By many measures, the Quebec economy has never had it so good. Unemployment is at its lowest level in over 40 years, while GDP is at its highest. The province is repaying its debt, and on the business side, more and more new companies are launched each day. But even if the numbers are looking rosy, it is no time to be complacent.
One of the realities companies everywhere face is how to contend with the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) in their respective industries. The Quebec government has been active on this front, and launched the Industrie 4.0 program, a set of tools and subsidies to help companies automate their production lines and otherwise integrate this disruptive new technology into their operations.
To ensure the uptake and participation in the scheme, the province has created an audit system to certify that companies actually are upgrading their practices. But of the over 250,000 registered companies in Quebec, so far only three have qualified as being truly 4.0 compliant. One of these is AdFast Inc.
A maker of assembling, sealing and insulating adhesives, the Montreal-based company has been involved in the fastening business since 1978. But the global market for polymer-based adhesives and sealants – estimated to reach $82 billion US in 2025 – is dominated by massive multinational conglomerates based in Germany and Japan. How can a small firm in Quebec compete against such giants?
AdFast President Yves Dandurand summarizes the company’s ambitions in a nutshell: “Since 2004, AdFast has committed significant resources to develop highly complex hybrid polyurethane polymers, which have potential to seriously challenge the patented chemistries manufactured by the major German and Japanese companies,” he said. “We will challenge the domination of these two players who control 80% of the market in hybrid polyurethane polymers.”
With such an ambitious agenda in mind, Dandurand is continuously in search of ways to improve efficiency, enhance collaboration and increase competitiveness. Although achieving 4.0 certification was a significant milestone, it was no excuse to rest on his laurels. In parallel to their efforts to improve their production processes, the company was also looking at ways of offering products that are less hazardous to human and environmental health.
To meet this new target, in 2016 Dandurand turned to PRIMA Quebec, an organization that matches industry research needs with institutional expertise in the area of material science. It was through this channel that he first met McGill University Professor Milan Maric. Professor Maric, through his lab in Chemical Engineering, is an expert in polymers, those long-chain molecular structures that have such wide use in modern life. McGill’s infrastructure in polymer synthesis and characterization provided a platform to design new kinds of polymers that would be effective in AdFast’s applications. Eventually the partners sought and received funding through an NSERC Collaborative Research and Development grant, which runs for three years.
AdFast’s goal was to create durable polymers but without using toxic materials, in particular isocyanates. Although they have useful properties for the formation of polyurethane and other formulations, isocyanates are deadly. They were behind the tragic incident in Bhopal, India that left 4,000 people dead in 1984. Clearly, removing these elements from the process is a desirable goal, and a potential game-changer in the industry.
But moving forward on Non-Isocyanate Polyurethane (NIPU) Polymers is no small task. Dandurand estimates two years in development time before the product will be ready for market. The work in NIPUs is also showing some potential as a means of containing CO2 – an added benefit.
Adding NIPUs and other products to its range of offerings will help drive AdFast to further success. The company has grown 6-fold since 2006, and now produces some 10 million cartridges of adhesive per year. They also plan to expand their overseas presence and have enlisted the support of multiple agencies in government.
“I believe that with McGill, we will shorten the process to go commercial with new technologies,” explained Dandurand. “We will definitely recommend other companies in Quebec to reach out to McGill for their business challenges.”
For Professor Maric partnering up with AdFast has been a perfect case of win-win. “They have been a dream partner,” he explained “We have full-time engineers from AdFast working with our students, exchanging best practices and enriching the students’ educational experience by learning the business side of science and engineering. Our students have space available to work at AdFast, allowing even better collaboration.”