Research at the service of the digital transition

“More than ever, the future of the regions depends on digital technology,” declared Marie-Eve Proulx, then Minister Delegate for Regional Economic Development, in a press release in 2021. The government launched its Digital Transformation Offensive (OTN) to accelerate the digital shift of businesses in all regions of Quebec. Encouraged by major investments, although this transformation today seems well underway, the work is far from finished. But two new tools have now been added to the arsenal of Quebec companies: university centers dedicated to technological innovation.

“Many were concerned to see that our companies were not making the leap to robotization,” observes Jonathan Gaudreault, director of the Lab-Usine at Laval University. “This is explained because here we produce small series. We don’t have many factories that do the same thing every day for 10 years. These are more personalized orders, the production is different every week. »

This is how, he believes, our companies have stood out in the face of globalization. The problem, however, is that this personalization prevents many Quebec entrepreneurs from taking the next step in the digital transition.

Launched at the beginning of April, the Lab-Usine, a mixed research unit (UMR) on innovative manufacturing systems, aims precisely to alleviate this problem. “We have been working for years in collaboration with companies who wanted to find digital solutions within the Industrial Systems Engineering 4.0 Research Consortium,” says the director. However, the work hit a wall: “Our partners told us: ‘We always end up listening to your recommendations, but two years later. We need to find a way to get us to listen to you from the start.” »

The solution finally emerges: a place to experiment with solutions before implementing them in the factory. “We couldn’t arrive at the customer’s site on Monday and take control of the production line to test new ideas! » illustrates Jonathan Gaudreault. The research unit allows solutions to be refined before deploying them on the factory floor.

The idea is so strong that it leads to a new name. Exit the Consortium, enter the Lab-Factory — which, to add to the realism, will produce a real product. “We needed a company where we can do product design, machine programming, production,” he says. In short, actually going through all the stages of production, like the companies he works to help.

After some brainstorming, the team agreed to start a business making mini wooden trailers that customers could customize. “We don’t want to cheat, we really want to be tailor-made. If you make a thousand of them, they must all be different from each other. »

Barely launched, the Lab-Usine is already generating enthusiasm which delights its director. “Not everyone who contacts us needs us,” he observes. Sometimes we already know the solution and we can direct them to a service or product that already exists. » He points to the centers of industrial expertise (CEI), scattered across Quebec, which can offer precisely this type of support. “Other times, we dig around and see that there is no known solution. In these cases, we tell them: “You did well to come and see us!” »

Interdisciplinary expertise

It is in a similar spirit that the Joint Research Unit on digital transformation in support of regional development was launched in 2021, set up by the National Institute of Scientific Research (INRS) and the University of Quebec to Rimouski (UQAR).

Based in Rimouski, this research unit aims to set up interdisciplinary projects in collaboration with players in the region. “Our goal is not only to respond to technological challenges,” explains Julia Frotey, assistant professor at the INRS Urbanization Culture Society Center. We also want to contribute to responsible, ethical and inclusive development. » This is why the unit’s team is made up of both professors specializing in computer science, but also researchers in the human sciences.

Concretely, how will this UMR help the digital transition in the region? Professor of computer science at UQAR, Mehdi Adda responds by citing an example: “As the regions are very large, people do not have access to the same health services as in the city. We want to explore ways in which technology can reduce this gap. » He is particularly interested in the ways in which sensors coupled with artificial intelligence could contribute to the independence of aging people, by monitoring their behavior in a non-intrusive manner.

More broadly, his colleague identifies a series of difficulties which slow down the transition in the region: “Businesses do not all have the same access to the digital network and there are disparities in the digital literacy of local actors, which limits the ability to access all Internet opportunities. »

Partnerships on the horizon

The UMR’s work on digital transformation in support of regional development remains in its infancy, with the official launch planned for the fall. The team is currently focused on establishing a common vision and areas of research — the list includes areas like education, transportation, manufacturing and energy, among others. “We’re a bit of a UFO,” Julia Frotey says with a smile. Mehdi Adda nevertheless already notes the advantage of working collaboratively: “I am used to interdisciplinarity, but by having a close core of colleagues whose expertise I know, I have an easier reflex to ask them their point of view, which helps me not limit myself to technical concerns. »

The next step will be to open the door to potential partners, to better understand their specific issues and thus launch research projects that correspond to their needs. Among the objectives, the training of highly qualified personnel and the increase in information sharing are also crucial.

Mehdi Adda hopes to see solutions emerge from the UMR which, anchored in a specific environment, could be useful in other regions of Quebec, or even elsewhere in the world. “We want to draw inspiration from successful experiences elsewhere, but we believe that the experiences carried out in the regions here can be applied elsewhere. »

This content was produced by the Special Publications team at Duty, relating to marketing. The writing of the Duty did not take part.

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