David Allen Company Broadens Artistic Vision with Water Jet

A shrine to the possibilities of stone, tile and terrazzo, David Allen Company's Raleigh, N.C., corporate headquarters is a showcase of waterjet artistry at its finest.

Home to one of the nation's largest commercial marble, granite, tile and terrazzo contractors, this elegant facility could easily be mistaken for a fine arts museum or Venetian palace.  Upon entering the company's grand rotunda, it is easy to imagine yourself at the Sistine Chapel. Indeed, the first thing to catch your eye is a granite depiction of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam.

At every turn, visitors to this exquisite campus are greeted by breathtaking works of art, including a mosaic floor inspired by a battle scene of Alexander the Great on his horse Bucephalus, and an impressive conference room featuring a mosaic tabletop decorated with more than 1,500 intricate pieces of waterjet-cut marble and stained glass. Even the emergency stair treads and risers are done in decorative terrazzo.

David Allen Company's stunning headquarters is the vision of its Chairman and CEO Robert Roberson, who wanted to create a place of inspiration for architects, artists, and employees when he moved the 87-year-old company from its landmark location in the center of Raleigh's downtown to its much larger new 50,000 square foot complex in 2001.

"We had a vision to become what we've become," Roberson recalled as he reflected on his decision to build a showcase for his company's capabilities. "I built this building in my head years before we started construction."

Roberson joined the David Allen Company in 1957 as a temporary bookkeeper for David G. Allen, a master craftsman who founded the company in 1920. Within a year, he was promoted to manager and his temporary position became a lifelong passion.  He took over the company in 1967 upon Allen's retirement, and has been growing it ever since.  Today, David Allen Company employs more than 400 skilled artisans and is one of the most respected contractors in its industry.  The company is well known for its award-winning commercial terrazzo work.  Some of its notable terrazzo projects include Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and the Mount Vernon visitor center.

To achieve his longtime dream, Roberson realized he would need to set up a waterjet fabrication shop to produce the thousands of intricate pieces necessary to complete his masterpiece office building, which to this day is a work in progress.

"I wanted in this building many of the things a waterjet could produce," Roberson said.  "I have a great appreciation for the creative and artistic aspects of this industry. It was obvious that the waterjet capabilities would allow me to realize to a greater degree those artistic kinds of things."

After lengthy research, Roberson decided to purchase a 6-foot by 12-foot High Rail Gantry waterjet system manufactured by Jet Edge of St. Michael, Minn. He powered the machine with a 75-horsepower Jet Edge intensifier pump.

"I found that Jet Edge had skilled and capable people committed to their customers," Roberson commented. "I met people who showed me substance. I got the feeling that here's a team of people who know what they are doing, not a group of salespeople."

Jet Edge's commitment to service and quality was crucial to Roberson, who is dedicated to operating his business with honor and professionalism, and staying true to the craftsmanship of David G. Allen.

"David Allen was a very particular craftsman who would not compromise quality or service for expedience," Roberson said of his mentor. "He was focused on doing it right and meeting the needs and expectations of the customers. That philosophy has served us well and it works. We have an image and reputation in the construction industry that is born out of our performance. The bottom line is we earned it. We stand above our competitors in terms of our professionalism. We are truly respected."

While Roberson could have bought a cheaper waterjet, he said Jet Edge's pricing was fair and its quality superior to competitive systems.

"This is a low-maintenance reliable workhorse," he said. "You initially invest a little more to obtain the superior machine but reap the benefits of high productivity and minimal down time for the life of the system."

Roberson tapped employee Paul Wilson to manage the waterjet fabrication shop and recruited Wilson's wife Vickie Wilson, a professional artist, to design many of the works of art seen in the building. Roberson acknowledges that Vickie's passion for expressing her artistic abilities in marble, granite, terrazzo, and tile inspired and refined his vision for his new facility. David Allen Company's waterjet shop now has 10 employees.  The shop uses its Jet Edge system to cut a variety of materials including zinc, aluminum, brass, plywood templates, stone, ceramic and glass for commercial flooring projects, residential countertops and miscellaneous rush jobs. The shop cuts with two abrasive jet heads and utilizes Jet Edge's patented Dual Pressure Valve to raise and lower water pressure independently of the intensifier pump for low-pressure piercing of fragile materials.  The shop's other equipment includes a bridge saw, slab polisher, router, line polisher, hand polishers and grinders.

