Canada’s shipbuilding industry started facing several challenges in the mid-1990s. With outdated shipyards, a lack of skilled workers and limited access to equipment and supply lines, the industry had lost significant momentum. The government’s solution? Create a National Shipbuilding Strategy to rebuild Canada’s marine industry.
This long-term strategy, developed by the government in 2010, would revitalize Canadian shipyards; construct new large and small vessels, both combat and non-combat, for the Royal Canadian Navy and the National Coast Guard; and create sustainable jobs while advancing skillsets. This strategy would also develop new talent here at home, provide new opportunities for Canadian suppliers, present new export opportunities and bolster innovation. The shore up of innovation is where BCS Automation is a perfect fit.
BCS Automation is an Ontario-born, family-run industrial automation company that provides turnkey solutions to even the most demanding automation challenges for a variety of industries from marine, cement and manufacturing to offshore sectors like oil and gas. For the marine industry specifically, BCS Automation provides comprehensive systems that allow control and monitoring from one central location on a ship, enabling operators of commercial vessels on the Great Lakes, like bulk carriers and tankers, to do more with less manual labour. As ships have multiple instruments and devices used to control and monitor different aspects of the vessel, BCS Automation’s systems allow the captain, chief engineer or the crew — either in the engine room, on the bridge or in the haul — to monitor things like tank levels, cooling systems and temperature gauges from one source or, with the push of a button, automatically run operations such as turning valves in the haul without having to move about the ship or turn them manually.
BCS Automation is one of a collective of contributors to the National Shipbuilding Strategy, working alongside companies like Seaspan that are involved in coastal marine transportation, ship escort or docking, shipbuilding and repair, and companies like the Vancouver Shipyards, which provides facilities for the design, construction and repair for a variety of marine vessels. As a single-system integrator for the technology that will be applied to Coast Guard vessels, the company is working with Seaspan and the Vancouver Shipyards on the construction of new vessels for the Canadian Coast Guard — vessels like the CCGS John Cabot, the third state-of-the-art Offshore Fisheries Science Vessel (OFSV), for example. This means that BCS Automation is supplying the central system that all other systems on the ship talk to, enabling the crew to monitor what happens with every aspect of that vessel, as well as efficiently control nearly every device onboard. These ships for the Canadian Coast Guard are anticipated to be equipped with advanced technology for missions much different from their counterparts that deliver cargo from port to port — missions that could include science and research or mapping the ocean floor in the Arctic, for example. To do this, BCS first became knowledgeable in those advanced systems and then provided the control and monitoring technology that would communicate with them all from a central location. With its knowledge and experience in the marine industry, BCS Automation was up to this challenge. “I think it’s really great in what Canada has done and we’re a prime example of how their investment into the shipbuilding industry is working. When Canada announced the National Shipbuilding Strategy, we started getting contacted by the Canadian Coast Guard and other international companies that were looking to get involved,” says Nathan Bowland, general manager of BCS Automation. “We’ve taken our marine experience and are now applying it to that initiative.”
The inspiration for BCS Automation came from a combination of Tom Bowland’s profession as an electrician and his passion for ships. In fact, ships have been a family passion for generations.
BCS Automation’s involvement in the National Shipbuilding Strategy is just part of a long line of accomplishments that the company has achieved since its beginnings more than 30 years ago. It was born in the basement of the Bowland family home by Nathan Bowland’s father, Tom Bowland. The inspiration for BCS Automation came from a combination of Tom Bowland’s profession as an electrician and his passion for ships. In fact, ships have been a family passion for generations. Nathan’s grandfather ran a sailboat-building business once upon a time. For Tom Bowland, though, it was a combination of electrical systems, ships and water that he was passionate about, and he began to build control panels in his home, first for land-based industries and then gradually making the jump into the marine sector. “We’ve always had this marine part to our family and that just continues with the technology that we’re delivering to ships now,” Bowland says. “While we were building control systems for a cement plant in Picton, Ont., there were ships that would pull into the plant to deliver product and we got involved with the conveyers and systems that went from the ship to the plant. That led my dad to explore what we could do for onboard the ship, and that’s kind of where we made the jump from land to sea.”
