By giving virtually anyone the ability to fabricate a one-off project, 3D printing has been named a major disruptive technology. Metal engineering and fabrication company A. Zahner Co. aims to push rapid prototyping into further disruptive territory with today’s public beta release of ShopFloor. The free, web-based program gives architects not only the tools to design a custom metal façade—which the company will then engineer, fabricate, and deliver to their doorstep—but also the pricing for their creations in real time. The tool “uses our factory floor like a massive rapid prototype machine,” said company CEO and president Bill Zahner in a press release. (Zahner also served as a judge in ARCHITECT’s 2013 R+D Awards.)
The transparent and upfront pricing feature departs from the norm of designing first, procuring multiple quotes from contractors and subcontractors, and then—particularly given the current economic climate—value engineering elements. “In the construction world, when you’re working on a project, the price is always hidden,” Zahner says in an interview with ARCHITECT. “I always think that this is so crazy, given our connections with the designer and the client.”
ShopFloor not only represents a big step toward construction transparency, Zahner says, but also a big shift in how his company does business. “From our end, this is changing the paradigm of what kind of company we are,” he says. “Right now, we take your designs, we work on the engineering of it, put this information on this interface—this is all after the pricing is established—and then we build it. Now we're going to introduce things to you to design with and it can all be within some parametric relationship.”
The first tool released in the ShopFloor software is CloudWall, which derives its name from the undulating Cloud Wall adorning the company’s Kansas City, Mo., headquarters and has become a tourist spot for design aficionados.
The software tool CloudWall gives designers the opportunity to create their own Cloud Wall—which the company has made more cost efficient since its own custom installation—by adjusting design parameters to fit their own design and building needs and seeing a 3D model change in real time. The system of metal fins can collectively serve as a bespoke architectural finish, company artwork or identity, and a sun shading device. The parametric design tool doesn’t require any scripting knowledge, but allows users to customize the surface geometry formed by the metal fins with a respectable level of finesse. Users can also upload images to serve as the Cloud Wall’s base topography. For now, the tool limits designs to rectangular, two-dimensional building walls up to 25 feet high and about 80 feet wide. Users with more specialized design needs or larger projects can still order the system the old-fashioned way, via a phone call or email consultation.
After choosing a material for the system’s panels and connections from essentially every metal that the company currently offers, users can see the cost of their creation. The price will change as users experiment with different design iterations. The pricing provided is good through the posted expiration date and includes the cost of engineering and fabrication of the system’s components; it does not include shipping, installation, and tax. Zahner says that the installation has been designed to be straightforward, but the company will provide assistance upon request.
The tool enables users to save, edit, and share their models with team members for design input or quoting for installation. Users can also export their models to different file formats, including Autodesk DWG files and Object (OBJ) files. Once a design has received the thumbs-up from all the parties on a project team, users can purchase the façade via ShopFloor; the cost of freight will be calculated and added into the purchase price. A 50-percent deposit is required before the company begins working on the project, and the balance is due before the company ships the system, which will take about five to eight weeks, Zahner says.
In the cutthroat, tight-budget world of construction, some in the industry may find it hard to believe Zahner is laying all of his company’s cards on the table. During a peer review, he says, some participants said that ShopFloor would allow contractors to circumvent his company. “But they're going to have to engineer it, they're going to have to develop the connections, and all the details,” he points out. “Would you take that risk?”
The company plans to add two more tools to ShopFloor in the first half of 2014. ImageWall, which is based on the Zira technology that the company developed to manufacture the perforated copper panels cladding San Francisco’s de Young Museum, will allow users to create and order projects as small as just one perforated panel. StoreFront, the third tool, will simplify and make transparent the ordering and pricing process for curtainwall facades, while adding a level of design—removable metal cladding—to the conventionally anodized aluminum mullions and stick construction.
Zahner acknowledges competitors could also take advantage of the information available on ShopFloor. “Competitors will always try to upsell you, regardless of what you're doing, but I would rather be brutally straightforward,” he says. “Let's open the interface between the designer and the guy who's actually making this stuff and see what happens. The commoditizing of the world is happening. We look at it as a fun way of modifying some of the games that are played in our crazy construction world.”