‘We have to make it ourselves’: COVID-19 will change how customers look at outsourcing, Ottawa manufacturer says

Laurie Dickson
Laurie Dickson is the owner of L-D Tool & Die in Stittsville. Photo provided

With the federal government ramping up funding for more made-in-Canada medical equipment to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, Laurie Dickson believes manufacturers like his have a major role to play in making the country less reliant on foreign suppliers.

The owner of L-D Tool & Die in Stittsville says his plant has been running 24-7 for the last few weeks to produce test kits for Ottawa-based Spartan Bioscience’s rapid COVID-19 testing machine that recently received Health Canada approval.

The company has been supplying Spartan with test kits for years. But when the biotech firm pivoted to focus its portable DNA testing technology on the novel coronavirus, Dickson’s firm had to shift production into overdrive.

Spartan is one of several Canadian companies that have received millions of dollars in federal funding to produce respirators, masks and diagnostic equipment for the fight against the novel coronavirus. 

But as Canada competes with countries around the world for limited quantities of foreign-made protective equipment such as N95 masks and other vital products, Dickson says it’s imperative that other domestic manufacturers like L-D Tool & Die step up to make the country more self-reliant in the medical supply field.

“How long do you think this virus is going to last? Nobody knows,” he says, noting both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford have pointed to the need for more homegrown medical technology.

“They’ve all turned around and said we’re not going to get caught with our pants down again. We can’t be held ransom to subcontractors. We have to make it ourselves.”

L-D, which specializes in plastic injection-moulding products, makes the plastic swabs and tubes that are used to collect samples for Spartan’s tests. While the company was turning out about 10,000 kits a month at its Iber Road plant before COVID-19 hit, it will need to churn out more than 800,000 each month to meet demand for the new rapid coronavirus test.

“These are big numbers,” says Dickson, who is looking to nearly double the firm’s headcount by hiring between 75 and 100 employees to assemble the kits.

Dickson says over the past few decades, Canada has outsourced more and more specialized manufacturing to foreign producers, leading to a steady erosion of those skills here at home and making it harder to quickly boost his production capacity.

“If I want to expand, I can’t find people in the trade,” he says. “Mould-makers (with) 10 years’ experience or more who want to relocate, I’d take them tomorrow, but you can’t find them. It’s terrible.”

Asked if he’d consider branching out to other medical components, Dickson says he’s got his hands full with the current contract and jobs for customers in other industries. His 45,000-square-foot plant is already bursting at the seams, and he’s planning to build another facility of at least 10,000 square feet to meet his production needs.

The veteran entrepreneur says he’s happy to do whatever he can to aid in the battle against COVID-19.

“I’m just very proud that I’m able to help.”