Q&A: Doing Manufacturing And Construction 'Right This Time'

DIRTT, which was founded in 2004 and is based out of its headquarters in Calgary, AB, Canada, aims to do nothing less than change the methods of conventional construction. The company is offering its customers the ability to design, specify, price, manufacture, and deliver on new construction in a modular fashion that they claim is cheaper, more environmentally friendly, and less susceptible to human error.

DIRTT, short for "Doing It Right This Time," which was founded in 2004 and is based out of its headquarters in Calgary, AB, Canada, aims to do nothing less than change the methods of conventional construction. Today, with advances in technologies across the board, from real-time 3D design to production, the company is offering its customers the ability to design, specify, price, manufacture and deliver on new construction in a modular fashion that they claim is cheaper, more environmentally friendly, and less susceptible to human error.

We decided to get in touch with Julie Pithers, responsible for business and community development for DIRTT, to get more insight into what the company is doing with rapid prototyping and software that simultaneously influences customer design, manufacturing production and construction.

Learn more about the company at www.dirtt.net.

Manufacturing.net: What spurred the company’s creation? What problem are you trying to solve?

Julie Pithers: DIRTT’s CEO, Mogens Smed, headed up SMED International — a company that manufactured modular furniture and bought a modular wall company. SMED offered clients “custom” prefabrication, but the available technology of the day meant hiring hundreds of employees so they could turn designers’ visions into a manufactured product.

While the company was successful in this, the profit margins were thin. Mogens Smed felt it was an industry that was still in its nascent stages. Even the state-of-the-art ERP system, the company implemented wasn’t able to link the front-line and bottom-line. He felt prefab could and should be able to match client demands without abandoning the speed and accuracy of manufacturing and be profitable for the company.

Meanwhile, the construction industry was making even smaller steps towards innovation and higher productivity. It was an industry still using many of the materials and methods of the 19th Century. Smed was sure technology was the key to both these challenges.  

Manufacturing.net: There’s mention on the company website of “last time with conventional construction, the computer power didn't exist…” Can you explain this situation a bit, and how things have changed in more recent history?

Pithers: DIRTT came into being in 2004. It was a time when graphic cards in computers were more robust than ever before. The construction and design industries were also on the cusp of exploring the importance of communication through 3D images. The price of such technology was coming down because of the popularity of video games, which relied on a graphical experience.

The newly formed company already knew technology was the key to their goals and this leap forward was part of it. DIRTT’s software platform, called ICE, is a complete connection from marketing, through sales, specification, order entry, production and delivery. It is during the marketing and sales steps where the videogame experience makes all the difference. Clients and their design teams instantly experience the space with an interactive fly-through where they can understand what it looks like, how it will support and integrate their technology and furniture and how the layout feels.

Manufacturing.net: Are there any other companies in your particular space? What do you think you’re doing better?

Pithers: There are certainly modular interior manufacturers approaching the same clients DIRTT is. DIRTT’s assumption is that no two spaces are the same; their assumption is that they need to be the same. In very special cases, they will develop a custom-sized product for a large client, however, it’s not an easy task. For these manufacturers, it isn’t as profitable as producing standard items in large quantities.

Whereas DIRTT produces custom sized and designed objects such as walls, plug & play wiring, casegoods and doors every minute of every day without fail. DIRTT also embraces small projects to large projects without any disruption going through one or all of their three factories. In several instances, more than one factory will be producing elements of the job in parallel on the same project.

Manufacturing.net: Did the company start first as a software company, and then roll out its manufacturing assets, or was there another shape to the early years?

Pithers: The software and custom prefab solutions started in tandem. The product development team set themselves a stiff challenge. They wanted interior spaces to be impervious to whatever the demands of the environment were, at point of creation or over time. These included task, ergonomic and technological demands as well. They also made it a mandate to ensure whatever this team developed now would work with innovations in the future. And to top it off, everything had to adapt to size, aesthetics and the built environment without being considered “a custom request.” Custom would be standard.

But to do all this — they needed a software that would graphically communicate with the client, automatically understand the engineering required for the design, calculate the price and specifications without error, keep up with all modifications in every level and simultaneously create manufacturing instructions to the production floor. That’s where ICE came in.

Manufacturing.net: Did the prefabricated, modular philosophies for the finished product help change the way that you developed your own manufacturing assets?

Pithers: It had to. Because of the multidimensional, parametric nature of our solution, our manufacturing had to be an extension of that behavior. As our solutions differ in character and composition, our manufacturing has to be able to address individual aspects without penalizing the process.

A rapid prototyper was our first purchase, along with our design workstations and software. As we proceeded through our development, these early models were used to communicate to ourselves the nature of fit and function, and to others design intent. It was an integral part of our conceptual development and it remains a cornerstone of our ongoing design.

Manufacturing.net: Can you explain how ICE is integrated with your own manufacturing operations? How is software changing the way that you produce and do business?

Pithers: ICE is the key to how we do business. Everything from DIRTT’s industry-leading short lead times to quality-control is based on the integration of our marketing, sales, design, specification, ordering, manufacturing and delivery information being entirely contained in a single cohesive platform.

The fact ICE instantly creates all manufacturing details — right down to every sub-part, during all interactions from marketing through final order signoff — allows us to move seamlessly through the entire process. Not only do we calculate and manage this information from the sales stage forward, ICE also allows virtually infinite control over the design and application of the DIRTT products so that our clients and partners achieve exactly the result they want. There’s no selecting standard modules from a catalog here.

This approach is unique to our patented ICE software. It means DIRTT has incredibly detailed information about our client-tailored products at any given point in the project process from early up front information right through to release to manufacturing.

The integration with our own manufacturing operations begins with taking all of the detailed engineering and manufacturing information from ICE and putting into off-the-shelf shop floor systems. They can then be used to create date specific work orders, track product through the manufacturing and delivery process and procure the materials for manufacturing. Since all the details necessary to produce the product reside in ICE, it also allows us to support our distribution partners in sourcing materials locally for environmental and cost benefits. Without instant access to this level of details we simply would not be able to achieve the kind of lead times and quality a construction environment demands.

ICE truly represents something new and fulfills the needs of a client facing graphical ORDER configuration platform (not simply an ORDER LINE configuration system) with complete detailed engineering and manufacturing output. This allows us to supercharge our business and utilize our financial and shop floor software for what it was truly made for.

Behind the scenes, ICE is automatically producing and modifying with each design change the exact cost of materials. It is concurrently specifying the correct parts and pieces to merge with the base building and equipment requirements. Where a videogame is tallying up ammo, game status, score and lifespan, ICE is tallying price, parts, engineering, manufacturing and installation — all without more human interaction.

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