It used to be when someone talked about the manufacturing industry our immediate thoughts were boring, repetitive, often noisy dirty sweatshops where those on "the line" were supported by the 'trades' and pushed by the
foremen.

Well, wipe that off the chart! Gone!

The changing face of manufacturing is one of the reasons Barrie is playing host to a whole celebration of manufacturing next week. And it's an about-face for a city whose very essence used to be people working on the line.

In the 50's, 60's and 70's, Barrie's economy was driven by companies like Copaco, Imperial Eastman, Lufkin Rule, Tambrands, General Electric, Mansfield Denman, General Tire. That's a tiny, partial list but it represents Barrie a generation ago.

Sometimes when Canadian leaders talk about Canada's role in manufacturing, they talk about competition, tariffs, working harder, loyalty, and the like. But for manufacturing companies who have survived, who have thrived during these years when jobs on 'the line' have migrated to Mexico and Asia, it's not a matter of working harder.

Sab Ravali is one of those. Formerly a supplier, then an employee and now with colleague David Crooks an owner Prodomax is driving manufacturing in Canada to a new level. It's fitting as we celebrate manufacturing in our community, to look at a company that has grown from 1000 square feet and a handful of employees in 1971 to 225 employees in 125,000 square feet (a city block) and well over $60 million in annual sales. Today, after half a decade of international pressure, Prodomax emerges as a superior provider of automation solutions with the world at its doorstep.

Here's why.

First of all, the company lives its motto, Putting the Future Behind Us. It's traded the assembly line for mechanical and electrical design, and added a healthy dose of sales, applications engineering and assembly and development to stellar customer service. Robots. That's been the mainstay since inception, but Sab Ravali's concept is so much more and the Prodomax team is driving that home.

He demonstrated how Canadian manufacturing is going to survive the onslaught of Asian labour as world markets drive production prices into the cellar and Canadian companies struggle to compete.

"We can't compete on the same playing field," says Ravali. "How can a $35 an hour employee produce a product at the same cost as a 89cent employee?" His contention? It can't be done.

Sitting in his board room, he pulls up the chair beside me... standard, serviceable board room chair, manufactured in China and designed to be thrown out. $150 each. And then he pulls forward his desk chair, unparalleled comfort, ergonomic design, leather, pneumatics, all the bells and whistles. Price tag? $2000. Made in China? No. Made in Canada. It comes with a lifetime warranty for onsite service, maintenance, and guarantee for workmanship.

Sab's in Barrie because he brought his urban engineering/service/sales/automotive/supplier background here for the love of the lifestyle. He moved from being a supplier to Prodomax to being an employee at Prodomax to being an owner of Prodomax and in that quarter-century spread, he's developed the winning philosophy that attracts top notch people. He's spent some time trying to break out of the paradigm of manufacturing excellence.

"We don't compete on volume. We can't compete on volume. We'll fail if we try to produce 1000 widgets for $1.99."

This is the lament of manufacturers across the land AND their displaced workers when plants shut down.

Prodomax looks at it differently. "We have to compete on a different level. We have to produce a better, funky, absolutely unbelievable widget for $1.99... only one of them." People who used to work on a line are retrained as machine assemblers. Prodomax sent its manufacturing jobs to Mexico and China and has gone from machine building to engineering.

"We're a solutions builder. We offer local service that's unique, that's unparalleled, with customer service that's solutions-based and backed up. We have a leg up because we're idea people, value driven and we're creative, we offer engineering, and we produce the world's best products. But we've given up volumes. And that's the only way we can compete today."

Sab sees incredible opportunity in Barrie today, as the manufacturing jobs of yesterday have moved to the far east. But it means that companies--and people--have to reinvent themselves.

To survive, North American manufacturing has to be all about service and quality. Sab feels that Barrie's manufacturing facilities must position themselvews to meet the demand for quality, since it will never compete at the price and/or volume levels.

As he looks at today's graduates, he applauds the technologists who produce better tools, and the core values inside a person, the human factors, that will make a difference to the business bottom line. Sab looks for character, drive, politeness, service, and the individual who knows how to go the extra mile. He says young people today need an eclectic background which includes apprenticeship, technology, and project management skills as well as the willingness to learn constantly. He looks for young people who stay in a classroom part time forever so they stay ahead of the learning curve.

As a business, Prodomax supports apprentices and says school programs must improve vastly to give Canadian companies what they need.

And why in Barrie? Fewer distractions. Fewer similar industries competing for employees. And for whom? "We target the multinational big-picture, wealthier client who wants creative solutions that are backed up by service and support. If someone's competing with China, we can't do much for them because they're looking totally at price and price affects what they can spend.

Canadian manufacturers are being bombarded by Asia, says Sab. He says it's time to get off that stage and move into the creative arena where quality counts.

At some point it's a choice most of us have to make.

Celebrate manufacturing's new face next week and drop by the Event Centre Tuesday, May 16 between 9 and 3 and explore the future. Before it's past.

Thanks, Sab. Thanks, Prodomax.

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