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March, 2007

Framing the Future

Building material dealers get closer to their builder clients by providing—and even installing—customized, specialized component packages.

By Craig A. Shutt

Recently, building material dealers have seen their framing-package services evolve, and they don’t expect that to change.

As builders seek efficiencies and dealers hope to partner more closely with customers to lock down business, the potential for creating in-depth customized packages can be great. To aid that process, manufacturers have introduced equipment and services to help dealers provide a level of customer care that suits their particular capabilities and market.

One company pioneering this type of innovation is Weyerhaeuser, which has introduced a series of products, software, and services through its iLevel integrated residential-framing division. Its NextPhase solutions are divided into three levels of service, increasing until the dealer is installing engineered framing components for the builder.

"iLevel was created because we saw the residential industry changing,” says Chris Meyer, strategic development manager for the Federal Way, Wash.-based company. "Consolidation in the market was creating a few dominant builders who were asking for more efficiency in the building process.” One way builders achieve that is by requesting framing components rather than individual pieces. The structural frame is one of the largest portions of a home’s cost, Meyer notes, so it offered great payback for improved efficiencies.

Marketers at Boise Engineered Wood Products in Boise, Idaho, also saw the market demands growing, leading to its introduction of integrated framing software and related products and services. Its system creates a complete framing package in which each piece is designed specifically for its location, with all penetrations precut and delivered with color-coded plans to make the pieces fit together quickly and easily on site.

Cycle Time Is Critical

"Our dealers are looking for ways to help builders reduce cycle time, improve profitability, and be more competitive in their marketplace,” says Denny Huston, sales and marketing manager for Boise.

The new products and services are helping to do that, confirms Chuck Mooney, engineered wood products division manager at Ply Mart in Atlanta, which has been using Boise’s system for almost two years. "There is no comparison between the package we deliver to the site today and the one we used to provide,” he says. "And the benefits and savings we receive are equally strong.”

That’s also been the experience at Cook County Lumber in Chicago, which has been using Universal Forest Products’ Open Joist open-web floor trusses and related designing software for about a year. "We were missing out on a lot of work in Chicago because we didn’t have an open-web truss, and we wanted to get into that business,” says Scott Durbin, director of engineered lumber. "The speed we can provide, coupled with the cost and support, have made it work out well.” Each of the three programs offer different services, but each can also provide dealers with the capabilities they want.

Universal Forest Products

The Open Joist truss from Universal Forest Products offers an open-web design that provides high strength and load-carrying attributes while reducing weight and providing more flexibility, explains Larry Kroh, national sales manager. Its long-span capabilities can eliminate the need for intermediate bearings, reducing time and material costs. By providing wider on-center spacing capabilities, it also minimizes the number of joists needed, reducing costs further.

The product comes in four depths off-the-shelf, ensuring fast delivery to meet tight deadlines, notes Brian Ellenberger, vice president of operations. The product also is made with finger-joint assembly and waterproof structural glue rather than steel plates. "Our goal was to take preparation out of the system,” he explains. "Finger-jointing is much faster than putting in connector plates, and it offers a stronger system.”

It also allows shorter pieces of wood to be used, increasing the available material and making the system more environmentally friendly. In many cases, trusses with wooden webs are overbuilt because of the relationship among the top and bottom chords and the web, says Kroh. "With our system, we can use less wood fiber and still achieve the appropriate strength.”

Builders have responded to the trusses because they weigh less and thus are easier to handle and safer to use at a site, Ellenberger says. "Installation time is reduced, especially since there are fewer trusses to install. They also can be trimmed at the site quickly if needed. They provide an easier frame.” The cost tends to be slightly higher for smaller depths but less expensive for deeper ones, he notes. "If the system is value-engineered to take advantage of the strength of the joists overall so fewer are used, there most often will be a lower installed-cost with Open Joists.”