Roberson noted that the Jet Edge waterjet has greatly enhanced his customers' appreciation of what can be done with tile, stone and terrazzo.

"The waterjet has allowed us to be in control of the intricate parts of our products," he said. "It has allowed us to be innovators rather than reactionaries. It broadens our vision of what can be done."

Paul Wilson agreed, noting that Jet Edge system has enabled him to achieve designs impossible to create by any other method.

"The Jet Edge waterjet has allowed us to do things we couldn't have done before, or if they could have been done, would have been cost-prohibitive," Wilson said. "We can deliver products that no one could have dreamed of. It allows us to take artists' concepts and put them into designs. When I have architects in, I tell them that the one thing I want you to take away from here is that you don't have to just draw straight lines anymore. It's endeared us to customers and given us opportunities that we would not have had before. It has won us contracts on our larger commercial jobs and generated additional possibilities."

In addition to expanding artistic horizons, the Jet Edge system has vastly increased David Allen Company's productivity, primarily by replacing its time-consuming terrazzo logo fabrication process. Prior to installing its waterjet system, the company made intricate terrazzo logos by cutting brass and zinc strips by hand, bending them and then soldering them together. Now, the company simply places sheets of aluminum, brass, or zinc on the waterjet and cuts the designs from CNC programs.

"With respect to the terrazzo logos, we'll spend six to eight hours on the CAD system and three or four hours waterjet cutting them and a half a day putting them together," Wilson said. "This might have taken three weeks to cut by hand. It's definitely a productivity enhancing tool."

Much of this work was done by Vickie Wilson, who recalled the hours and hours she spent snipping, bending and soldering together zinc logos.

"I am so grateful for the waterjet for eliminating the painstaking process we did before," Vickie Wilson smiled.

The Jet Edge waterjet system also has sped up the production process of residential stone countertops, Paul Wilson noted.

"For residential sinks, to cut with a handsaw, then grind and polish them is an hour's worth of work," he said. "On the waterjet, in 12 to 16 minutes, we can have the sink cut out and the holes in for the faucets, plus the program is recallable. It gives us consistency and is much quicker than doing by hand."

"With anything that's got any degree of detail, waterjet is so much faster," Paul Wilson said. "We can do in two or three hours what used to take a week, plus we can do detail that you couldn't think of doing by hand. Several years ago we did a job consisting of quotes from movies, all formed from brass strips. It took us three months to do that job by hand. If we did it now, we could generate the fonts in minutes, we could do all the cutting in less than two days and finish the job in a week, and it would be crisper and sharper and much better than by hand."

Both Roberson and the Wilsons are very satisfied with the Jet Edge system.

"The machine is very well designed," Paul Wilson said. "It is robust and it is big enough that I can get an entire slab on the table. It is easy to load. Everything moves back out of the way. I can move the high rail all the way to the back and the cutting heads to the corner and easily load a 10 foot by 6 ½ foot slab on the table with our crane system.

"Reliability has been very good. We just don't have a lot of downtime. Sometimes things this sophisticated have a lot of downtime and we haven't experienced that with this machine. Jet Edge has awesome technical support and manuals, maintenance is pretty straight forward, and we are able to get parts delivered overnight. There is always someone there who will answer any questions and not in a condescending manner, which is very unusual. The people are very, very good. Tech support gets straight A's. Everyone is doing a great job."

Roberson and Paul Wilson noted that one of the Jet Edge High Rail Gantry's finest features is its stability.

Wilson said the beefy Jet Edge system reminds him of the massive Italian-made machinery often used in the stone industry, versus more common cantilevered-arm style waterjet systems.

"Cantilevered arms wiggle," he said. "Suppliers tell you they won't, but they will. The Jet Edge High Rail Gantry is a solid system and it gives us good accuracy."

More Information

David Allen Company

Jet Edge
1-800-JET-EDGE (538-3343)

About Jet Edge
Jet Edge is a world leader in ultra-high pressure (UHP) waterjet and abrasivejet technology. It manufactures complete systems and related products for precision cutting, surface preparation and coating removal.


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