Frame & truss - towards the final frontier?

By Steve Bohling October 20, 2017 Building Materials

With new technologies and value added products on the cusp of broader acceptance, will frame & truss boldly go where it hasn’t gone before? Steve Bohling reports.

To view a PDF of the complete feature as it appeared in NZ Hardware Journal magazine, click the download button at the bottom of this page.

At the RMBA’s recent “Constructive” forum, attendees and speakers focused on key areas that would promote productivity in construction.

On the back of a report compiled for the World Economic Forum by Boston Consulting Group, singled out for attention (along with better skills training and collaboration between procurer and contractors) were two things that directly affect the frame & truss industry:

  • More use of panelised (off-site) construction.
  • Greater use of BIM (Building Information Modelling).

So, what about this case for upping the intellectual if not financial investment in frame & truss, faced with a softening housing market?

First, let’s get some feedback from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

Blake Bibbie, GM National Sales & Manufacturing at PlaceMakers (www.placemakers.co.nz), reports: “Orders continue to be strong in Auckland and the Bay of Plenty and Tauranga and very strong in Central Otago.”

Whereas business is also “surging ahead” in Blenheim and Nelson, the market has “come off the boil a little bit” in Wellington and it’d be putting a positive spin on things to describe the Christchurch housing market right now as flat.

Back to the weather. Blake Bibbie also confirms that some PlaceMakers customers are “having trouble getting projects started and getting slabs in the ground because of the weather.”

Delays with smaller builders have a tendency to impact all the way along the value chain but hit hardest in terms of their cash flow.

Blake Bibbie confirms: “With this bad weather the length of time to construct a house has grown and that’s impacted on progress payments and that’s impacting on their cash flow.

“Funny that you see a few more builders fall over in good times than in bad times,” he adds.

In Hamilton, Mike van der Hoek, MD at Thomsons ITM (www.thomsonsitm.co.nz), was another to talk about a softer market when we talked pre-Election, but for different reasons.

“Last year we saw too many construction companies and builders take on too much. You know when you have a lot of lean years you don’t want to say no. So they possibly took on too much...

“I hate to think how many hours some of these guys work trying to get work completed that they’ve committed to. [But] this year they’ve just backed up a step and said ‘I’m not going to take so much on’.”

 

AREN’T WE THERE YET?

With a 50-year history traceable back to the origins of frame & truss and Gang-Nail in 1967, enter MiTek (www.mitek.co.nz) and MD, Richard Poole, who hasn’t been around quite that long, but has clearly been waiting to get something off his chest.

“There’s a lot of talk in the industry about prefabrication. Why don’t we prefabricate houses? Why aren’t we doing more prefabrication, they ask?”

He pauses to take a breath: “Prefabrication in the form of prefabricated frame & truss has been around 50 years. I think that’s overlooked and a lot of people don’t seem to realise that.”

“So, when people say we should do more prefabrication, we are – and we have been for 50 years!”

He continues: “Where things are changing is in the mid-floor with prefabrication starting to happen in two-storey houses. People are also starting to look more at what they can apply to the frame in the factory.”

Also on the cusp is BIM, compatibility with which is a core component of MiTek’s just-launched Sapphire software.

BIM is “a big leap forward”, says Richard Poole and will “put frame & truss right amongst it”.

An added bonus of BIM is that “Anyone that’s used CAD software will just eat it up. Training is much quicker than we thought.”

Architectural software feeds straight into Sapphire. “So it doesn’t it doesn’t matter how complex the structure is,” explains Richard Poole.

And, with more capable software, he adds, the average detailer may be more capable of handling complex jobs more readily. “So the ability to get it right first time is much improved.”

Returning to the theme of how frame & truss is far from a stick in the mud when it comes to progress, Richard Poole adds: “The frame & truss industry in general is adopting technology, be it software machinery etc, as fast as any other industry and it is right up the front.

“And prefabrication is there stronger than ever, more efficient than ever doing a damn good job!”

 

ADDING VALUE TO F&T

Pryda’s National Sales Manager, Jon Hill, says the company (www.pryda.co.nz) also continues to extend and develop the Pryda Build suite of software, to “allow customers to expand their value proposition and add value to their offer.”

Asked to go into a bit more detail, over and above Pryda’s role in facilitating efficiencies for its clients, Jon Hill talks about frame & truss customers looking into “extended prefabrication”, including panelisation or partial panelisation and in particular floor cassettes.