The company sells the product along with software systems that allow dealers to sell the products as part of a complete package designed specifically for each builder’s project. That benefit has aided Cook County Lumber the most, says Durbin. "It allows us to size pieces and create load-distribution plans so the trusses can be reinforced exactly.” Reinforcements can be added as needed for stair openings, header openings, and cantilevers, which is critical. "Almost every home has one of those conditions.”

The software also allows the dealer to determine specific load amounts in each location. "We ensure all the necessary reinforcement is shown on the drawings.”

The lack of steel plates offers a strong selling point, Durbin notes. "Steel and zinc prices have gone crazy, so by getting rid of the steel in the trusses, I’m way ahead of others in figuring pricing. In addition, the sharp edges on the plates [can] cause trouble at the site.” Wires can snag on plates, he notes, causing a tear when pulling lines, which then increases costs by wasting the builder’s time tracking down and repairing or replacing the tear.

"We provide individual units and truckloads, but we also offer engineering layouts and sizing to create a complete package,” says Durbin. "The benefits we get from the system have worked out very well for us.”

Boise Engineered Wood Products

The Simple Framing System from Boise Engineered Wood Products combines equipment with software systems to create an overall program aimed at producing highly engineered flooring components. It combines the company’s BC Framer 6.1 software and the SawTek automated cutting system to create engineered components and printouts that manage the pieces and ensure proper layout at the site.

The software system and equipment work with the company’s engineered-wood products to provide a variety of benefits to the builder, explains Huston. The system delivers a squaring diagram that ensures builders construct perfectly square homes to within 1/8 in. "Throughout construction, subcontractors enjoy the benefits of totally square homes, with easier installation of drywall, doors, cabinetry, and other jobs.” The system provides precise floor-framing placement plans with associated material lists that can be transferred electronically to the SawTek automated sawing system for cuts accurate to 1/32 in. It also adds hole diagrams directly into the floor-framing placement plan for HVAC, plumbing, and electrical penetrations. The holes are cut but not punched through, saving a "knock-out” attachment and creating more flexibility at the site. Precisely cut penetrations mean that even within a group of pieces similar in length, each piece is unique, so the software creates a color-coded framing-placement plan. It shows where each component should be placed, eliminating guesswork and making communication with framers easier. "It overcomes the language barriers and ensures the project is completed correctly, even in the absence of supervisory personnel,” Huston explains. The SawTek’s inkjet printer marks each piece with its code number, job, customer name, and other information to ensure no mistakes occur.

The company also offers the Build-Rite whole-house design service that can work through dealers to aid builders. The Build-Rite service provides a complete structural analysis of a house plan, ensuring all components will work together, and also creating efficiencies in production. It creates schematics and working drawings to show exact placements of each component (roof, wall, floor, and foundation). Mooney says Ply Mart, which has been purchasing Boise products for about three years, worked with Boise for about a year before obtaining the SawTek system and software in 2005. "We immediately saw the potential they offered for increasing our sales, but we knew serious changes were needed in our own systems to achieve them.”

The company made internal changes to improve information flow so that as sales were received from various sources in the company, they could more easily be fed into the system. "We were too spread out and disjointed to make full use of what the system was going to offer us,” Mooney says. "Once we had that in place, the rest was easier to accomplish.”

Previously, the company had inventoried a wide range of truss lengths from which each customers’ requirements were cut, usually with a chain saw. "It took a huge footprint to store everything,” Mooney says. Since the material is inventoried by the linear foot, it was hard to know what was needed and what was available. The person in the yard had to calculate how best to cut longer lengths to achieve the necessary shorter ones. "There was a lot of waste and a lot of time lost to calculating,” Mooney says. Marking was provided with a permanent marker—which often wouldn’t adhere to wet fibers. With no indications of which pieces went where, joists also might be cut at the site if shorter pieces were needed, ultimately resulting in remaining pieces being too short to fit the spaces left. "It could take a lot of work for the builder to sort it out once it arrived.” Now, the joists are stocked in 60-ft. increments, and the saw cuts them to the length needed, adding any cutouts necessary as the joist passes through the saw line. "The optimization is so much greater, especially if we can combine jobs,” Mooney says. "The saw really isn’t that sophisticated—optimizing the cuts and providing precise cutouts are the keys.” The change has greatly reduced the company’s needed inventory space and inventory load, reducing the interest on inventory-carrying loans, he notes.

