AI and robotics have permeated almost every sector in Canada. But, just as important as the technology itself, a skilled workforce is required to advance, manage and apply this tech within those sectors. In eastern Ontario, academic institutions are carving a path for the future of AI and robotics and training the talent required.
Loyalist College, based in Belleville, Ont., is one of those academic institutions. Launched in September of 2022, Loyalist College’s mechatronics program was created to address today’s move toward automated equipment in the manufacturing sector. The mechatronics program gives tradespeople a greater understanding of how the electrical, mechanical and software systems fit together; it rolls those three areas of expertise into one program. This is a massive benefit to manufacturing companies. Rather than having to hire three different tradespeople, companies will have one who understands all aspects of the automated equipment, can fix an equipment issue or oversee installations from start to finish.
Part of the mechatronics program involves Fuji Automatic Numerical Control (FANUC) certification, which equips students to handle all facets of automated equipment and work with industrial robots as part of a production process (or even an entire factory!). Students are also taught to work with 3D scanners and printers that manufacture plastic-like materials and components.
The most exciting part of this program is that a local manufacturing company offers students part-time jobs while completing their studies, and a permanent position upon graduation. Also, while the program concentrates on the manufacturing industry, graduates have the skills to work in virtually any industry that has adopted AI and robotics, including agriculture and healthcare.
“Automation is blowing up everywhere, not just in manufacturing.” says Brian Pennell, industry partnership officer with Loyalist College. “A big part of that is the labour. There just aren’t enough people with the dual-ticket technical skills to support these industries, so you were once chasing those people to work in factories, farms or healthcare. Yet if the systems these industries use has electrical components or mechanical movement, our students would be able to work on those systems. Our mechatronics program is equipping our students with skill sets that enable them to work with automation in any industry.”
In Oshawa, Ont., Durham College has had its finger on the pulse of artificial intelligence since 2017. With funding from the provincial government and institutions like the Ontario Centre of Excellence, Durham College launched the AI Hub, initially providing research and development in artificial intelligence for small and medium-sized companies in the Durham Region. It helped clients leverage data to gain insights for creating efficiencies, build chatbots or develop ways for technology and individuals to interact directly. The AI Hub has grown significantly since then, expanding its reach from small to medium-sized private sector companies to include non-profit organizations and the public sector, like the regional government and companies like Ontario Power Generation (OPG).
Durham College offers two programs focused on artificial intelligence that intertwine with the AI Hub. One is a graduate certificate program in AI analysis, design and implementation. The other is an Honours Bachelor of AI degree, a four-year program designed for high school graduates or post-secondary graduates in areas like computer science or cybersecurity who want to add practical applications of artificial intelligence to their knowledge base and skill sets.
Even more beneficial is that these students are matched with a local business, hospital or even regional government through the AI Hub during their studies. They use what they’ve learned in the classroom to work on an applied research project, identifying the problem and the methodology and ultimately coming up with a solution through research and development.
“Working on AI Hub projects and interacting directly with business clients gave me important exposure to the Canadian industry.” says Navaneeth Ramanathan Jawaharlal Nehru, an international student enrolled in the graduate certificate program. “It has been a great learning opportunity to apply the skills I’ve learned in the classroom and see my contributions make a difference.
As an international student, it’s also helped me to integrate into the Canadian job market.”
There have been many success stories to have come through the AI Hub. Most notable is Reipower, an AI-powered metering and monitoring platform that helps small to mid-sized industrial, commercial and institutional buildings manage, monitor and optimize their power and energy consumption. This startup’s prototype was named runner-up at the BOMA Toronto Crest Innovative Excellence Awards in 2020 and was awarded $50,000 in funding through the 5G ENCOR program funded by the Ontario Centre of Innovation. Since then, Reipower’s tool has been used by two large facilities in Ontario and was named the Innovative Project of the Year in 2022 by the Association of Energy Engineers in Atlanta, Georgia.
The list of exciting AI Hub projects continues to grow. One example is the AI Hub’s current collaboration with Durham College’s Mixed Reality Capture (MRC) Studio and Sheridan College’s Screen Industries Research and Training (SIRT) Centre on a Dynamic Digital Humans (DDH) project. This project is creating lifelike virtual humans to change how content is created and how people engage and interact across all media platforms. Debbie Demczyk, dean of the Office of Research Services, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (ORSIE) at Durham College, says this is just one of many exciting areas the AI Hub is tapping into. “AI powers digital humans in a very significant way, so the AI Hub is bringing that expertise to Sheridan and collaborating on creating digital human assets,” she adds.
Since 2017, the AI Hub has served 130 business clients and provided 304 students with paid student research assistantships to work on collaborative projects for business clients. Looking to the future, the AI Hub plans to broaden the scope of its services to include business and technical assistance on a per-need basis and provide training for companies to help them better understand and utilize artificial intelligence.
Demczyk believes that the current AI landscape is only the beginning of great things developing at Durham
College: “AI and machine learning is like a new frontier, it’s just incredible, and it’s amazing that Durham College is right on the pulse of it.