Calgary manufacturers leaving their marks on the world

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Evans Consoles and DIRTT (Doing It Right This Time) Environmental Solutions might not be household names in Canada. But both Calgary-based manufacturers are established stars on the global stage in their respective sectors — and they’re growing.

“We’re a manufacturer of control room solutions, and that probably means nothing to most people, but the easiest way to describe to people what we do is to think about when the space shuttle takes off,” Richard Game, chief operating officer with Evans Consoles, says about the company’s work building the mission control rooms in Houston, Cape Canaveral and the Jet Propulsion Lab in California.

“NASA is the sexy one, but our focus is mission critical control room environments around the world.”

DIRTT too flies under the radar a bit at home, yet soars abroad.

“DIRTT is really on the leading edge from a construction perspective,” says its chief operating officer, Tracy Baker, adding the firm uses ICE, its innovative, proprietary 3D software technology to design and then custom-build modular interiors for commercial, education and health-care clients. It is now also entering the residential sector.

Both companies embody Calgary’s growing manufacturing sector: innovative and punching above their weight class.

Manufacturing is certainly no slouch in Calgary. Close to 1,700 businesses were involved in manufacturing in the city in 2015, employing about 50,000 workers, according to Statistics Canada and City of Calgary. The sector includes agribusiness, aerospace, wood products, chemicals, printing, metals and machinery, among others. And it generated more than $5.95 billion in economic activity in Calgary in 2015.

Manufacturers benefit from the city’s world-class logistics and transportation network as well as the Calgary region’s status as an Inland Port and a Foreign Trade Zone, which allows companies to delay paying duties on imported components until a finished product is sold.

Calgary's Evans Consoles makes mission critical control room environments around the world, including for NASA, says Richard Game, chief operating officer.

Calgary’s Evans Consoles makes mission critical control room environments around the world, including for NASA, says Richard Game, chief operating officer. Supplied

Innovation is often the foundation for their success. While many North American manufacturers move operations to China and emerging markets to take advantage of lower labour costs, DIRTT is embracing technology and reducing labour costs through automation so it can produce the precision products that its customers want.

And desire for its products and services has grown stronger by the year since DIRTT was founded about a decade ago. 

“The majority of our business right now is in the United States,” Baker says. “But we are reaching beyond that with distribution partnerships overseas.”

Both Evans Consoles and DIRTT are expanding operations.

“We just finished the move into a 200,000-square-foot manufacturing space that we added to our portfolio in Calgary,” Baker says.

Evans Consoles, in business for more than 30 years, has done the same, opening a state-of-the-art, 250,000-square-foot facility recently.

Moreover, these companies, which rely heavily on highly skilled workers, are now able to expand with fewer growing pains because of increased availability of engineers and technicians. And they need bodies because demand is mushrooming.

“A lot of our verticals (markets) are also counter-cyclical with the price of oil,” Game says. “When the price goes down, a lot of power generators (utility providers) make more profit and hence have more money to spend on capital.”

Calgary is a good place to grow as a high-tech manufacturer because of the large pool of young, educated and exceptionally motivated professionals that include a large number in the STEM skills of science, technology, engineering and math.

“They just make great employees for the long-term,” Game says.

Both Baker and Game say what also makes Calgary advantageous for burgeoning manufacturers is the overall business climate: its spirit is seemingly irrepressible.

“One of the greatest advantages of being based in Calgary is the entrepreneurial spirit of the city,” Baker says. “It’s what differentiates us and it’s a fundamental base to the culture we create for our business.”

Game — who has worked all over Canada and is not originally from Calgary — wholeheartedly agrees.

“You can feel the energy in Calgary and Alberta that you don’t always experience elsewhere.”

Call it the “secret sauce,” he adds.

But without this Calgary state of mind neither company would have been driven to come up with a better product that has put them ahead of the pack.

Of course, a focus on technology, innovation and knowledge provides a big edge, too. 

“We’re not a software company. We make stuff. We cut wood and metal,” Game says. “But we grow by constantly investing in solid engineering and technological capabilities.”

So while a company such as Evans Consoles quietly goes about its business in the city, it continues to make a lot of noise abroad.

“We are the brand name in our industry,” he says. “If you’ve got a control room and it’s an Evans control room, people know it’s the best.”

 This story was created by Content Works, Postmedia’s commercial content division, on behalf of Calgary Economic Development.