The Question: Optimize or Not?
Building a stout truss used to be seen as a good thing; now it means you are likely going to lose out to your competitors. Thanks to changes in technology and software capabilities, a component’s strength and performance is no longer tied to how much wood is in it, but rather, how well it is designed for the loads it needs to resist. However, beyond truss optimization, presenters of this session argued that “optimization” truly applies to a component manufacturer’s (CMs) entire operation.
What Is Optimization?
Three presenters shared three different views on what optimization means to their companies. It is a safe bet that optimization can be defined in as many ways as there are CMs because the word means a different thing to each individual. For the purposes of this presentation, however, optimization was discussed as a way of thinking about project management. The speakers focused on the various ways in which an entire project could be streamlined, or optimized, to achieve the most beneficial result for the manufacturer.
“The greatest benefit doesn’t necessarily mean lowest cost,” said Javan Yoder. “It could mean the result that made the customer the most happy, or the result that manufactured the product the swiftest, or produced the highest quality and reliability.” They argued that in order to optimize a project, a manufacturer has to evaluate how to save time and/or materials with the design; save time and potential QC errors during production; and, coordinate optimal packaging and delivery method.
“Ultimately, in order to optimize, you need to be able to look at the entire process and identify where your bottleneck is,” said Dave Motter. “Your pinch-point, whether it’s design, production or delivery, is the area where improvement will have the most dramatic impact.” By way of example, Motter points to understanding the relationship between truss heights and both your production table limitations and your wide-load transportation permit limits to optimize the height the trusses during design.
Deciding Where to Optimize
It goes without saying that keeping an eye on the big picture isn’t easy. “There isn’t one person who touches everything, so good communication is the first key,” said Motter. “There is also a cost associated with analyzing every facet of your business to identify opportunities to optimize the process.” This means choosing to optimize is an investment, sometimes an investment yields a huge return, sometimes it doesn’t.
Just as the word optimize means different things, presenters acknowledged that everyone figures things out differently. “Some plants look exclusively at their operations from a board-foot-to-cost ratio,” said Rich Ackley, “and there is nothing wrong with that if it truly captures what is going on with your operations. For us, we go with a lineal-feet-to-square-footage ratio.” Ackley’s company customized their software to compute the ratio on every job. Ackley explained through example that while a ratio of .538 is optimal, it’s very difficult to attain. Whereas a ratio of .578 may be flagged as being high, so the design would be reevaluated.
For Motter’s operations, they optimize their delivery by producing, packaging, and transporting their truss packages in the order in which they are installed on the jobsite. Being in the Pacific Northwest region, roof trusses are crane delivered on the top plate, so stacking the trusses in the order of installation makes his customers very happy. “The downside is that if there is a design that isn’t approved, the whole project can get held up,” said Motter. “But you have to weigh that against the benefit of exceeding your customer’s expectations.”
Deciding When to Optimize
If you’ve done the analysis, and identified where optimization can have the greatest impact on your operations, the presenters suggested you aren’t done yet. There is still the matter of deciding when to employ it. “Some companies optimize their design before the bid process so they can offer the lowest price possible to be competitive with their competition,” said Ackley. “On the other hand, we don’t optimize until after getting the bid so that we capture the value of our truss design optimization as additional profit.”
In deciding when to optimize, you have to acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of your employees. “Not all your designers may be skilled at optimizing a truss layout,” said Yoder. “So you have to decide if you are going to ask all your designers to optimize, or potentially hire or appoint someone to optimize every project.” If that one person becomes a bottleneck, you may decide to optimize only projects that hold promise to yield significant results.
“It can also depend on the materials you have in stock,” said Ackley. “If you are designing using only the materials you have on hand, you are optimizing your material throughput and production.”
There are many opportunities for CMs to optimize their entire process, and it’s not just limited to truss design or lean manufacturing concepts; these three presenters argue it is much broader than that.
Design Values: Getting to Reliable Lumber
Dan Holland, Clearspan Components
John Branstetter, Vaagen Brothers Lumber
“Wood is an organic resource, prone to great variability.” This earth shattering observation was at the heart of Dan Holland’s comments during the “Lumber: Getting Reliable Design Values” presentation. Okay, the observation itself is not profound, but many in the audience agreed that his conclusions based on that fact have wide ranging ramifications for the future of the structural component manufacturing industry.