The system does require some physical changes to the operation, Mooney notes. "You need a wide-open space to store 60-ft. pieces and new material-handling equipment.” Ply-Mart purchased a Combilift forktruck so it can maneuver the 60-ft. joists down 10-ft. aisles, and added rollers to its racks to slide the joists into place. The company also added forklifts to maneuver and deliver products on the site. "Very little is dumped any more, as these are engineered products that you don’t want to damage,” he says.

As noted, changes also were made internally—including educating the employees, stresses Tim Mickelson, technical representative at Ply Mart. "Some people are uncomfortable with a paperless system,” he says. "We needed champions to push everyone through to see the benefits.” Adds Mooney, "Implementing the system can be easier than overcoming the existing culture. It can be a leap of faith.”

The system was fully integrated and developed for customers in 2006, and now Ply Mart will spend time leveraging its advantages, he says. "We want to focus on the efficiencies that we can create and maximize what we’re doing. We’re just starting out, and we expect to provide much better service with it this year.”

iLevel by Weyerhaeuser

The iLevel by Weyerhaeuser system combines the company’s Javelin design software for optimizing structural framing with a three-level NextPhase Site Solutions program that offers options for creating engineered wood, full components, and installed components. "Builders want to reduce the time at the job site and have components delivered and installed much quicker,” says Meyer. "This system provides those as well as better quality and less job site waste, while providing a safer working environment.”

The Javelin design software allows dealers to specify optimized combinations of framing materials for floors, walls, and roofs in one file, explains Tim Debelius, marketing manager for software tools and e-business. It provides three-dimensional modeling and CAD capabilities to track the full framing system. It also adjusts every part of the job program automatically to accommodate any change, ensuring all drawings reflect new material or alterations.

"The software can dramatically increase the flexibility the dealer provides while aligning him with the way homes are framed in the market today,” Debelius says. Many different approaches are used, he points out, based on the type of project, location, and other factors.

The system allows the dealer to customize the framing approach to his market’s needs. It also tracks loads throughout the home and optimizes the structural frame to show how the loads relate to individual members. That helps to eliminate redundant loads that can build up throughout a framing process.

The software works with the NextPhase Site Solutions system, which offers three levels: JobPack, which optimizes material use and provides detailed framing layouts; Components, which helps dealers create pre-built floor assemblies, and Turnkey, in which the dealer adds the responsibility of installing the components at the site.

"We see the marketplace evolving, but it’s not happening in such a widespread way at any one level right now across the country,” says Meyer. "Our goal is to be out ahead of the market and setting a vision, so as dealers find they need services, we are there to provide them.” Indeed, while Turnkey may offer the most long-term potential for creating new business and enhancing partnerships with dealers, "The real story right now is in the JobPack and Components stages at this point.”

The JobPack system uses Javelin and other software programs offered by iLevel to transform the builder’s drawings into detailed framing layouts that then can be batched for optimized cutting from available inventory of iLevel materials, Meyer explains. It also provides predrilled holes for mechanical runs, and marks each piece for placement.

The Components level uses the software systems to create multiple fabrication drawings from a single floor layout, as well as optimizing inventory among the floor-system components. "This level allows the dealer to supply more prebuilt, integrated systems as the builder-customer accepts the dealer’s capabilities,” Meyer explains. In the Turnkey level, software systems help manage the labor and specifics of the installation service for the component systems. The company provides personal training and support to create an installed-sales division within the existing yard operation, including suggestions for staffing, accounting, managing, and optimizing labor.

