Some of the big changes in the AEC Industry are being pushed by A. Zahner Company, an engineering and fabrication company based in Kansas City, Missouri.
In January 2016, we met with Zahner representative Ed Huels, Director of IT / VDC Services, to learn how the company is responding to the challenges that face the AEC industry.
Zahner has a long history in the sheet metal fabrication industry, dating back to 1897 when it was founded by Andrew Zahner. The company went through several transformations, producing a variety of standard sheet metal applications.
In the 1980’s, L. William Zahner, took the reins as the fourth-generation great-grandson of the family business. The company moved beyond producing standard systems to exploring architecture as art, just as the design world was beginning to explore new technology-based design solutions.
Exploring New Capabilities
In the late 1990s, Zahner began working with Gehry Partners as a consultant, manufacturer, and installer on their team’s complex projects.
“Digital capabilities started to develop in the 1990s, so we were able to engineer products much more effectively,” says Huels. “It allowed us to define our building structures and create much more complex geometries than we could do using pen and paper.”
The company found its niche using parametric design to develop architectural designs.
By developing dynamic methods to output shop files, the company was able to accurately fabricate highly complex geometries in the shop.
“At the end of the day Zahner’s core business is as a fabricator, so being able to design those buildings with confidence and a high degree of precision was very important and allowed us to succeed in that market,” Huels says.
As complexity becomes standard in the construction, there’s one area in this evolving industry that could benefit from simplification: the relationship and communication clarity between owners, architects, and contractors.
Need for New Relationships
Design-assist and design-build relationship — in which specialty subcontractors become involved in some cases before the general contractor is brought on board — are becoming a necessity for complex projects.
By bringing certain subcontractors into the process early, designers can reduce component rework and mitigate connection errors in the field.
Design teams typically bring Zahner onto projects early in the design phase to help prove that the architect’s concept is both buildable as well as feasible.
It also allows the design team to discover potential problem areas and develop design solutions.
Traditionally, the AEC industry is built on a downstream relationship between owner, architect, and general contractor. “That needs to be redefined because there are so many stakeholders who have expert knowledge how things should be done,” Huels says. “Expecting the design team to be experts who are able to sign off on everything – this doesn’t seem to work anymore.”
Huels sees one solution. “Legally and contractually, the AEC Industry needs to change from a 2D world to a 3D world.”
Zahner uses Dassault Systèmes tools to improve collaboration among all parties involved on a project and provide a high level of transparency to the designer and owner. 3D modeling allows their team to complete projects on-time and on-budget.
It also enables Zahner engineers to easily address problem areas and conflicts early on in the process, and to demonstrate the feasibility of various design features at the earliest stages of a project.
Although all of Zahner’s work is done in the 3D environment, contractually the company is still required to produce a 2D drawing that is outdated virtually the moment it’s produced.
“We rely on the model and what it tells us. If we can instill that level of confidence and way of operating in the industry as a whole, I think that could improve everybody’s processes,” Huels says.
He adds, “If we could make the 3D model the contract document itself, that would go a long way toward improving the industry.”