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Imagine, Create, Repeat

Technology, expertise, and carefully designed processes are vital to the process of mass customization.

By Henry Burke

No architect wants their design to look like all the others. Part of the artistic nature of architects is a desire to create a unique expression. Owners also want their buildings to make a statement about their personal or corporate image. This trend toward individuality has generated an increased demand for customized building products and systems. Today, collaborating with building product manufacturers can open up a wider world of design possibilities for architects.

"We are seeing a lot of interest for custom panels and components," says Chaz Schafer, fabricated products manager for CENTRIA. "I think as a society we have been shifting away from status quo for decades, and owners and architects are expressing themselves more. Designers want functional individuality and the ability to showcase their creativity. Owners want their building to be noticed by and attractive to tenants and visitors."

"Architects don't want to be same as everybody else. They want their project to stand out," says Gary Brunette, vice president of manufacturing for CENTRIA's operations in Frankfort, Ky. "They want to take what was once looked on as just cladding and make it an art piece. Architects challenge us to take what was once considered a standard product and find ways to mold or shape it into something that nobody has asked for before, and possibly no one will ask for again."

The idea of manufacturing custom building components on a mass scale even a decade ago would have been prohibitively difficult and expensive, but technology has enabled those willing to invest in the right tools and processes to deliver more custom solutions. "As more firms utilize the latest manufacturing and modeling technologies, thoughts and inspiration can be visualized rapidly," Schafer explains. "Technology is in place right now to express your thoughts or feelings with a key stroke, and building design is catching up. Having the ability to offer customizable products opens up entirely new paths of design."

Of course, visualizing and designing custom components is just one part of the equation. At the end of the day, the product still has to work and do its job for the building.

"The biggest challenge is interpreting the vision, and manufacturing is just one small part of what we do," Brunette says. "There has to be balance with our installation and engineering groups to make sure the building is going to function. Just because you're going for a particular look doesn't mean the component will work. Just because we can make it doesn't mean we should. What CENTRIA brings is a balance that allows us to make sure that what we're doing fits all the facets for the owner."

"Customization requires more effort and patience," Schafer says. "Every project, and sometimes every panel, is a new experience that has to be understood with sound engineering practices. Custom products still need to perform structurally and this requires a thorough understanding of the panel substrate, fastening techniques, and the specific load and span conditions."

Companies like CENTRIA have been delivering custom products to customers for years, but the key to offering these kinds of options to a wider audience is creating a degree of repeatability to the process of designing and manufacturing custom components. This concept is called mass customization and as technology and experience with custom products grows, the idea has become a reality.

"Mass customization is the ability to meet customers' specific requirements while keeping the cost relative close to mass produced standard products," Schafer says. "Specific to CENTRIA, it is about supplying solutions to the building construction industry that add individualism and value."

"I would describe mass customization as the ability to make a part that doesn't exist right now, or a modification to a part that does exist, on a grand scale," Brunette says. "It's setting up a process to take a customer's idea and mass produce it."

CENTRIA has upped the ante in the mass customization market with a series of customizable product lines. "Formawall® Graphix Series (FWGS), Paradigm, and the Intercept lines are CENTRIA's latest step into the frontier of mass customization," Schafer explains. "Each of these product lines offers new design capabilities and options that are new to the marketplace. For instance, FWGS allows the aesthetics of many smaller panels, up to 24, in a single 40-inch-by-20-foot panel. FWGS meets the contemporary market trend of smaller panels while providing a significant installation cost savings compared to erecting 24 individual panels. Similarly, Paradigm offers designers the ability to accent certain areas of project without breaking the budget. Paradigm gives designers near full control of the exterior skin."

Evolving along with marketplace demand, CENTRIA has long been working to deliver on the idea of mass customization. "It's been a natural progression from what we've seen in the market. It's not like a light switch went off and we suddenly thought we have to do this," Brunette says. "The marketplace has been going that way, so we've been gradually shifting our gears and spending our capital to put processes in place to make sure we can handle those kinds of requests."

"These levels of customization and innovation have been accomplished with three main drivers: expertise, technology and vision. Having more than 40 engineers, architects and building scientists with hundreds of years of cumulative experience has been a major factor in the sustained success of CENTRIA," Schafer says. "Customization is not new to us. Whether it's custom color matching, custom flashing, custom architectural features or completely customizable panel systems, CENTRIA has always valued customization because it has allowed us to build beautiful buildings. We are just expanding our capabilities."

According to Brunette, mass customization requires much more than just the latest technology and tools. People make it happen. "You can have all the equipment, automation and computer systems in the world, but if you don't have the people behind it to execute what's needed, you can't get anywhere," Schafer insists. "You have to have team members that are willing to adapt and change. You have to be flexible. That's the only way you can do mass customization."

As the processes are refined and availability grows, it appears that the demand for customized products will grow as well. "As the economy finds its footing, architects will have greater flexibility and control, which will spark innovation," Schafer says. "Specific to building envelopes, I believe we will see more customization through further design assistance of 3D modeling and maximizing the potential of the latest manufacturing equipment. In addition, I feel that overall facade integration will be a hot topic. By this, I mean the way windows, backup systems and exterior cladding work together to maximize the efficiency of the building envelope."

For the team at CENTRIA, the challenge of mass customization has been an exciting one. "Every day is fun. We do something new every day," Brunette says. "Some days you leave thinking something didn't work out the way you wanted it to, but some days you leave thinking, 'Man, that was pretty cool!' Then the next day you have to figure out how to do it again."

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