How Strong Is a 2x4?
At its core, the components industry purchases lumber design values. It is those values that are input into the design software to construct the layout of each component. However, Holland argues most CMs don’t know the actual design values of the lumber they are using to build their products: “Unlike laminated beam or I-joist manufacturers, who test their material and know the properties of the product they put out the door, truss manufacturers appear comfortable letting someone else tell them the strength of their product.”
To understand why this is both a problem and an opportunity for CMs, he asked the simple question, “How strong is a #2 2x4?” Using Southern Yellow Pine (SYP) as an example, Holland pointed out that within any bunk of 2x4s, the allowable variance in visually graded SYP could result in sticks ranging from 1050 Fb to 2400 Fb, a difference of 128 percent. “The unfortunate consequence of this is the manufacturer must assume all the pieces in a bunk have the same conservative, low-end value,” said Holland. “That’s leaving a lot of strength on the table.”
award before, and he now deserves another.
What a fantastic visionary and leader."
Visual Grading Is Broken
“The primary point is that visually graded lumber, particularly Southern Pine, is inappropriate for what our industry does,” argues Holland. This is because the CM purchases design values, but doesn’t know the actual design values of what they purchased. There are two consequences to this fact: (1) CMs can underutilize a majority of the lumber they own; (2) If they purchase lumber from a mill logging predominantly from a plantation forest, they may be getting lower design value material than is assumed by the visual grading process.
“With the recent devaluation of Southern Pine, this is particularly true,” said Holland. “Because the entire Southern Pine resource is lumped together, and downgraded as a result, there is a lot of lumber from particular lumber mills with much higher design properties.” Holland is quick to point out that while SYP is the lumber he is most familiar with, the concept and assumptions behind visual grading make this a problem regardless of the species.
Machine Rated Lumber
The good news is that CMs have an alternative to purchasing visually graded lumber. “Machine Stress Rated (MSR) and Machine Evaluated Lumber (MEL) are resources that have been on the market for decades, and represent a viable alternative to this problem,” said Branstetter. “Each stick of MSR-MEL lumber is run through a machine and non-destructively evaluated and graded based on its Modulus of Elasticity (“E”) and bending (Fb) performance correlations.”
Based on Holland’s earlier observations, the benefits of MSR-MEL are readily clear: the design values of each stick are measured and as such more well-known. “Reliability should matter to our industry,” said Holland. “We produce a highly-engineered product that relies on the design values of the lumber resources. We should be very concerned about the capacity of the products we are putting out the door.”
Beyond the obvious issues of product liability, there is the more tangible benefit of fully utilizing what you pay for. The reliability of MSR-MEL allows CMs to design with greater precision and effectiveness. This, in turn, increases the value of the engineering that is accomplished.
Don’t Reinvent the Wheel
Holland argues that there is a great opportunity for CMs, particularly in the SYP region to capitalize on brokenness of the status quo. “Machine grading equipment is not nearly as expensive or as bulky as it once was,” said Holland. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel in order to take control of this situation.”
The potential exists for CMs, like Holland, to install their own machine grading equipment, purchase visually graded lumber, and then test that lumber themselves. By testing, the CM can know the design values of each stick of lumber and have the ability to fully utilize those known design values in their products. “With 128 percent variability or more allowed within a bunk of lumber, there is the potential to harness a great deal of value,” said Holland.
Take a Step Back
A machine grading machine certainly may not be the answer for every CM. However, Holland would argue that sticking with the current visual grading system isn’t necessarily in the best interest of a CM or our industry overall: “What it takes is for a CM to think outside of the norms they are accustomed to. By taking a step back from the current system and looking at the lumber buying process with a fresh perspective, it is easier to ask the question: Is this the best way we can be doing this?”
Teaming Up with Your Local Building Officials
Building codes have a profound impact on your business. Beyond the obvious way in which they currently govern a building’s method of construction, building codes can both drive and, alternately, stifle innovation within the market. From energy codes that encourage new truss and wall panel solutions to fire codes that create a competitive disadvantage for floor trusses, it behooves component manufacturers to pay close attention to building code changes, work with SBCA staff through the code change process, and, ultimately, develop increasingly stronger relationships with the code officials charged with adopting and enforcing them.
