Heavy-Metal Software: Zahner's Game Changer - Design Bureau

Pritkzer Pavillion Chicago, IL

Photo by Joshua Mellin

Bill Zahner

Image courtesy of A. Zahner Company

Harold Washington Library

Image courtesy of A. Zahner Company


Image courtesy of A. Zahner Company


Photo by Mike Sinclair


Image courtesy of A. Zahner Company


Photo by Samer Almadani

Heavy-Metal Software: Zahner’s Game Changer

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

By Amanda Koellner

When Club Penguin, an interactive children's game, debuted on the Internet, Bill Zahner's kids couldn't get enough of the virtual arctic world. "They would build their own igloos on the computer, and as they bought supplies or changed the shape and form, they could see the price of their igloo change," Zahner says, about a decade later. "I was amazed that my son Liam, this four-year-old kid, could create a really elaborate penguin igloo that he has manipulated by changing out parts and resizing the shape."

The president and CEO of the 117-year-old A. Zahner Company—one of the largest architectural-metal and -glass fabricators in the world— couldn’t put the game out of his head. “I was watching my kids play, thinking, ‘The future is going to see people creating work and developing it off of the interface of the Internet within certain parametric relationships,’” he says. “I was going, ‘This is exactly what my industry is going to be doing— they’re going to be creating and buying and purchasing these custom, bespoke pieces right from the Internet.’"

Zahner brought the idea—creating what would become a gigantic, rapid prototype ma- chine for building architecture—to one of his main designers, Craig Long. The goal was to give Zahner’s clients direct access to the company’s technologies while putting the customer in charge of aesthetics, fabrication, delivery, and—perhaps most importantly—the costs involved. “Frank Gehry always wanted to be able to control what happened on my shop floor,” Zahner says of his career-defining collaborator. “So we thought, ‘How can we take what we do and connect it to the design community and give them access, in a sense, to our floor?’” And thus the aptly named software suite, ShopFloor, was born.

It’s the first of its kind to be completely free, open to the public, and transparent about the financial implications of what is being created as it’s happening in real time. In addition, it’s designed to be “fast, simple, and fun” in such a way that the average person with basic computer skills could log in and start designing—no architecture degree required. After downloading a quick plug-in, creating a free account, and signing in, anyone with Internet access is ready to begin choosing materials, tweaking the dimensions, or, in some cases, uploading his or her own images to manipulate. “The way that we’ll really know that we’ve made it is when my outside accountant is cladding his garage with a design he created in the software,” Zahner says. “By making the interface simple and fun, people will be excited to fiddle with it and test it out, to eventually find that it’s competitively priced.

Currently, Zahner is rolling out three tools for ShopFloor’s beta test. The first, CloudWall, gives designers the ability to create façades in the style of Zahner’s Kansas City headquarters—“a fin-based shading system with flexible design parameters and a visually striking output." The second, StoreFront, generates custom glass and metal-wall façades. "Though price transparency is the main driver of this software, the second would probably be our ability to provide a much larger variety of materials," says Tex Jernigan, creative designer at Zahner. "Most storefronts look the same, like the ubiquitous glass façade at the front of every Home Depot—the reason being that the old way of getting more options involves traditional cataloging, which requires maybe two companies and a lot of time. We’re one company doing everything for you quite quickly.” Zahner agrees and says that he’d like to see more creativity in storefronts, something “a little more designed” that steps outside of the traditional narrow-metal-between-glass look. “Most designers don’t want to see the metal in these situations, but we’re saying the opposite: we’re going to show you something wild in metal form,” he says. “We’ve shown StoreFront to a lot of designers, both interior and architects, and they’re intrigued because before you would just simply clad them. It will be fun to see how it turns out—it’s the one people are most startled by when they first see it.”

ShopFloor’s third installment, ImageWall, provides users access to the image-mosaic-perforation Zira technology, developed in 2002, that the company utilized for the surfaces on San Francisco’s de Young museum back in ’05. “Let’s say you took a picture of your family, and you wanted to imprint it across a metal surface for your wall,” Zahner says. “You could do that, and you could do it very quickly. “If you want it in copper or stainless or zinc or blackened steel, you could do it, and it would show you the price.”

CloudWall currently is available for registration and usage, whereas StoreFront and ImageWall are set for a Summer 2014 release. Ryan Gedney, a senior designer at 360 Architecture in Kansas City, Missouri, has collaborated with Zahner on the Basra Stadium in Iraq and was one of the first to check out ShopFloor’s capabilities. “ShopFloor’s tools are understandably lacking in a sense, as it is no small task to build a flexible and nimble online design software that also factors in reliable cost data,” he says. “But as the tool becomes more robust, I suspect you will see more and more people using the applications to not only explore design but schematically validate costs earlier and more frequently in the design process.” Zahner also notes that the idea behind ShopFloor is for it to eventually offer a full array of possibilities—“we started a bit constricted,” he says.

Though Jernigan says it’s too early to know whether or not ShopFloor could be considered a disruptive technology—one that alters its existing market—he thinks that it certainly has the potential. Zahner says that if the process works (once it’s more available to the public), it will without a doubt disrupt as it brings the 21st Century to an old industry. “I think we’re beating a new path and creating a new paradigm of how to interface with custom fabrication companies,” he says. “The design community is embracing this. I also think that there will continue to be a push for manufacturing to become more automated, especially as robotics are introduced in manufacturing more, so this is definitely a direction we’re going to keep pushing in.”

Despite Gedney’s few understandable critiques of the software suite, he agrees that gaining cost certainty in a building project will change the way that the industry functions. “Frankly, I was surprised they hadn’t done it sooner,” he says, “but it is a big investment on their part that should be commended for stepping out of their comfort zones. It is absolutely a notable shift in how tools continue to fundamentally change.”

Aside from easing the building process for existing customers such as architecture giants Zaha Hadid, Herzog & de Meuron, and Frank Gehry, ShopFloor ideally will bring in new customers on a smaller scale. Jernigan says that the pre-fabricated wall systems that ShopFloor creates easily could be designed by the average homeowner and popped into his or her project. “We want to see ShopFloor used by designers who don’t always connect with us because they think we only work on these great, big projects,” Zahner says. “We want to get involved with any good design, including small-scale projects. This gives those designers a way to collaborate with us.”

Despite the vast opportunity that the software is predicted to create, perhaps the biggest concern associated with ShopFloor is the opportunity that it opens up for competitors to peek into the company’s process and pricing. But Zahner isn’t worried—only confident. “Some people in the industry or the general-contract world might say, ‘Well, what is stopping me from taking your price and going down the street to somebody else to make it for less money?’” Zahner says. “Well, you’d be taking the risk of, ‘Can they get it right? Do they have it fully engineered? Do they have the details of this custom system down?’ Why would you risk that? If someone says they can make it for a few dollars less than us, there’s the risk involved of, ‘Well, can they?’”








Behind the Cover
For this issue's cover, Design Bureau staff and Zahner's creative team collaboratively designed a small, freestanding chunk of a Zahner "cloud wall" with ShopFloor—pulling inspiration from DB's diamond logo for the curve of the fins. The completed piece of art traveled from Zahner's headquarters in Kansas City to Chicago's Harold Washington Library (for which Zahner created the ornamented roof in the early '90s), where it will live until Chicago's American Institute of Architects Convention, June 26-28.

Tagged with: