By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
To say it’s been a rough year for Oshawa’s auto industry would be an understatement.
Just about a year ago, General Motors announced its plans to shutter its longstanding Oshawa assembly plant, essentially bringing an end to the city’s rich auto manufacturing history, at least for now.
The last vehicles will roll off the assembly line next month, and although plans are in place to save 300 jobs in Oshawa, the significant influence GM had on the city will fade away.
Along with it will go hundreds of jobs at local feeder plants, some of which are still in the midst of negotiating exit agreements with their respective employees.
To add insult to injury, the 2,000 remaining workers at the Oshawa plant have been on temporary layoff due to the United Auto Workers strike in the U.S., which has now entered its fifth week.
While it’s easy to get caught up in the uninspiring future of auto manufacturing in Oshawa, there is a bright spot on the campus of Ontario Tech University – an “ace” in the hole if you will.
The Automotive Centre of Excellence (ACE) opened back in 2011 at what was then the Univesity of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT).
The ACE was first conceived in 2003 when UOIT first opened its doors, and major work began in 2005.
When it opened on June 14, 2011, then UOIT president Dr. Ron Bordessa said it was the beginning of a new era for the post-secondary institute.
It’s heralded as the “first facility of its kind,” and features one of the largest and most impressive wind tunnels in the world.
The ACE is a collaboration between GM, the university, the Partners for the Advancement of Collaborative Engineering Education, and the federal and provincial governments.
Spanning 16,300 sq. m., the facility cost an estimated $100 million.
The crown jewel of ACE is the climatic wind tunnel, which can simulate wind speeds of up to 250 km/hr, temperatures ranging from -40 degrees Celsius to 60 degrees Celsius, and relative humidity ranges from 5 to 95 per cent.
The wind tunnel also features a unique variable nozzle that can optimize the airflow from seven to 13 metres squared to allow for an unprecedented range of vehicles and other test property sizes.
It also features an integrated research and training facility spanning five floors with space dedicated to research, education, and training. It has offices, laboratories, conference rooms and common work areas.
The testing facility is available for rent for companies including manufacturers, start-ups, and researchers in both Canada and across the world.
Momentum at ACE has continued to build since it first opened in 2011, and the next major project at the facility is well underway, attracting some major political players to the city.
In February 2018, when the Kathleen Wynne-led Ontario Liberal Party was still in power, current party leadership hopeful and then Minister of Economic Development and Growth Steven Del Duca visited ACE with a major announcement.
Del Duca stated the province would be kicking in $4 million to Ontario Tech for the installation of a moving ground plane, a giant belt that simulates a moving road under a vehicle.
The project is also receiving $1 million in funding from auto-supplier Magna International.
The equipment simulates aerodynamic forces against moving vehicles and measures the physical characteristics in real-world conditions.
There are only 14 of its kind in the world.
“The funding for the moving ground plane confirms ACE as the world’s leading automotive research and testing facility,” said Dr. Steven Murphy, current president of Ontario Tech.
At the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, the current federal Liberal leader and candidate for prime minister Justin Trudeau made a surprise visit to ACE to announce $9.5 million for the moving ground plan project.
Trudeau tested out a smoke machine in the wind tunnel and took a tour of the facility.
He praised the work taking place at the centre.
“It’s the kind of technology that makes the ACE here at UOIT a world-class facility,” Trudeau stated. “Everything from cars to bicycles to drones is tested here, developing the best quality and performance possible.”
John Komar, ACE executive director, has been with the facility since it was just a concept.
He directs the business plan and financial management of ACE, including key partnership negotiations and relationships.
Before joining Ontario Tech, Komar worked for GM, and has extensive and diverse experience in manufacturing and engineering from components to final assembly.
Traveling around the spacious facility on a Friday morning, Komar’s passion for the centre is obvious.
He excitedly shares with The Oshawa Express news about improvements being made to the wind flow and the acoustics in the tunnel.
In the depths of the building, he gives a quick overview of the moving ground plane, which is currently in the midst of testing.
The university built a massive expansion to house the impressive piece of equipment.
Even further down, Komar demonstrates a model of the tunnel, which is to scale to ensure any improvements meet the most minute details.
As impressive as the wind tunnel looks on the inside, seeing the nuts and bolts of the ACE building brings a whole new perspective to the innovative work being done there.
Komar notes at another facility which uses a moving ground plane, it takes about a month to put the piece of equipment in place.
He estimates it will take about an eight-hour shift to do this at the ACE.
The moving ground plane will bring in a whole new cache of partnership.
As a veteran of GM, Komar acknowledges the shut down of the assembly plant will have a huge impact, but he points out the company is not abandoning its use of the facilities at Ontario Tech.
He says the company is focusing much more of its resources on electric and autonomous vehicles, and the ACE is the perfect location for the company to conduct testing on these vehicles of the future.
Komar says he expects the moving ground plane to be installed and operational by next spring, setting up a brand new future at a facility that has already made an impact on the community in its short lifespan.