Aerospace Studies also plans to relocate to the hub.

Downsview has an aviation history dating back to 1928. What began as a small, private aircraft company called De Havilland, ballooned into a large wartime aircraft manufacturer with 7,000 employees during the Second World War. Today, Downsview is home to a Bombardier aerospace facility, and is the site of the former Canadian Air and Space Museum.

Chris Damaren, director of the Institute for Aerospace Studies at the University of Toronto, said that when it comes to working with others in the aerospace industry, “geographical proximity is very important.”

“Even in this age with the communication we have, being able to walk across the street or down the hall to have a chat with somebody is so important for ensuring collaboration,” he said.

In 2017, the sector contributed around $25-billion to Canada’s GDP; the industry is now worth an annual $838-billion globally. Aerospace exports from Canada have also increased nearly 50 per cent in the past 15 years. But Mr. Petrou said emerging aerospace markets like China and India are changing the landscape.

A 2019 report from Deloitte on the global aerospace industry reveals that over the next 20 years, China may buy more than $1.2-trillion worth of commercial aircraft, while India is “expected to become the third largest aviation market” by 2025.

Mr. Petrou said Canada’s role in aerospace has become “insular” while companies continue to compete with each other and workers age. Now, Canada will face a large shortage of aerospace employees in the next few years. “[Stakeholders] lifted their heads and realized ‘wow, we need to address the challenges we’re facing,'” he explained.

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A report by the Canadian council for Aviation and Aerospace says that, with the average employee now 55, Canada will need to hire 55,000 new workers by 2025 to meet the demand.

Dr. Damaren said the University of Toronto’s aerospace institute has a long tradition of “state of the art research,” having pioneered popular space robotics used at the Canadian Space Station. Apart from offering graduate students a chance to work directly with industry, DAIR would house and support novel courses such as the institute’s new accident investigation class, where students engage with a simulated airplane crash by examining staged physical wreckage to determine how better engineering could improve safety.

Jonathan Hack, manager of strategic technology at Bombardier, said the company’s partnership with Toronto universities and other companies would allow Bombardier to better “engage in research projects” through four targeted areas – advanced manufacturing, cabin noise, cabin interiors development, and aircraft operations.

Mr. Hack said he thought the company’s close proximity to other direct industry competitors would create a “net win,” rather than threaten the company.

Project developers aim to have the centre built within the next four years, and the size of it will be determined by how many aerospace companies in Toronto commit to the project, he said.

"We’re looking for the companies to say how many people they want to have in [the centre] and what type of research they want to do, " Mr. Hack said.

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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Downsview park is currently home to the Canadian Air and Space Museum. In fact, the museum closed at that location in December, 2018.
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