SBC Industry Based on Code Compliance
The building code gives authority to the building official to act as the final approval authority. In that role, the building official is the sole arbiter of any code provision that is not completely clear in its intent. When the code is not perfectly clear, which is often the situation, the law provides for discretion to interpret the code, adopt policies and procedures to clarify unclear provisions of the code and make determinations regarding code compliance (see below).
The primary purpose of the language in Section 104.1 is to enforce the provisions of the code. “This language may appear benign,” said Kirk Grundahl. “However, it is vitally important for CMs to understand it does not say, ‘to enforce the building official’s opinion of what he/she likes or does not like,’” Rather, it states, “Any interpretations, policies and procedures shall be in compliance with the intent and purpose of this code.”
One of the key roles of the plan review process is to confirm that the structural design and implementation of that design is done in accordance with the minimums established in the code.
“This ‘professional sealed engineering approved for construction’ approach is the foundation of our industry’s truss and wall panel design and manufacturing business model,” said Grundahl. “It is what allows our industry to provide innovative engineered-connection and structural framing solutions to our builder customers.”
Grundahl further emphasized, “Engineers are professional practitioners applying scientific knowledge, mathematics, and ingenuity to develop solutions for technical problems, while considering the limitations imposed by practicality, regulation, safety and cost.” In other words, the engineers working in the structural components industry serve as the link between scientific discoveries and knowledge of our physical laws, and their real world application to address humanity’s need for shelter and desire for a higher quality of life.
Given all that is riding on the code official’s approval, it makes sense to put considerable effort into building strong relationships with them. “We have found that building officials can be our biggest advocates in the market, and our best source of information on potential changes to the code that may affect our business,” said Rick Parrino.
When code jurisdictions in and around Des Moines, IA began considering adoption of the International Code Council’s 2012 International Residential Code (IRC), Parrino actually got a heads up from a few of the building officials he had fostered relationships with over the years. “They contacted me and let me know when they were going to consider particular provisions of the code,” said Parrino. “That was important because it allowed me to know when to show up and advocate our industry’s position on the scientific inaccuracy of the gypsum requirement on unprotected floor truss assemblies, which provide 2x10 joists a big competitive advantage.”
That provision would have created a serious economic hardship for all component manufacturers serving markets around Des Moines with floor trusses and I-joists. Beyond receiving the alert, Parrino’s relationship with his building officials also put weight behind his arguments against the provision. “I wouldn’t say my words alone caused them to amend out the provision, but it certainly helped a lot,” said Parrino.
Relationships Take Effort
As with every other aspect of your business, building the relationships you trust and rely on takes time and mutually positive experiences. “You have to plan way ahead,” said Parrino. “You have to prove you are committed to their process and attend their meetings and speak at their conferences.” Parrino points out that you never know what’s going to come up at a code official meeting. “For instance, recently I was at a meeting and out of the blue the issue of drawing up plans was raised. They noticed I was in the room and turned to me as a resource.” As a result, they asked him to put together a roundtable to discuss what details should and shouldn’t be required to go on building plans.
In this case, not only is Parrino at the table in establishing guidelines for an integral part of his business, he’s helping to create the table of contents. In addition to attending the building official meetings and giving educational presentations at their conferences, at the core it’s about being a credible and reliable resource. “It’s tied to doing things the right way,” explained Parrino. “If they know you, and they trust you and the way you do things, they come to rely on you for answers. That’s the real benefit.”
deal with code compliance and code officials,
both in the short term and long term."
It’s a Two-Way Relationship
“Last week I had a building official call me up to tell me he had driven past a jobsite, and even though he wasn’t sure if the roof trusses were mine he knew they were a customer of ours, and wanted to warn me he saw some serious installation issues,” said Parrino. “The trusses were bowing and he was warning me in case I wanted to take photos to cover ourselves from downstream problems.”
Good relationships like that can be a two-way street lined with benefits. In that same vein, Parrino was contacted by another building official to help them put together training for newly hired officials. “They asked me if I could supply them with the truss layouts, which also gave me a chance to give them some of our BCSI booklets,” said Parrino. Through that effort, he ensured that trusses, and more importantly, proper truss inspection, was a part of the new building official’s training.
As Parrino strives to provide innovative component solutions to meet his customers’ needs while striving to build and grow his business, having building officials who know and accept component framing holds great value as construction labor shortages push the framing industry even further toward full componentization.