The growth of that first control panel to the company it is today was a slow but rewarding build. Tom Bowland was extremely detail-orientated and firm in his belief for consistency. That said, he enlisted others to become a part of the business only a few skilled workers at a time. Fast-forward 32 years and BCS Automation has grown exponentially into a highly skilled 20-person team. “Maybe he was too hands-on and needed to be involved in everything, but the growth of the company at the beginning was very slow and steady,” says Bowland. “But that has benefited us today because we really had a good foundation from which to build. Today, working with the National Shipbuilding Strategy and Seaspan, we have well-trained employees who have been with the company for more than 20 years and ready to take on new challenges. Both of my parents have recently retired and so we’re continuing and expanding on what they started.”
Innovation for the marine sector is not simply the creation of new ideas or technology. It’s also a fleet of passionate, knowledgeable and highly skilled individuals with a commitment to collaboration and a dedication to revitalizing Canada’s shipbuilding industry.
The BCS Automation team is made up of a wide range of experience, from skilled employees who have been with the company for more than 10 or 20 years, to newer employees, all working together to design complex systems. What’s unique about BCS Automation’s company is that their team doesn’t simply design the systems — they build them as well. Rather than sitting at a desk completing one design after another or creating software day in and day out, the team also goes into the shop and physically builds the systems they’ve designed. Bowland believes that the ability to build these control and monitoring systems makes the team better designers. If they happen to cut their hand on metal because the box is too small, for example, the designers know that the box must be designed differently moving forward. This is hugely beneficial when you’re creating new technology that will operate advanced vessels for the Navy or the Coast Guard.
In fact, BCS Automation has recently supplied their first equipment to the Royal Canadian Navy, something they are quite proud of. They were also awarded Manufacturer of the Year by the Quinte Business Achievement Awards Association in 2020. These accolades are just the start of a long list of accomplishments that’s to come for the BCS Automation team. They’re currently creating new custom products that are more compact and lighter for Seaspan to adopt for their new vessels — a necessity when every square inch on a vessel is valuable real estate. They also plan to continue their relationship with Seaspan for future projects and multipurpose vessels like a Polar Icebreaker for the Canadian Coast Guard — projects that have and will continue to give BCS Automation greater exposure to international companies like Kongsberg, Schneider Electric and ABB Ltd., from whom they can gain further knowledge and skill-development to continue building out innovative technology for the marine sector in Canada.
Then there’s the future of shipbuilding that BCS Automation is excited for, knowing that it has the technology and expertise to play a part. Future initiatives are on the horizon, like the Vancouver Shipyards’ planned 3D modelling of vessels, which involves creating a digital twin of a ship to show potential ship owners how a vessel would look and operate. This would prove to be very important given that as ships become more and more compact, there is less margin for error. Whether for optimization or for training purposes, the ability to walk around a ship virtually and to touch buttons to see what they do is something that could be very real for the future of the marine industry in Canada and something that BCS Automation is ready to be a part of. “It’s great for our newer employees to have this opportunity to engage with new technology and be a part of these future initiatives,” Bowland says. “And to know that there’s this longevity, that they’ll get to visit these ships throughout their careers to service them, maintain them or even help build them, they love the idea, and they have this pride in ownership of the equipment that we’re supplying. And that’s great to see.”
Innovation for the marine sector is not simply the creation of new ideas or technology. It’s also a fleet of passionate, knowledgeable and highly skilled individuals with a commitment to collaboration and a dedication to revitalizing Canada’s shipbuilding industry. Devoted to not only building innovative technology, but also building the next generation of innovative shipbuilders, BCS Automation is helping to chart new waters for Canada.