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Why Marriott Wants Digital Renderings of Everything

The hotel chain expects to expand the efficiencies enabled by 3-D design software.
April 4, 2011

Marriott International has been using computer-aided design (CAD) tools for more than 20 years. The software makes it much faster and cheaper for the company to plan renovations or new hotels. Now the hotel chain is focused on achieving what might be considered the next generation of efficiency from CAD software: using it to tackle the seemingly unrelated issue of supply-chain management.

Room service. Marriott International uses digital rendering software to examine how many elements in its hotels will look.

Marriott uses software tools made by Autodesk for virtually all of its designs for 3,200 properties in nearly 70 countries. In the past, the company would have carpenters build a mock-up of a new room or lobby to determine the design’s suitability. By dispensing with that step, the company has reduced its design costs by 90 percent, and its facilities are ready for guests six months faster.

Marriott is so devoted to computerized design that it installs LCD monitors at construction sites so crews can see not only the blueprints but also a rendering of how the space they’re building will ultimately look.

Karim Khalifa, the company’s senior vice president for architecture and construction, says that 3-D renderings have become so realistic that once, during a boardroom presentation, CEO J.W. Marriott Jr. wasn’t able to distinguish the computer version of a new Marriott Residence Inn guest suite from a photograph of the finished room.

But what is becoming especially intriguing about the software, says Khalifa, is its potential to improve other parts of the company’s operation, notably its construction supply chain.

Marriott is beginning to require that potential vendors supply the company with computerized schematics of their products—furniture, flooring and wall coverings, bathroom and kitchen fixtures, and even some fabrics—which Marriott architects can import into their design software.

The goal is both to speed the design and to have the design and purchasing functions fully integrated in Marriott’s computer systems. Khalifa hopes that Marriott will eventually have computerized representations of everything it buys for its hotels.

This plan is in its early days, with just 5 percent of Marriott vendors involved, says Khalifa. One of the reasons that figure isn’t higher, he says, is a lack of standards; the data needed by one computer design program might be entirely different from those required by another. A mattress manufacturer working from a CAD design needs detailed information about springs, metalwork, padding, and the rest, while Marriott’s interior decorators require what Khalifa calls a “dumbed down” version, such as a textured rectangular shape to stand in for the finished product.

Figuring out how much, or how little, data a given program needs is one of the challenges still facing the CAD software industry, he says, and Marriott wants to use its clout to speed up that process. “We intend to do a little pulling here,” he says.

Another challenge with a software-based design system is the tendency of computer programs to render everything with unnatural precision. In fact, before showing his bosses a 3-D rendering to get approval of a design, Khalifa has his artists go into the drawings by hand and add some of the inevitable imperfections of the real world, like folds in pillows and kinks in drapes. “When you use a computer to put a blanket on a bed, it just hangs there, perfectly straight,” he says.

There are two exceptions to Marriott’s all-computer rule. Now and then, he says, the company needs to actually build a sample room to see how real human guests will use it, as neither computers nor architects can always make the right guesses about traffic patterns.

The other exception involves the sense of touch. Whenever someone from Khalifa’s team is showing a new computer rendering to other Marriott departments, designers make sure to have on hand physical samples of the fabrics that will be used in the room, to give a sense of what they will actually feel like when guests run their hands across them. “That’s something computers can’t quite do, and least not yet,” he says.

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