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With NAFTA, we need to advance our thinking about manufacturing

Feridun Hamdullahpur is president and vice-chancellor at the University of Waterloo

The North American free-trade agreement, or NAFTA, has become a familiar acronym that has dominated trade discussions in Canada for more than two decades.

In recent months, it appears that the participating countries are being forced back to the negotiating table to determine the future of this agreement, discussions that could expand to the shifting relationship with our largest trading partner and the ever-present threat to jobs and plants in the Canadian manufacturing sector.

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In the face of these challenges, the time is now for Canadians to work together and embrace a strategy of collaboration, an increased focus on strengthening non-U.S. trading relationships and the swift adoption of new technologies in the manufacturing sector.

To continue to advance our trading relationships and our economy in the age of advanced manufacturing, we'll need to recognize that smart is increasingly replacing cheap as the new competitive advantage.

If Canadians are to be competitive in the new age of manufacturing, they have to accept that large factories focused on mass production will lose ground to service-oriented shops that are able to quickly adapt to trends, customize orders and make use of technologies currently available and preparing for those that have yet to be invented.

New and lighter materials, artificial intelligence that enables robots that learn and communicate with each other, machines that can make multiple products and customize each one, software-driven systems and tech savvy operators to build, run and maintain it all is what the future of manufacturing looks like. This is also what will be required to sell Canadian products to overseas markets in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Adopting the practices of advanced manufacturing will not only help Canada replace many of the jobs that may have gone offshore, those practices could prevent others from following suit.

To ensure we can compete in the fourth industrial revolution, Canadian companies and entrepreneurs will need to continue to invest in research and ways to develop and integrate emerging and converging technologies. They are also going to need to attract, attain and retrain talented people who understand how these technologies can be used to improve productivity and map future needs.

Key in this process is and will continue to be collaboration between universities and industry and governments that play a key facilitation role.

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Along with representing the single-largest public investment in research in Canada, universities have the expertise, research infrastructure and mandate to equip our country's entrepreneurs with the tech and talent they'll need to compete in the new global marketplace.

And manufacturers, current and prospective, should have the confidence to knock on the door and expect to find a willing and able partner.

Many Canadian universities are already working with industry.

In addition to helping our students experience current business challenges through our world leading co-op program, students and researchers at the University of Waterloo are working with industry to help identify and solve problems, eliminate inefficiencies and create and validate technology before it goes to market.

We are creating cars that drive themselves and machines that learn from their mistakes. We're printing knees for people who need them and developing new types of metal that can be sprayed without wasting a drop. We're using next generation computing and software to test everything, and inventing the cybersecurity measures to protect it all.

As we can expect political discourse and discussion on trade agreements will continue for the foreseeable future, we are bound to hear much more about what we have lost in the manufacturing sector and how to appease our largest trading partner.

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For Canadians interested in ensuring our country maintains and advances its global economic position, the time has come to shift the conversation from what more we might have to give up to how we can work together as a country to advance our economy and build relationships beyond North America as well with our closest neighbour.

Because if we wait, the opportunity to advance might just pass us by.

Video: Three issues likely to be key for Canada in NAFTA negotiations (The Canadian Press)
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