Although most dealers will be most comfortable at the JobPack and Components levels to start, Building Components of Idaho in Boise embraced the Turnkey level early. "We saw that it could be a win-win opportunity immediately,” says Caleb Doty, sales and marketing manager. ‰ "We already were providing turnkey framing packages, but without floor panelization as part of it. We went to the Turnkey level right away to couple our existing system with the floor-panelization program and support.” The company also provides components in the JobPack system when desired, he notes.

A key element the iLevel program provided for the company was the ability to measure its framing techniques and find enhancements. "They help us gather data and provide measurements so we can improve our system of operation,” Doty says. An iLevel employee works out of the company’s office and visits job sites to review operations and measure waste and other factors to improve productivity in production, design, installation, and delivery. "It’s extremely helpful to have those quantified, and having backing to measure our progress,” he says.

One of the first changes the company made after receiving data was to switch its construction system into an assembly-line approach rather than building components on large tables that took more maneuvering. "That alone increased our productivity rates.” Installing the prebuilt systems provides a variety of benefits to the builder, Doty notes. First, it streamlines communication. "They don’t have to deal with various suppliers of loose materials, the framer, and the component supplier,” he says. "These systems are the most crucial parts of the house, and now there aren’t three or four companies involved.”

Doty notes cycle times also are improved, as his crews can work about twice as fast as typical framers due to their focus on continued process improvements and familiarity with the products. It also creates a safer work site, since much of the work is done off site, and the company continues to look for better and safer ways to build. "Guidelines are being strictly enforced by officials at the site, and our systems ensure we meet and exceed those.”

Builders are impressed with the process, he adds. "We’re standing up whole components at the site and putting systems together rather than spreading out a bunch of lumber and working in the mud. Our builders see a lot of progress very quickly once we arrive.”

The company bought a small truck with a piggyback forklift to unload materials at the site, which Doty considers a minimal investment. It also created a custom forklift apparatus that attaches to the forks on their truck in the yard to allow them to maneuver the components easier.

The return on investment comes through production savings but also in added business, he says. "I can see that it has locked down jobs for us that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. We also see other companies in the market that aren’t offering these services losing market share. This market is definitely trending this way, and there’s a lot more security in knowing we are positioned right. This has definitely proved itself in our market over the past two years.”

The successes are only beginning, he stresses. "We’ve now built a big machine, and filling it with capacity is our goal for 2007,” he says. "We don’t need to refine or expand the system, and we don’t need to add anything but more shifts of crews. We can use a lot more production to take advantage of this system, and we aim to get it. We think we’re well positioned.”

In part, that outlook rides on a variety of commercial projects, including several small hotels and other hospitality projects. "We’re sitting pretty good with that work, and we wouldn’t have been able to lock it up without this system.” Weyerhaeuser’s Meyer expects that will be the experience for many dealers. "When we explain the system to builders, they don’t disagree that it will save time or provide them with benefits, it’s just a matter of how much [they will benefit].” Providing more services is definitely the wave of the future, he says. "Builders love the ability to turn over site labor; it takes that much away from them that they don’t have to deal with.” It also avoids the hiring and training needs for what can be complicated systems.

"Turnkey in particular gives dealers greater involvement with the customer, and creates more profit by combining products with labor,” Meyer points out. "It also builds a much stronger relationship. [Builders] are relying on the dealer to help fabricate their homes. The goal is to raise the bar for the industry and create more efficiencies. That’s where the richness is.”

These systems also help ensure that no dealer needs to create joists or components with a chain saw, and more importantly, the value these turnkey systems can provide to the homebuilder can ensure a long-term and beneficial relationship.

For More Information: To learn more about these systems, visit:

Universal Forest Products: www.ufpi.com

Boise Engineered Wood Products: www.bc.com/ewp

iLevel by Weyerhaeuser: www.ilevel.com

 

CRAIG A. SHUTT, senior contributing editor of the magazine, has nearly 30 years experience covering the LBM industry.

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