The ability to produce the manufacturing details for floor cassettes is already available in Pryda Build. For frame &
truss that’s what Jon Hill calls “extending their value proposition”.

“Traditionally you would just manufacture floor trusses and then supply them loose as a manufactured item. But now you can send them as a cassette floor and our software has the ability to aid the user in producing those.”

At this point, despite what Pryda’s Jon Hill calls “fantastic interest”, producing floor cassettes isn’t particularly widespread around the New Zealand industry

“No not really,” he says, although uptake in Australia has been “really really good” and can only gain momentum here too.

“It doesn’t make any sense at all why the people who are manufacturing the prenail frame are figuring out how to do build it”

On top of being a value added service for frame & truss, some of the advantages of floor cassettes for the builder include days shaved off the build time on-site and fewer hands required at that stage of the build.

The use of timber in multi-storey and mid-rise buildings is another current hot topic of conversation and is also “good for the industry”, says Jon Hill.

“The more you can do in the factory the better,” he says. “You’re not having to deal with inclement weather because
it’s all manufactured within a quality controlled
environment.”

It’s probably an unfair question to ask a supplier, but are Kiwi frame & truss plants generally up for that sort of innovation?

“They are always happy to push the boundary,” he responds quickly. “No, they’re quite happy to explore new initiatives and new innovations.”

In which respect, Pryda may well have something further to talk about in six months’ time; “We’ve got some exciting things happening in the near future, but I can’t talk about them at the moment,” says Jon Hill.

 

THE SHOCK OF THE NEW

Seeking direct answers around new techniques and technologies, there aren’t many frame & truss operators who aren’t interested in panelisation/prefabrication and floor cassettes.

Still, Blake Bibbie for one offers in respect of floor cassettes: “We are looking at it. It’s very much customer-driven.

“Some customers are thinking they’re going to be able to save time or money – they will definitely save some time on the site [but] you still have the cost [of manufacturing the cassette]. So it may not necessarily be cheaper overall.”

Adding that as ever, adopting new techniques is a case of “cost versus return”, PlaceMakers has trialled floor cassettes but Blake Bibbie admits they still have to figure out “the best system to bank on”.

“Is it exclusively for mid-floors or could we actually look at it for first floors as well and go into competition with the concrete slab model?” he asks, adding: “I mean concrete has sort of taken over the world but it’s not getting any cheaper…”

For PlaceMakers, BIM has a particular implication, because it could actually increase rather than reduce the need for expert detailers.

“What we want to do with our detailers is to try to create a point of difference by being able to do different things, put in different products and so on.

“Somebody might design a project, then we could look at it and say ‘hey if you swap this product out here you might actually get a better result for your project’.

“So it’s about it’s about adding value with your detailers after the BIM is done. That’s where we will see the extra value in it.

So PlaceMakers is future proofing your services? “Yes exactly. Because otherwise it’s going to be same-same for everyone and then the whole thing becomes a commodity.”

From Hamilton, having recently invested again in new machinery, Mike van der Hoek says prefabrication is “definitely something we’d look at”.

But, when it comes to floor cassettes, with most homes in the Waikato single level and sitting on concrete pads, he says: “we have no demand for floor cassettes.”

 

IS BIM THE BE-ALL AND END ALL?

In terms of input from an operation already embracing prefabrication, I sought out Kevin Stanley of Stanley Group (www.stanleygroup.co.nz), whose Stanley Modular factory in Matamata has been going since 2002 and producing panelised systems and “flat pack” buildings since 2011.

Stanley Modular has many projects of some scale to its credit, but it’s still fair to say that to date it has mainly been its own client.

Kevin Stanley however says that’s changing: “We’re working on developing the business so that we can supply other contractors, which is ultimately where we want to get to,” he says.

With an operation of this sort dependant on efficiencies around volume, Kevin Stanley has a slightly different outlook on numbers.

“We keep talking about exact repetition in the manufacturing world and multiplying a panel hundreds of times. But it’s my view that we need to move away from that thinking and [towards] thinking process repetition, rather than product output repetition.”

What about BIM in all this? The industry appears keen but what’s the reality? Kevin Stanley is unfashionably forthright about the issue, saying the technology needs to applied right from the get go.

“Too many people come to the manufacturer too late in the piece,” he says, “So the project has been designed and is a long way through the working drawing phase … but they haven’t got the digital technology behind the design to be able to export that data to machines that are able to cut it.”

Currently, he says, as much as 90% of all prenail frames are redrawn in the frame & truss factory, which is a “ludicrous” and “unproductive” situation.

