Technicore Underground: A Canadian manufacturing success story
Tony DiMillo got his start in the construction business as a boy working for his father’s tunnel contracting company. An innovator by nature, he was always interested in the machines and how he could make them better, faster and more efficient for the contracting jobs. So, in 1996 DiMillo struck out on his own and launched Newmarket, Ontario-based Technicore Underground Corporation to design and manufacture underground and tunnel boring equipment.
“It’s always been about building a better mousetrap,” he says. To that end, he has developed two key game changers for the industry: first, the proprietary and patent protected Controlled Foam Injection (CFI) technique used to fracture rock and concrete in such a way that byproducts are completely biodegradable and do not harm the environment and; second, customized Tunnel Boring Machines (TBMs), which are designed to provide maximum efficiency regardless of the ground conditions. Today, Technicore is the largest Canadian-owned tunneling equipment manufacturer and DiMillo is committed to continuing that growth right here in Canada.
While the manufacturing industry in Ontario continues to struggle and many of his competitors have been purchased by larger U.S. players DiMillo is committed to staying in Canada and creating jobs for Canadians. “I am a passionate, proud Canadian and I love the accomplishment that comes from making things. At Technicore we design and manufacture equipment to do things no other equipment can replicate and we do it all in-house,” he says. “Large U.S. players continue to buy Canadian manufacturing companies, shutting down operations here and moving to cheaper locations. We’ve been offered incentives and tax credits to relocate to places like Georgia or Florida but we want to keep our people working here in Canada. Built by Canadians Used by Canadians, that’s our motto.”
Part of the reason DiMillo has been able to do just that is because of the unique structure of the business—a structure that came about as a result of tough economic times but has proven to be the ideal model to drive innovation and growth.
“In 1996 we started by taking orders for Tunnel Boring Machines from predominantly U.S. based companies,” says Lynn DiMillo, Tony’s wife and president of the company. “We grew quickly and by 2001, revenues hit almost $7 million. We were doing a lot of R&D to better our processes and we had just developed the Controlled Foam Injection technique. Our Tunnel Digging Machines (TDMs) were receiving significant interest from overseas mining companies and one had just given us a letter of intent for a significant order. The events of September 11, 2001 changed everything. The company cancelled the order and the market dried up. It was devastating to us because based on that letter of intent we had taken out loans to carry out production.”
At that time, the DiMillo’s and their team decided to go back to Tony’s contracting roots. In 2003, they established a separate contracting company, Technicore Underground Inc., which would use the equipment it was developing and manufacturing at Technicore Underground Corp. In effect, the contracting company was a ready-made market for the manufacturing company. “Most contractors never want to be the first to use new equipment,” says DiMillo. “We started contracting to show people how good our equipment is. It worked well.” It worked so well, in fact, that the contracting company is now also in growth mode.
Its first major contract was to build utility tunnels for the terminals at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. “We were in the middle of testing a piece of equipment which was a hybrid between a tunnel boring machine and tunnel digging machine when we took on that contract,” says Lynn. That machine is the patented Tunnel Digging Shield— the only piece of equipment that can bore boulder fields.
“We designed our TBM equipment to go through various ground conditions: water, dirt, rock, and in some cases all three at once,” says DiMillo. “Typically mining machines are built to go through either soft ground, wet material or rock. It performed better than what we anticipated and other manufacturers jumped on board. That started our TBM marquee. Over the years, the contracting business kept getting bigger and we continue to use it to introduce new equipment and technology into the market.” The new equipment and the level of innovation DiMillo and his team bring to each project is winning both companies more work.
Case in point: the Billy Bishop Tunnel connecting the Toronto Island airport to the mainland via a pedestrian tunnel. “We weren’t the lowest bidder,” says DiMillo. “We were selected because of our innovation.”
Much of Technicore Underground Corp.’s innovation comes directly from DiMillo who draws inspiration and creative solutions from seemingly random, unrelated situations. For example, he hit on the idea to improve the digger shields after watching an episode of Stargate. The Controlled Foam Injection technique is modeled on the workings of a cappuccino maker.
“I don’t consider myself good at innovation. I enjoy innovating. If you love what you do, you don’t work a day in your life and by that standard, I haven’t worked many,” says DiMillo. “I question and think about how things can be better. There is always a practical aspect to what I do. Out of challenge comes opportunity. I take from all the things I’ve learned over the years and draw ideas from everywhere. I’m not risk averse. I sketch all the time and I still have the original drawings of the first TDM. I built that first one in my basement using plywood and broom handles. When I knew it would work, I said ‘OK, let’s build one out of steel.”
That can-do, let’s-try-it attitude is shared by his team—now 150 strong and growing. “Most of the core team has been here since day one. Our people share my love of automation and innovation and I encourage them to move forward with their ideas,” says DiMillo. “We were only able to keep all manufacturing here in Canada—something that was very important to me—by innovating and automating. We have huge potential to continue to grow. I don’t think there is anything stopping us.”