Fortune 500 companies tackling manufacturing skills gap with Ottawa firm’s software

Samer Forzley
Simutech Multimedia CEO Samer Forzley. File photo.

With technological disruptions leaving two generations of industrial maintenance workers untrained, an Ottawa-based firm is using its simulation software to bridge an emerging skills gap in the manufacturing industry.

Ottawa’s Simutech Multimedia develops maintenance simulations that train workers to repair and maintain machinery on the factory floor. The company, which is celebrating the 20-year anniversary of its first module release this month, has a client roster that includes the likes of Amazon, Pepsi, Kraft, Toyota and hundreds of other Fortune 1000 companies.

After more than two decades in business focused largely on research and development, the company introduced a new CEO late last year to capitalize on the firm’s foundations. Samer Forzley, who first encountered the company while working as marketing vice-president for Ottawa IT services firm Pythian, says he jumped at the opportunity to take the reins at Simutech.

“You go to the grocery store and you’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s our customer, that’s our customer, that’s our customer,’” the new CEO says. “We have big companies that benefit from our software. … There’s nothing like this product in town.”

Forzley says Simutech offers manufacturing companies a risk-free learning environment. Heavy machinery, even used in a test run, can be dangerous and costly should an untrained hand be at the wheel.

“You don't give a new airline pilot the keys to the jumbo jet ​– you sit them in the simulator before they actually go and fly the plane,” Forzley explains.

Manufacturing’s ‘double-sided’ skills gap

While Simutech’s end product may be a software application, Forzley says the company wouldn’t get by if it didn’t draw on in-house manufacturing expertise. Warren Rhude, the founder and chief product officer at Simutech, worked at HydroOne before starting the firm. The company has also tapped post-secondary institutions such as Algonquin College for its manufacturing graduates and instructors.

“It cannot be software-focused only, because that does not work. Our core skill comes from people who are in the industry,” Forzley says.

That industry is undergoing both generational and technological upheaval.

“You don't give a new airline pilot the keys to the jumbo jet ​– you sit them in the simulator before they actually go and fly the plane."

Maintenance workers in the baby-boomer generation are rapidly hitting retirement age at the same time as millennials and Gen Z graduates are walking onto the floor. The old guard, with decades of manufacturing experience under their belts, are running out of time to train the next generation – a role Simutech is more than happy to fill.

“There's a need to bridge the gap between the knowledge that’s walking out when the older folks are retiring and the new ones that are coming on board,” Forzley says.

The other disruption affects workers of all ages: new tech. The advent of industrial Internet of Things technologies and the push to automation have made machines on the factory floor increasingly complex and difficult to maintain. While younger, digital natives may adapt more quickly to emerging technologies, the established workers often require additional technical guidance.

Forzley says Simutech’s offerings address this “double-sided skills gap,” one which traps the manufacturing industry’s workforce between demographic shifts and technological disruption.

Headcount going up

To take the company to the next level, the new chief hopes to deepen the company’s reach within its existing customer base. While Simutech does a bit of business with companies such as Toyota in North America, there are bigger opportunities if it can get into these large customers’ global operations.

To that end, the company has been hiring. Simutech has beefed up its team with enterprise sales experts, and expects to raise the company headcount in the coming months to 30 from today’s 14.

Enterprise customers aren’t the only revenue source for the company, which sells its software to numerous post-secondary institutions and professional associations. Earlier this month it announced a partnership with the Canadian Elevator Industry Educational Program that will see the two organizations develop a method to troubleshoot elevator doors.

“Every elevator technician in Canada will have to go through our training because it's mandatory now for them to do so. And for us, that's big news,” Forzley says.

If Fortune 500 customers and wide-ranging deals such as the elevator training program are any indication, Ottawa’s Simutech may be on the ground floor of big opportunities.