“New Zealand’s construction industry has had straight line productivity for 30 years. And part of the reason why it’s flat lined for 30 years is because of the front end procurement of the projects.

“Consumers are trying to cut costs and economising on the value that they’re putting into their design. As a consequence of not spending as much on design, you’re not getting as much detail or enough problem-solving at the front end – you pass it down the chain to the next person.

“And so you start the process again and this has been going on in the construction industry for years. Why on earth are prenails detailing jobs? That’s just nonsensical; it doesn’t make any sense at all why the people who are manufacturing the prenail frame are figuring out how to build it.

“And then the industry turns around and says ‘Gee whiz our houses cost a lot of money’…

“If you’re not paying a designer to figure out all the problems he is not going to spend the money on figuring out all the problems. But, if you pay your designer at the front end to solve all the problems that is the cheapest place to figure them out.”

 

HAS F&T ALREADY “BOLDLY GONE” WHERE…?

Back at MiTek, Richard Poole however sees the positive in frame & truss “coming to the rescue” so to speak: “Each job is like you set an exam and it’s being marked. The marker is the builder who’s putting it all together.

“And if anything’s wrong, any component, it becomes glaringly obvious very quickly and you’ve got a site call-back.

“It’s all about getting it 100% right 100% of the time. So the industry does that pretty damn well and it’s a big ask because every job is different.

“Frame & truss may be a mature industry but it’s not resting on its laurels – absolutely just the opposite!

“The people in frame & truss are unsung heroes – they take it, they make it work, they are the last man standing. Even the most complex house goes together like a jigsaw, to the millimetre, and that’s not easy to achieve,” says Richard Poole with pride and passion.

“So there’s plenty of technology there, plenty happening but quietly in the background, and I get bloody frustrated when I see articles saying ‘Oh gee about time the industry got out of the Dark Ages and got into prefabrication’.

“Oh hello – 50 years. Come on!”

It’s likely that many of the above issues – and opportunities – in and around frame & truss will be discussed next year if the Frame & Truss Manufacturers Association (FTMA) realises its plans for a national conference in 2018.

In the meantime, no-one in frame & truss is arguing against greater productivity. No-one is refusing to consider new technologies or techniques.

But what is clear is that unless the whole value chain – starting with the design right through to the manufactured item – is fully integrated then we’ll still be talking about sub-optimal productivity long after the next building boom…  


Red Stag aiming to be a catalyst towards adding value in F&T

Northern Frame & Prefab (NFPL) is now called Red Stag Wood Solutions and the new name comes with ambitious plans to help frame & truss develop away from what it calls “very low margin returns” and using frame & truss as “a loss leader to attain the balance of building materials”.

Purchased out of liquidation, NFPL was part of the renewal of the Red Stag group and has been producing frame, truss and prefabricated building solutions since April 2013. 

However right from the start the aim of the new business was to transition from frame & truss into a higher value market.

Having from the outset “clearly identified the need for added value”, Managing Director Jason Cordes says the original idea behind the purchase was to not only consume Red Stag timber but also “better understand the way in which we can develop products” for frame & truss.

NFPL’s work in prefabrication or more advanced panelisation was the result of this and now, as Red Stag Wood Solutions, Jason Cordes says the operation is looking to achieve more in that space, with expansion mooted in Hamilton and also at the Rotorua mill within the Red Stag operation.

“It is not 100% confirmed, but our plan is to embark on more land and buildings to evolve that side of the business even further and create a framework for other frame & truss producers to embrace [prefabrication],” he says.

The idea is to allow frame & truss operations to “improve their value proposition and, more importantly, to provide the market with a more expedient source and more volume to support the current deficit that we have in the housing market.”

As part of this, Red Stag Wood Solutions has been successful in a Primary Growth Partnership application with MPI to construct a building to “showcase timber structural solutions in the high-rise market”.

Rather than selling products to other operators, Jason Cordes says Red Stag Wood Solutions is “happy to be transparent” and wants to “show in detail the pathway for frame & truss manufacturers to be able to extend their operations in such a way that they too can have high value panels or produce high value panels, floor cassettes, roof cassettes etc.”

Reading between the lines, it may well be that producing its own engineered wood products could also be part of the broader plan for Red Stag but that’s another story.

Jason Cordes is careful to add to all this that these plans were yet to be formally ratified at board level but that a formal OK to proceed could be mooted as soon as October.

http://nfpl.co.nz/
www.redstagtimber.co.nz

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